'Catch and Release'

We woke to rain, a drizzle, and the sound of tires on wet streets, on Monday—a sound unfamiliar to the Bay Area recently. The drizzle turned into full on rain, enough to soak the ground, and then stopped, and we were treated to a day of burgeoning clouds. This morning the sky is grey and has an it-could-rain look to it; either clouds or fog blanket the top of the western hills whose tops we can just see through the street trees. Yesterday, taking it easy I bike the ‘Loop’: up Alpine (where Trump had been earlier in the day), along Portola Valley Road, with a short hook up Old La Honda, and home along Sandhill—an hour and a half, easy ride for me now.


It’s grown a little colder in the mornings, almost-not-quite time to turn the heat on for an hour. The days ‘are drawing in’—an expression I love, that I learned from a Welsh friend and teaching colleague in France. We used to put off dinner until the sun had set at around 8 and stopped shining straight in the window; now there sun is down by 7 pm.

Some exciting news. I won the Alastair Reid Pamphlet prize at the Wigtown (Scotland) Book Festival, with my pamphlet (chapbook) Catch and Release. The prize will be awarded on Saturday October 5th at the Wigtown Festival. I have been trying to see how I could be there (from the San Francisco Bay Area), but it looks like it is going to be too expensive. I am sorry, because Scotland for me, as for many Canadians, is in my blood. If I were in Paris it would be simple and relatively inexpensive, but from here…

The Pamphlet has been designed by Gerry Cambridge, a Scottish poet, publisher and print designer, and it is very beautiful. I’m going to upload an image of it later.

Typewriting, sewing machines etc (from St Juan Island)

Up on St Juan Island, Washington state, on a farm (more later). Just opened Robert Lowell’s Letters, which I am very much looking forward to reading, having already, years ago, read the lively correspondence he and Elizabeth Bishop had. But I stop because the Introduction, which deals with his typing skills or lack of them, takes me back to my high school days, when my mother insisted that typing—and eventually, shorthand—were necessary skills for a young woman, in case she had to earn a living between graduation from university with a degree is some femininity-enhancing field (just not engineering, law or medicine) and marriage. So I spent one soulless summer learning to type. Nowadays, of course, everyone can type. I can still do it, with all ten fingers. I also know how to iron a man’s shirt, make a bed with hospital corners—well, you get the picture.

I even have a poem in my new book (whenever) about sewing machines and how every home should have one. (Eventually I gave mine to my household help, and it very quickly ended up in the Philippines.)


My Apples poem, first published in the New Yorker this spring has been posted on Cynthia Haven’s Stanford book lover’s blog, the Bookhaven.


We ran into each other, as she says, outside Green Library, her on her way in, me coming out, both of us on our bikes and heading for the gym, though not the same gym. I hadn’t seen Cynthia since before we went to Paris in January so we spent a while catching up on our own news and that of mutual friends.

Cynthia is a biographer, most recently of René Girard, but also of Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky in her ‘Conversations With…” series. When we first came to Stanford and were renting on campus we used to see Girard, who lived not too far away, walking past our windows on his way to his office, a frail-looking figure with a small backpack. Once or twice I heard him speak in seminars, fascinated, and humbled by the way he made—without any flashiness—wide-ranging connections between vast fields of knowledge. I look forward to reading Cynthia’s new book.

Jane Austen, Persuasion and Virginia Woolf

I reread Austen’s Persuasion this week, couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the plot, as even a first reader would, it’s so predictable. But marvelous, nonetheless. A great airplane book and great literature.

I read it after reading Virginia Woolf’s essay on Austen in her First Common Reader, a collection of essays for bookworms, written and published in the 1920s, more or less contemporaneously with Mrs Dalloway, still, now, my favourite Woolf novel, though we had a good argument about this at the Berkeley poetry group a week or two ago, some preferring To the Lighthouse or The Waves.

And now to get out of the house for a couple of hours, and some exercise.


I’d long read about but never experience the high that comes with exercise until I started biking. What got me started was a stay at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire a few years ago. There the studios are scattered about the woods, and for some of them a bike is useful. Mine was a good hike from the main lodge, so I adopted one of the colony’s bikes, and when I got back to Palo Alto I got (a gift from the family) a campus bike. Just a couple weeks ago I bought a good road bike which makes climbing much easier.

Yesterday I reached the top of Alpine Road (‘the green gate’) without stopping and much faster than I used to do on my clunky campus bike. The best part is after the Portola Valley turnoff, when the little road twists and turns along a gorge with a creek in the bottom. It’s wonderful when the commuter traffic quiets and you can hear the wind and the birds and especially the sound of the water bubbling down the creek over stones and moss and fallen tree trunks. It’s shady at the end of the day when I go, usually with my husband, and the banks of the creek are littered with yellow leaves and green ferns; and I’m keeping my eyes off the road, just getting up inch by inch, until the road stops.

On shopping in small shops

One of the pleasures of city life? Surely connected to being able to do most everything on foot. In the western suburbs of Paris, where we used to live, every neighbourhood had a grocery story, a bakery and a pharmacy. No need for a car, no need to plan meals a week ahead, so you didn’t find you were missing some essential ingredient at the last minute. Living in the centre of Paris is the same, only more so: more pastries and bakeries (of a quality undreamed of even in upmarket Palo Alto, more markets, butchers, fresh vegetables and fruit.

Why was I thinking about this? It’s because I had to pick something up at a ‘pharmacy’ and so dropped into CVS on my way home from campus. A big, bland supermarket of stuff from notions to toothpaste, virtually no staff in the aisles, no life, just products. Sure, it’s efficient, but is efficiency what I want? Well, maybe, if I have a job and three kids to look after: my time is rationed and I try to do all the shopping in one 2-hour spree, or maybe, these days, online. I don’t have time to be waited on, to chat with other customers or the, say, pharmacist.

But there is a lot to be said for the small shop: the sense of neighbourhood for one, the civility, the give and take.

My new bike

I have a new bike, carbon-fibre frame, blue with orange accents, brand new unlike my campus bike which was pre-owned, as the car ads now say. Two gears in front, lots more in back. I got it a week ago and have been up Alpine to the green gate, where the road stops, three times now, once without stopping. Like the best hikes and rides, the green gate is downhill all the way home. Takes me now an hour and a quarter up and maybe half an hour back, though I wasn’t keeping close track, because mainly I’m happy just to reach the top (though actually there is a hiking trail further up, to Skyline from the green gate. I think, however, that I’ve shaved about ten minutes off my campus-bike time. I do feel sleeker, with my thinner tires and no bike basket jingling.

The bottom part of the ride is on a commuter road up (down) the Sandhill of the venture capitalists, Stanford campus and shopping centre with its not-quite plastic plantings and fancy shops. The top part of the ride is beautiful, along a gorge with a creek bubbling in the bottom, madrone, redwoods, oak, bay laurels, deer…the top part is the reward.

I sent my Baudelaire translation, Invitation to the Voyage, to the publisher yesterday. Sorry to see it go, I could tinker forever and never arrive at perfection. It is scheduled to be out mid-November. It will be followed, also from Seagull, by a translation of Hélène Cixous’s wonderful book We Defy Augury, of which PN Review has just published a chapter.