Claire Potter: Acanthus: New Poems

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2022, 76pp.

The poems of Claire Potter’s new book, like those of its predecessor, Swallow, are simultaneously fascinating and challenging. It feels as though the book itself understands this and does its best to help you because there is a lot of material devoted to exploring what it is that the poems are actually doing. To begin with, there is a short note, preceding the first poem, which describes the inspiration behind the capitals of a Corinthian column. A basket covered with a roof tile was placed above the grave of a young girl. A dormant acanthus plant grew around the pot and over the tile, curving inwards as it rounded the corner. Seeing this, Callimachus decided to use it as a model – a challenging one – for a new kind of capital. This image is crossed with a quote from Derrida that seems to say much the same thing: “Everything will flower at the edge of a desolate tomb”. In a way these are both assertions that the baroque will evolve around emptiness: as Merwin says (or implies) somewhere, the bigger the emptiness of the doorspace, the more elaborate the decoration of the doorway. Why this is the case can be open to debate? is the emptiness loss or absence – they aren’t entirely the same. Does the art compensate for the nothingness or does it derive from it and thus, in a way, express it? The answer to that probably depends on where the philosophical tradition that you work within comes from. To make things a little more complex we are told, at the end of this note, that the poems of the book “might be said to begin” on the overlapping edges of the two accounts (Derrida and Vitruvius – who tells the story of Callimachus’s inspiration) and thus introduces the word “edge” which is going to figure largely in the poems to come. At the other end of the book is its blurb. Readers of these reviews will know that it is not a genre that I ever feel is very helpful for a critic and, I suppose, it isn’t intended to be since its main function is to lure innocent readers to buy the book. But in this case, the blurb has more help to offer, describing the poems as dwelling “in the landscapes of edges”, being interested in “surreal gardens, oblique geometries, cloud rooms, witches, and childhood remembrances”, all elements that can easily be traced in individual poems. Acanthus is also accompanied, as are all Giramondo’s books of poetry, by a sheet containing an Author Note on the reverse and, again, this is more than helpful:

An enduring line running through Acanthus is perhaps one that inevitably moves obliquely or sideways. Looking back now, many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

This degree of help is unprecedented and although those who don’t like the poems will think that this poet is protesting too much, I can see a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong.

And then there is the help to be derived from the poems themselves which are often explicit about what they are trying to do to the extent of making it a kind of meta-theme. “Counterintuitive” is perhaps the closest to what I call a “poem-poem”. It begins with a passage by Gerald Murnane as an epigraph, a passage which seems to dissolve the writer-meaning-reader relationship in favour of “images and feelings in a sort of eternity”. There’s a not uncommon paradox in the fact that the poem which follows speaks very meaning-communicatively, almost prosily, in advocating a poetry of edges and intuitions:

There is a writing that escapes the head, rustles
          like stars of purple thistle,
moves the tiniest bones of clavicle, tilts like
                    a compass from centre to radius to peregrine. This writing
          cannot be analysed or
     understood by conventional means. Its solitude is written
in a vine that veins a crumbling edge, the foliage
           of a dream in amber . . .

and then modulates into the world of acanthus leaves developing around the edge of a tile. If it works as a poem it is because this expository introduction develops in a way which rather performs its own subject by moving into a metaphorical undersea world: “Sometimes from the seabed, it having become impossible / to work on land . . . / I drift to an underwater forest”. And this is only the first of a set of transformations. Underwater lights are likened to “paper lanterns / I pressed at other times” and the poem leaves the sea to speak of the “other times” which turn out to be liminal, edge-times:

                        At twilight for example or sometimes before dawn
               when I decrease myself and my misreadings in the camouflage
          of singing grasses where the tourmaline colours
     in a nest of eggs could stand in for a palette
of seaweeds and stones. Here the elements become
     woven, here the words come in the noon of heatwaves
                    backwards, forwards, sea creatures in bricolage
                             images and feelings in a sort of eternity
                  that float in a trilogy of windowpanes – the flaw
of the paper, the fleck of the eye, desire attempting to feel its way
      rub its runic skin against the arch of page

One of the reasons for quoting this poem at length is to give readers some idea of what Potter’s poetry actually feels like. Encountered on its own in a journal, say, I think this would be fairly daunting but within the context of an entire book, where it has an explanatory, and thus helpful, role, and where it is surrounded by friends in the form of poems which work on the principles that it speaks to, it looks a strong piece. The “flaw / of the paper” and the “fleck of the eye” are those revealing moments at the edge of concentration, the moments when Potter’s poetic self begins to become interested, the moments “too visible to be seen straight on” as another poem says. The exact nature of the “desire” which is attempting to feel its way is a bit more problematic. We are anxious to work out what it is since it hints at the thematic forces behind the poetry but is ambiguous. It could be nothing more than good old physical desire: this would suggest a core interest in the complexities of relationships. It could be the desire to find a structure and development in one’s life: this would account for the poems which revisit childhood and also for poems like “Of Birds’ Feet” and “The Birthday” which are very much about direction. Or, at its most extreme it could be no more than a desire to push one’s own poetry to explore what can be done with material that comes from the edges of things. At any rate, in a poetry so full of development and transformation it is understandable that readers search for reasonably familiar, conventional underlying certainties in as many poems as possible: ailing parents, problematic relationships, childhood memories and so on.

Other poems which have a methodological component include “The Art of Sideways” and “Plant Poem”. The former of these is one of the more difficult poems of the book even if its title makes its subject perfectly clear. It begins with a striking metaphor which determines much of what is to come: the diminution of sunlight as the northern winter solstice approaches is likened to the sleep of “a yellow snake in a tight burrow”. I think the basis of this connection is the sense of the sun circling lower and lower on the horizon (to the point where, if London were a thousand kilometres farther north and touched the Arctic Circle, the arc of the sun’s course would barely rise above the horizon at mid-winter). But the snake is also an image from Australia – “Last summer I stood over a sheath of snake in the bush” – something that introduces the issue of the poet’s journeyings and developments. The central section of the poem is an extended description of the snake’s shed skin, another metaphor for an individual’s development, but the main concern of the poem precedes this:

But just as rain can fall sideways   and eyes look aslant
might a northern winter   not widen light in the way
a snake   exceeds its skin?

Again, this wants to be read as a guess on the poet’s part that the changes in her life that are happening in the northern hemisphere may be changes in the quality of her perceptions but before we get to such a straightforward concluding assertion, there is a complex passage:

Trees are empty on the sidewalk   their fallen leaves   layered
and overlapping   like shelves of ancient papyruses
One tree casts a long shadow   two arms striking upwards
as though piqued   by pavement light
Between the shadow lying flat and still   and the tree standing
long and tall   there is an angle of forty-five degrees.
There is Icarus   falling from blue   to decimal   to amber
The distance between north   and south   is mapped
with the shape   and angle   of his eyes
The snake’s skin is colourless   his eye invincible
The winter light is warm   piercing darkness
a trajectory that points in all   directions

There are two puzzling parts here. The first is the issue of how the shadow of a vertical, winter-struck tree can be at forty-five degrees to the tree itself when, if the surface that the shadow falls on is a road or pavement (presumably “sidewalk” is used when it isn’t the accepted term in either Australia or the UK because it involves the word “side” which “pavement” doesn’t) it should be ninety degrees. The only solution I can offer here is that the shadow falls on a wall. It isn’t entirely a trivial point since Potter’s poetry reveals an interest in angles, not only as part of the sideways, edge-seeking view, but as something measurable. There is a nice poem about a couple and “the incandescence of love / and hate in two ordinary / people”. It is called “Eighty-nine degrees” and the line “eighty-nine degrees to the usual” shows it to be derived from E.M. Forster’s famous description of Cavafy as “standing at a slight angle to the universe”. Potter’s poem, and perhaps her poetry in general, wants to be more precise than this and actually to measure the “slight angle” as being one degree. Then there is the issue of Icarus, falling into the poem much as he fell from the sky. His presence is made less surprising by the context of the book’s other poems: he appears reasonably frequently as an image of plunging descent. The puzzle for me – which may be no more than a result of my own readerly inadequacies – is how he can fall from blue (the sky) through “decimal” to amber. It can’t be a matter of falling from one colour to another via a measurable process of declension since declension is measured in degrees which derive from the old Babylonian sexagesimal system and are thus not part of the decimal system. And why “amber”? Possibly it is a description of the northern winter light that the poem is concerned with or possibly it involves the meaning of preservation – it does occur in “Counterintuitive” in that sense: “a dream in amber”.

“Plant Poem” is rather a different beast:

The decision of a plant
to grow this way or that
might mimic the decision
to leave by this door or that
but ultimately like a plant
one stays put, moving only in minute
imperceptible degrees, craning
the neck for example towards the sun
towards light that remains glacial
towards peace that carries spurs
towards a singular voice, a neon
strobe which may flicker or be broken
but which nonetheless shines
some small thing inwards to pinken
the discoloured mind, brighten the worsted
eye looking this way or that
towards a door ajar but not open
extending just enough to hear as well as to feel
the work of the feet outside.

The mode of this poem is quite different to that of “The Art of Sideways” in that it is syntactically “smooth” moving through its propositions sequentially. Other poems are inclined to break the material up into individual units even if only by tab spaces so that the structure of such poems seems more like an assemblage. At their most extreme these poems begin to look as though they might be closer to the “field” style of half a century ago and it’s perhaps significant that three of the poems from Swallow are built around propositions from Olson’s Projective Verse essay. It’s interesting to see something that always looked to be so much “of its time” get a sympathetic run two generations later. (A passing reference to “roots and branches” in “Call them Blueprints of Weather” deliberately alludes to Duncan’s book, born of the same period and ethos as Olson’s essay.) As do many of the poems of Acanthus, “Plant Poem” also exploits a context that has become familiar. It’s familiar metaphorically because the plant recalls the acanthus curving around its roof tile and familiar thematically because it’s about seeing things at the edge of vision. The stationary observer picks up “some small thing” which is capable of flooding a “discoloured mind” with fresh colour. That then enables the poet to both hear and feel what is happening in the world outside of their anchored mind. It is, in retrospect, a very Romantic poem, concerned with the nature of the interaction between the mind and reality. One could almost read it as a gloss on Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” where the state of the poet’s mind “colours” the reality he sees and only the access of “joy” will enable him to throw a net over the phenomenal world. In Potter’s poetry there is none of the all-encompassing interactions of temperament that there is in Coleridge: for her it will be a small thing that works its way back into the perceptual and poetic apparatus.

Having dwelt for so long on poems that explore the methods behind the book, it seems trivialising to begin to list the book’s themes and I’ll simply touch lightly on them. One of the foremost is the notion of transformation. This can appear in a number of guises. It can be a matter-of-fact assertion that recalls the opening of Kafka’s story. A prose poem, significantly entitled, “Metamorphosis”, begins with the poet as spider centred on her silk threads and attached to the world. For all its vulnerability in the face of wind and rain it’s a stance engaged with the world from which poems can be made but the darker implication is that the poems are in the “benumbed form” of a captured bee or fly. Transformation is something enacted by metaphor of course in that the tenor is altered by the existence of a vehicle. I’ve mentioned the way in which the snake of “The Art of Sideways” enters the poem as an explanatory connection – the arc of the sun is like the coils of a hibernating snake – but it then becomes part of the fabric of the poem, altering its direction and transforming it as it does so. In “Slow Corsage” the detailed observation of the way a fellow train passenger holds a loaf of bread as he prepares to leave is disturbed by the sight of a camellia blossom when the poet gets home and the poem is then transformed from social observation into something quite different – “I became distracted from any trace of the tall man with the bread upon whose lapel, given the chance, I might have pinned a day-old camellia” – perhaps, as in “Plant Poem”, exemplifying the idea of the small thing which enables a wider comprehension.

Perhaps the most striking of the many manifestations of the idea of transformation occurs in “Pond Weather” which begins as an immersion poem – this time into a pond in the middle of London – and seems to want to be a poem about the dissolving of boundaries. But it changes direction radically at the end:

. . . . . 
Silken as a cormorant my mother arrives out of the trees
Her wings rake the pond into an exclamation of black glitter

She addresses me from her wingspan, her beak
clapping like a pair of scissors

I rise amphibian into her weather
A fugue of water beetles drifts into the brocade

They form a net of black eyes
She drinks a blue moon from their gaze

Hatching herself from bird to
woman to mother

It’s a strong poem and one that a reader would remember from even a casual first reading. Looking into it a bit more closely, you can see that the way in which it is a kind of transformation in reverse adds a lot to the dynamics of the poem – the thing that ultimately makes a poem memorable. In the edge-dissolving world of the pond it’s quite possible to transform one’s mother into a bird, it’s an environment ripe for transformations. But there is something exciting and challenging about the reverse process. Does the mother call the poet back to reality, a reality in which she is not going to be a bird but a mother? Is it that a domestic relationship – mother to daughter – trumps the transformational world of poetry? Whatever the answer, the poem has both a strongly memorable structure and, of course, that image of the “beak / clapping like a pair of scissors” – also something that is hard to get out of one’s head.

Transformation – metaphoric as well as actual – is only one of a series of themes in the poems of Acanthus, in fact the vaguer word, “interests” might be more suitable. An obvious question that a critic might pose would be to ask where are the poems which, instead of taking their own natures and grounding in edges of perception as their theme – as in, say, “The Art of Sideways” or “Plant Poem” – simply use these perceptual methods to generate poems. These will be poems which have nothing of the “poem-poem” about them. I would choose a couple of poems here, “Errand” and “Antigone”, as representative of two different kinds of result. The former begins with the image of a mother bird flitting in and out of bushes like someone sewing:

In and out of leaves   the blue tits sew the garden
because to the mother bird   in my mind   I’ve tied
an infinite string   as she zig-   zags fervently   shirring
distance in a loose smocking   of air

Faded winter grasses   rosebushes tinted with rust
amulets strung with the dry hairs of weeds
the entirety of the field   broken open   restitched
and engrossed   with minute wing-

work   a prowess   I must   remember   when putting seeds
out tonight for birds . . .

and it then moves on to become poem partly about doing necessary work (another theme of the book) and partly about the mother. “Errand” – whose title indicates both work and a side to side flitting movement (it derives from the same source as “erratic”) – is a poem that wouldn’t be too disorienting for a reader with no other knowledge of Potter’s aesthetic and thematic interests. Our reading of it is deepened by the context of other poems but we would not be lost without them. It may be complex, in other words, but it’s not really challenging. At the other extreme is “Antigone”, a poem I rather like now – partly because of its apparent refusal to bring poetic methods into the fabric of the poem – but which initially I found frustrating and irritating.

In a room circled by nets of gorse
I wept in a long black dress
Across the window, plovers rake the sky
with the gold dust of feather
I replay dreams with an abacus of stones -
hang-gliders, Catherine wheels, meadows
of butterflies because I curved into the sunken bell of his shoulder
unmarrowed his beard from everlasting snow
I threw dirt in ferns of silt and loam – there was no midpoint
between a daughter and a father
The hem of my skirt felted in bog-blood, billowing
like a diatribe in my uncle’s burning ears. In a room
circled by nets of gorse, I hung
in a long black dress

Not a poem that anyone is going to feel comfortable with immediately. The title itself is a very strong element, invoking Oedipus, his daughter and her uncle, Creon, and is capable of distending any poem it is attached to. To my mind, the tension that animates the poem is that between its mythic context and a domestic situation transformed, perhaps, by dream images. Other poems in the collection help a little: it is hard not to find a connection between the girl in her dress here (together with all the other images of circularity) and the spider in her web in “Metamorphosis”, for example, but, fundamentally this is a stand-alone poem with no connection to the theme of how the poet’s perception works. Is it an early poem, a little outside of the methodological emphases of Acanthus, or is it a new direction? An outsider can’t really tell but it’s just possible it’s the latter and that Potter’s next books will feature more poems of this kind where she decides to stop using an examination of her poetic methods as subject matter.