Swallow by Claire Potter

The Chrystal Gazer

In the Shadow of My Mother

By Claire Potter

I’ll set you, lady poem
in a smock of silk under moonlight

wait for tides, magic and days
to grind, mill, turn
and water you
wait for sentiment
to be smoothed
into a milk-white shell
an alluvial sign I can ossify
from crested waves within

Then I’ll hitch my lady poem
to a star that tames gypsy passions
passions Tsvetaeva wrapped
around herself
like an underwater cloak

before her unsteady boat
and my unbuttoned throat

both slid like petrified arms
into the dark green sleeves
of broken
gothic waters

–From the collection, Swallow, p. 73.

I recently bought Claire Potter’s first full-length collection of poems, titled Swallow. It was an impulse purchase in a bookstore – the kind where you pick up a book because you like the look of it and open it up to a random page and start reading. And then you travel back and forward in the book, and slowly fall in love. I’ve been trying to articulate what exactly about her style, her use of language, imagery, punctuation and space between words and sentences that I like so much, without much success. Writing about poetry from a personal rather than critical (or theoretical) perspective is still quite new to me, and I always feel like I don’t do the poet justice. So I’ve been reading other reviews of Potter’s work and these lines by Ali Alizadeh summarise what I like about this collection:

“I am particularly pleased with how this poet, obviously capable of writing aesthetically accomplished poetry about birds and other nature signifiers, has instead produced poems that resist and obstruct interpretation and confidently refuse to accommodate less curious readers’ demand for accessibility.”

No, I wouldn’t call these poems ‘accessible’ as such, and therein lies the appeal. It’s easy to make poems about nature and birds pretty, but hard to make them imply something more. This is not to say that aesthetically, Potter’s poems aren’t pleasurable; the language and vocabulary she uses and the way she chooses to string this language and vocabulary together is rather beautiful and appeals to the senses. But you always get the feeling that there is something more dancing beneath the surface of this pleasure; an affect felt through the careful choice of where to place a space between words, how to weave punctuation between sentences and words, how to construct paragraphs. She does this so well.

I can think of a number of contemporary poetry collections that have left me feeling dry, because I felt that those same choices were pretentious – like they were playing a game with me, rather than asking me to play one with the poet. In Potter’s collection, even though everything seems carefully thought out and the product of considered thought and hard work, nothing feels contrived. And I guess there’s a reason why I was drawn to pick up the book, flick through it, and instantly become attached to the poems within – that extra magical quality that indicates you simply like something because it speaks to you, and you don’t know why. It’s a beautiful volume, and I highly recommend it.

Image credit: The Chrystal Gazer (1913) by Lilla Cabot Perry.