Phillip Ellis reviews Swallow by Claire Potter
by Claire Potter
Reviewed by PHILLIP ELLIS
There is a thing called midnight, within which we may awaken and listen to the sounds of the night that are heightened by the darkness. And we may remember that one of the functions of poetry is to heighten, not so much the sounds but other aspects of our lives and world through sound, to the point that they seem not only unfamiliar but new. This is the sort of effect that Claire Potter’s Swallow has for me, as it develops itself from the opening piece, “La Haine des Fleurs” to its last, “A While”. And this is an effect that is, for me at least, welcome and worth understanding further. So that the awakening to the world which happens, as a result, and when it happens, is understood and prepared for. And the whole is an orchestrated awakening of our insight into the world, through a set of images that appear, disappear, and reappear through the poem: swallows, bees, and so forth. I say poem, rather than poems, because Swallow is a livre composé, the book of poems whose whole comprises a single poem, that formed created by the Symbolists and introduced into Australian poetry with Christopher Brennan’s Poems. So it helps to dip into Swallow, keeping that point in our awareness, and to understand something of its pleasures, and its need for a wider audience.
H. P. Lovecraft defined art as an “elegant amusement.” By this he meant the role that pleasure plays in the effects of a piece of art or poetry. Swallow, like all great poetry, delivers much. The following lines, from the second section of “La Haine des Fleurs”, are immensely pleasurable
and storm lightning
and a stranger who opines neither to stay nor to leave
but squat inside an acorn tree within the gravity
of a feathered cape
Likewise, the opening line of “Glass Bead Meadow”, “Into a curved field of grass,” is also immensely pleasurable; the whole of Swallow is marked by these flashes and passages where pleasure is invoked and made memorable.
Yet the rest of the poem is not measurably weaker: the whole of Swallow is of a uniform standard, with no pieces being real failures. There is no sense, as there is with Brennan’s Poems, of a piece having been written solely to find a place in some predetermined scheme. There are, that is, no poems forced into place; everything reads as if it fits naturally and easily into the whole, and the design of the whole poem diffuses to a point of almost transparency. This is testament to the skill and ability of Claire Potter, both technically, and in terms of the wider sense of the poem’s ethos and narrative lines. And the end result is a poem that is unmistakably an almost perfect poem; for example, the first strophe of “Highest Tree” reads:
from the sable carton box
into which she had been
The weakest line of this strophe, and of this piece, is that fourth line — “wrapped” — which remains a strong line despite that. The weak ending of the previous line, with the almost sour note with the break between the auxiliary verbs, and the adjective on the following line, is actually strengthened through the firm sounds of the consonants in “wrapped” in a word that essentially puns on “rapt” as well, widening the effect of the lines. The result, that is, is no bum note. The effects of lines and passages like these, as a result, involve risk, risk in language and risk in technique. Claire Potter takes those risks, and, as a result of her strong editorial work on the poems, she succeeds.
Yet I wrote that Swallow was an “almost perfect poem:” there is no real chiaroscuro among the poems. The register of “A While”, the last piece of the poem, is essentially identical to “La Haine des Fleurs”, and all of the other poems between. And it is this lack of contrasts in the tone of Swallow that effectively prevents it from being perfect: in this aspect, the fact that this is Claire Potter’s first full-length collection becomes apparent, so that, while there is much to commend the poem for, there is still an area where work needs to be done, and where improvement can be made. While it may be said that the uniformity of tone does strengthen the poem, helping to lend to it a strong sense of unity, it does, rather, lend a uniformity that effectively prevents Swallow from exploring more than a narrow register of emotions.
That said, having read Swallow no less than five times, and having dipped into individual pieces, I can say with certainty that it rewards rereading. The poem, like all great texts, is capable of being found to be richer each time we return to it, and this is a clear mark that this is great poetry. Each time I have read it, I have found my understanding of the poem’s meanings and structure becoming fuller, so that what I experience each time is a poem that means more to me, and that means more through me as well. I cannot read the opening lines of “Ladies of the Canon” —
Far from where antique cycads sleep
I wonder about nests in a circular park
wonder how the downy baskets creep
through vines and weedy bulrushes
wonder how a nest might float
carrying five speckled pledges under midnight’s coat
wonder how a bird might cheat
and drink its music from the canon
— without experiencing the same sort of frisson that I receive from great music. The effects of the rhymes and the departures from them, at the start of this poem, is part of that, and it magnifies the pleasure to be found in these lines and in the piece as a whole.
While my emphasis, here, has been on pleasure, there is more than just this aspect to Claire Potter’s poem. Swallow is pleasurable, yes — we can see it in such lines and passages as “fire-flies and other insects webb-wagged from the air” (from “As Regarding Rhythm”) or “a pear takes shape” from “Promethean Fruit”, or the following passage from “A Truth in Lilies”
We mark our descent
from the secretly divine to the scarcely arrived
with lashings of pollen
But there is more than just pleasure to this poem. There is a very strong, and very real, engagement with the outer world, whether it be the world of cycads and parks, as cycads and parks, that we find in “Ladies of the Canon”, or the world of language, as in the poems of Judith Wright that also underlie this same piece. When we are aware of the allusions, whether they be covert or overt (for example, in the “drunken boats” of “An Asra Bird”, or the Asra bird of the piece’s title, for example), we can read the poem’s relations to other texts. And in this way it is no different from other poems. The whole, in a sense, alludes to the wider worlds around it, in such a way that, once read, a change has been effected, and we look at the world and ourselves in new ways. It is not that the wider world has been changed, but our perception of it has, and this is one of the major functions of great art.
There are many things which should give us pleasure: poetry is one of them. And the poetry of Claire Potter, in Swallow gives quite a large degree of pleasure. This is in large part due to the uniformity of excellence among the pieces. As stated, there are no real failures among the pieces, and the end result of this is a poem that does not fail as a result, or which is less of a qualified success than other, similar poems. Yet there is no real sense of breadth of tone among the pieces; this is, accordingly, the only major weakness of the poem as a whole, and I hope that it will be remedied as Ms Potter progresses as a poet. In addition, the fact that Swallow rewards repeated readings, and that it also changes our perceptions of the worlds that it engages with, enables us to argue that Swallow is not only a strongly pleasurable poem, but that it deserves a wide circle of readers, because its insights and pleasures are both strong and lasting. My poetic world, as a result, has become wider and richer, and I hope that Ms Potter will develop into a strong and important part of the Australian poetry scene, even if I judge solely from several readings of Swallow alone. There is much to commend here, and there is much that is worthy of both praise and our time. Let us then remember Swallow, and allow it to remain a strong and essential part of our poetry reading, lest we become impoverished as a result of neglecting its clear and present pleasures.