review by Sandra Burr
Is there such a thing as ‘extreme poetry’? Poetry where poets write to the edge of their craft, take risks, mix it up, talk to strangers? If there is, then Claire Potter is one such poet. In Swallow she writes with extreme elegance, incredible style and with such rich complexity that you have to come up for air every so often for fear of drowning in the irresistible beauty of her words.
Potter is West Australian born, Sydney educated and sometimes European located - both physically and through kinship. She straddles all these places with ease, her poems slipping between Australia and Europe, the differences noted but barely noticed because what matters is nature; animals, landscapes, atmospheric moments of light and shadow, keenly observed and full of gorgeous imagery. Here is just one example from the third verse of her opening poem:
Another very noticeable thing about this poet is her stylistic choices. The poems are full of gaps and spaces, irregular indentations, ampersands and unclosed brackets all of which force the reader to really engage with the sound and probe the many possible meanings of her individual words. In contrast to such intricately crafted poems are others, like ‘Minnie and Tom’and ‘Eventide’ and the almost prose-like treatment of ‘A Durable Grandmother’, whose arrangements reflect the straightforward simplicity of the narrative. Potter is a poet who is not afraid to experiment with line and meter carefully tailoring structure and style to content.
She is also the mistress of wordplay. Strings of words gather speed before being deftly reined in, sounds chime and echo in unexpected places, words are repeated to emphasise a question, a puzzle, a moment, and odd images capture and delight. Potter uses all of these signature devices in the beautifully crafted ‘Sewing an Onion’ in which ‘tucking’, ‘untucked’, ‘clucked’, ‘buck like tiny bulls’, and ‘stuck’, all make an appearance, as do the playful lines:
Potter’s writing is controlled and polished but she also displays a fine sense of humour often expressed by the juxtaposition of the scholarly or lyrical with the everyday. The ‘rusty entrails of a stormwater drain’ appear in ‘An Astra Bird’, there is ‘the campfire and a solitary chop’ in ‘Glass Bead Meadow’ and references to washing, dishes and bins in ‘Wishbone for Rufus’. The inclusion of instructions for making bee puppets in the otherwise lyrical ‘Bee Puppets’ is another example and one that emphasises the poet’s ability to draw us in to the narrative. Sometimes her use of unfamiliar words causes us to stop and puzzle– what is a furcula? – but never long enough to break the spell and then she enchants by taking us back into familiar territory with, for instance, a scientific description of a Welcome Swallow in ‘Not in the Sequence of a Metronome’. While Potter appears to write for an audience familiar with the things she refers to in her poems (and some, like the Joni Mitchell album for example, may not be well known) she is considerate enough to include a section of Notes at the back of the book explaining the more obscure references.
We can read Potter on any number of levels – for the tenderness with which she regards her subjects; for the sense she evokes in us of being both inside and outside the poem; for the enigmatic quality and beauty of her imagery; for those moments of recognition and alienation, the obvious and the unknown or the sheer pleasure of her words. Perhaps the best thing about these poems is the sense of sharing that Potter evokes, a certain generosity of spirit that invites the reader to not only engage in a conversation with the poet, but to keep coming back. Even if you do have to come up for air, you will want to dive straight back in to this rich collection of poems - over and over again.
Sandra Burr has a PhD in creative writing. She is an adjunct professional associate at the University of Canberra where she teaches creative writing and creative research.
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Vol 15 No 1 April 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy