Nicholas Manning Reviews Claire Potter and Esther Ottaway

13 April 2007

ottaway_cover-small.jpgIn Front of a Comma by Claire Potter
Poets Union Inc., 2006

Blood Universe by Esther Ottaway
Poets Union Inc., 2006

It's difficult not to detect an implicit whiff of politics in Poets Union's choice of two rather different poets for their 2006 Young Poets Fellowships. The coupling of Claire Potter and Esther Ottaway seems to incarnate a certain intriguing editorial magnanimity, a technique that might be termed that of 'covering all bases'. On the one hand, Poets Union can in no way be accused of neglecting an open, communicative and fundamentally accessible poetic, because they have Ottaway; but nor can they be accused of neglecting a more 'experimental' tradition, because they have Potter.

On the one hand, In Front of a Comma, with its poetic embedded in du Bouchet, Zukofsky and Celan; on the other, Blood Universe, which, like the Bloodaxe anthologies, is a thematically arranged book, taking as its cue a largely personal and confessional tradition, stemming through the British Movement through to Plath and Hughes. While this binary is not strict, and there are interesting wefts and overlaps, I hazard the guess that the choice was not entirely without intent. That Ottaway's Blood Universe has already been well-received, and by all accounts, is selling well, is at least a sign of the pragmatic success of this politic. I venture though that, for many readers of contemporary poetry, it would be difficult to like Potter and Ottaway equally. Perhaps there are readers so receptive as to enjoy David Lehman as much as Ron Silliman, Thomas Keneally as much as Michael Farrell; but there are perhaps not that many, and this diversity of judgement is not necessarily such a good thing.

The case also poses a wider question: should editorial decisions be made according to a unified, coherent aesthetic orientation (as for New Directions), or rather according to the altruism of highest variety (as in many university presses)? Leaving this question hanging for the moment, one must wonder about the impact of this decision on the two books' critical reception. Should a critic examine one, and ignore the other? Should a critic declare his or her aesthetic leanings in advance?

With 'Astir', In Front of a Comma begins remarkably:

Silent cardamon vein

arched dayward

Inside, glass wishbones        open
valediction becomes motif    a vanquished anatomy

Delicate, though with immediate tension, there is a certain rigidity too to this writing, something like syntax reduced to taut components. It is also satisfying to discover, in the first lines of a book, that one is unsure of a language's status, of the way in which words are used, of how we are being spoken to. A perspective which must then become the reader's first discovery: as is 'cardamon' here adjectival or substantive? And if it is the vein which is here so described, is it 'cardamon' for its colour, for its scent?

And so begins Potter's book, with such a strange combination, immediately, of the obvious and the indistinct: for of course veins are 'silent', but in what way are they 'cardamon'? Words function here not according to their simple lexical definitions: they mean according to what comes before them, and what comes after. According to what surrounds them:

winged dandelion seeds      tune
the spoked evening
sunset
            into       wheels     of
                                                      light

'Spoked' is only appropriate here given the presence of the image, already in the reader's mind, that the 'dandelion' is, literally, 'spoked': the evening thus strangely takes on the form and characteristic of the flower placed next to it, as does the sun, becoming perhaps, subsequently, like Helios for the Greeks: the very wheels of the chariot drawing the sun across the sky.

This suite of objects, sensations and apparitions are thus not, with regard to one another, contingent. Though they are not 'linked' by any obvious progression or denotation of syntax, such objects come to resemble one another, formally. Instead of straight lines, with no point of comparison, all becomes then like concentric circles on a water-surface. Dandelion, and thus evening, and thus wheels, and thus light: in the terms of Baudelairean correspondances, there is no further proof than this of the paradoxical, explicitly Platonic notion, that things must have something in common in order to be termed 'different':

receive swollen                  commas
of pale
ebbing rain

That commas and rain resemble one another in nothing more than their shape, is in the end, for Potter, enough. The result of this collision is to make us dig deeper however into this resemblance. Do commas, like rain, 'fall'? Is their 'position' as unsure? Is the sound of rain, like the comma's, also that of many a successive pause?

Now, the question is of course whether this unity is presupposed or rather imposed upon the world. Is it Coleridge's Imagination defeating simple Fancy? Poetry resolving the anxiety of difference! The utopian reverie sometimes seems, at least for short moments, possible in poems like Potter's, where there is an at least transitory but transfixing union located in antinomies.

Moreover, Potter never falls into the use of a facile surrealist non sequitur: objects are linked by association, emotion and perception:

first-snow deep,

muffle empty pauses in your name

There is also, as is evident here, a sad and affecting lyricism to Potter, a tenderness often infused with ubi sunt:

               Tell me, will we sit like this tomorrow
or is it over?

Wistfulness? Perhaps, if the poems were only this; but filled as they are by what often reads, on the one hand, like the cold questionings of intellect ('If I walked backwards/ across the same afternoon /could I interrupt before?'), and, on the other, a sly awareness of poetic intent ('I study metrical verse to fill vases with rich pink anapaests &/ orientate critique spatially'), the sentiment topples over into poignancy, at once aware of its emotional tone without necessarily dissipating it. Except, perhaps, on very rare occasions:

& With wide embracing love
sparks of light
reveal the crimson eyes
of two softly entwined
pigeons

Difficult, no doubt, to present entwined pigeons without a very slight wince of sap, and perhaps in these few instances Potter doesn't succeed. But then, we remark the quick return to an assurance and near-perfection of complex register:

our home, built of clay whispers, smoked thresholds &
hail falling in syllabic pieces, is a shadeless awning
where buckled slats fold into ageing pine

That this is a dwelling is not immediately obvious; that this is resoundingly successful language, however, is.

The recent controversy in England surrounding Bloodaxe's thematically arranged anthologies – Staying Alive, Do Not Go Gentle, etc. – is an interesting starting point in a consideration of Esther Ottaway's collection. For Blood Universe is a sort of condensed Book of Hours, tracing the trail of pregnancy from conception to birth, and after.

Which is fine . . . if you like that sort of thing.

The obvious and immediate problem is of course the dangerous risk of a critic sounding closed-off even against the very idea of a book. What is wrong with thematically arranged poetry? Perhaps nothing, if one is interested in the intended 'theme'. But it also presents the question as to whether such poetry, structured according to one dominant preoccupation or mode, doesn't in fact, in the end, close itself off from a good part of its audience.

New questions then arise, such as: do such poems risk becoming 'reduced', in a negative way, to simple expressions of their subject, (their raison d'?‚Ñ¢tre being, in this case, their centre of inquiry: 'pregnancy', 'death'? As, in spite of their apparent status as universals, not everyone all the time is interested in pregnancy, or death; against the idea of thematic poetry being more open, accessible and universal, then, emerges a different slant, that of it being simply more specific. Specifically aimed at a particular audience, who will no doubt, taking this subject which has been specially honed to its interests, be ardent and appreciative receptors.

These are more general thoughts than they are specific criticisms of Ottaway's book, which is a reasonably successful incarnation of its type.

Again: if you like that sort of thing . . .

This might sound like a back-handed comment; it's not really, simply, Ottaway's poems are what they are: thorough, deeply competent, sometimes charming, though laced too with a deep, cloying, sugary sentiment, and not a small spoonful of emotional kitsch.

But more on this in a moment. Firstly, it is necessary to note that Ottaway obviously possesses technical competency in spades. In 'Headless Portrait of a Pregnant Woman', for example:

One could argue the head's
redundancy anyway. Soaked with metaphors
for intelligence, identity and (of least meaning now)

volition, the head is flotsam, caretaker
to a body striking out on its own:
entranced by reproduction's moon-tide,

the body shifts to patterns of archetype,
elements, dust and water.
Waning, the head is obviated, dumbstruck.

I like this: we are never unsure of the subject, but it is very well-handled. The enjambments are layered and interesting ('identity and (of least meaning now) // volition'), and there is often a satisfying sonic control ('entranced by reproduction's moon-tide'). There is also the rather satisfying presence of recurring metaphors and analogies continuously employed throughout the book: universes becoming organisms, and vice versa, with both simultaneously, as Ottaway puts it, 'expanding and finite'.

Later in the same poem, however, is where things become problematic:

Light as it falls on this belly
turns hazy, filmy, demurring
like the smile that half-closes the eyes

against a stranger. Backlit
under soft-focus smiles from mothers
who believe their heady plunge

was over waterfalls of joy –
fontanelles, toes,
years of unrequited child-love

And here's the thing: perhaps while looking at a new-born, this passage is deeply satisfying; but it's perhaps difficult otherwise, in other situations, not to wince at the clich?©s of 'soft-focus smiles from mothers', or 'years of requited child-love'.

'Esther Ottaway writes with unsentimental clarity', blurbs Judith Beveridge. Really? Forgive a critic's bifurcation, but: 'years of requited child-love'? 'Toes'? It's feel-good, sure, and, we remark, children inspire sogginess in everyone: that the sentiment of these poems should be similarly soggy, in spite of the firm praxis, is thus perhaps appropriate.

I just don't find it particularly rewarding. The 'baby-poem' genre does seem to be on the rise though, and Ottaway is competently tapping into an interested readership. And why not? There would be no real objection, if the poems weren't simply, for me, too worked in places, too terribly deliberate in their clamouring for effect:

Every morning I cram my burgeoning
into pre-pregnancy clothes, needing

familiar prints, textures, needing
my skin of identity.

Cramming one's 'burgeoning'? 'Skin of identity'?

I readily admit that my lack of overt interest in Blood Universe's thematic is not Ottaway's fault: she can write about anything she wants, and let's hope the book continues to find the attentive and conscientious readership it has up to this point. Only, what is perhaps more Ottaway's responsibility is the presentation of this thematic in a resolutely new and poetically rigorous way. It is with regard to this final responsibility that I would express some strong misgivings.

Australian-born Nicholas Manning currently teaches comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. He is a poet and writer and in 2006 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He maintains a weblog.

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