Literary Criticism

Reading Kate Potts – Pure Hustle

To my mind, there is one contemporary poetry movement that predominates in the British Isles and a few other minor movements that are making a push for greater recognition. The mainstream is now most closely associated with poets like Seamus Heaney, John Burnside, Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Don Patterson and Sean O’Brien, to name a very few. Although each of these poets has a unique voice, their primary work tends toward the naturalistic vein around specific subject matter which forms the nucleus of the poem’s development. Their poetry often has a neo-romantic character and trajectory that thrives on the natural world in order to explore human nature, especially concepts of social order, love and relationships. It is often written in recognizable (dare I say conventional?) poetic and syntactical forms that avoid the samizdat, ellipsis, heavy irony, and abstractionist mien of, for lack of a better illustration, the New York School or the Language poets of the United States. Nothing I have said here should suggest that the mainstream is staid or arthritic; the mainstream is thriving and still capable of producing inspired works.

There are other poets whose flights into the ether are less concerned with the traditional forms and music, and consequently are much more demanding to read, and here one thinks immediately of J.H. Prynne, Keston Sutherland, John Wilkinson and other poets of the Cambridge School. With these poets, form is very freely used, language mutates before one’s eyes, apparent meaning makes ghostly entrances and exits in order to evoke deeper ones below the facade, and syntax seems merely notional, all to evoke the various cerebral climates of the poem, the resulting music like late 20th century composition, larger helpings of the atonal than tonal, more abstract and expressionistic than the naturalism of the mainstream. An appreciation of the three, four and five dimensions of these more experimental poets depends upon a willingness to devote much time to the hard work of reading and re-reading, and sometimes research, in order to reach a level of comfort with their material; sometimes the nearest comfort comes as a grudging rapprochement. For some, the experience of reading Prynne’s recent work, Kazoo Dreamboat, is perhaps no different from that of James Joyce’s contemporaries who wrestled with Finnegans Wake.

There are a number of other poets who forge a third way, falling somewhere in between the mainstream and the experimental, and each of the poets, whose work broadly fits the mainstream or one type or another of the minor movements, will still create works that drift toward their opposite number. I am using a broad brush here and must be forgiven for not engaging in the individual consideration that each poet deserves.

Kate Potts’ Pure Hustle represents this third way. With the realization that all comparisons between poets and poetry schools are invidious, she seems to me like a shirt-tail cousin of the poets of the Black Mountain school who wrote in mid-20th Century and, as the progeny of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, were responsible for their own brand of innovative (projective) verse – by which comparison I mean I have the highest regard for Pott’s intelligence and craft. You can tell that Potts has a very high poetry I.Q., as this volume demonstrates her ability to engage in descriptive and affecting portraiture, which I think is her greatest gift.

Talking about projective verse is a good way to introduce her poem, “Life in Space,” where Potts and her classmates are on what appears to be a botched trip to meet Helen Sharman, the “first Briton in space,” who is envisioned, “pickled, part-weightless,/charged, secreting the luminous shock – /a brackish, tender, blue-green earth,/diminutive beside her splayed hands.” The depiction is held at a calculated distance, removed from the reality lived by the poet, as if Sharman were in a jar (“pickled, part-weightless”), whose underlying sentiment is a substitute for awe. Eventually the visit becomes self-reflective in a realization that similar prospects are not in store for her lot:

Probably not like us – our worn perimeter
of Norwood Streets, chips on the homeward loiter.
Leery, at the station’s edge, we practice
the glint of dagger-eyes, our noxious tut

but in such commuterland we’re close
to subsidence, a puddle of spiderish,
laddered tights, our cardigans pulled, bulbous
at the sleeves. We hoist our bodies up. Breathe.

The portrait is a poignant gut-check, as the poet’s self-consciousness still manages to wring dignity from their existence in the “worn perimeter” of “commuterland.” Instead of spacesuits, the girls have “a puddle of spiderish/laddered tights, our cardigans pulled, bulbous/ at the sleeves”; instead of a rocket launch, “We hoist our bodies up”; with the final sentence-word, “Breathe,” signifying a psychic effort of will to clear oneself from the mortal gravity of plain life that surrounds them.

Yet Potts rarely lets her emotions invade these zealously carved portraits, leaving behind what might be taken for contagious sentimentality of an interior response and devoting herself to a professional’s analysis. A traditional stiff upper lip is apparent in “Homemaking”:

The heavy, moulded wood of their lives
glows lustrous, purrs as she polishes.
In photos they’re invincible, the English –

limbs wound tight on baize lawns.
It’s always the same half-cocked smile
as if to a mother. Her mouth

is not her own, creases in sympathy.
The rooms are dense with their smell,
sweet, as if under glass, . . .

Even in “Reel” where the poet’s grandfather, apparently affected with dementia, runs into the street, stripping himself of his clothes, with his adult children in pursuit, there is a clinical detachment in the observation, the kind of reportage that typified Émile Zola’s work, even as the depiction brilliantly comes off the page:

Each scoops then clamps the cloth of dad’s debris
in an arm’s crook. Like hunters, or dogs, they snout it.
This is an old game and their bay and call –
the higher, reeded note – is alternatively
brute joy, then quailing at its queasy ledge.
He trips a buttonhole and vaults, clean,
from a collapse of twill and trouser legs,

* * *

He will give it up, turn back to the glaze
of his children’s open faces,
their careful, stitching armfuls of his every day.

It may be that he’ll never quit this city, never
break the speed of sound.

Potts acknowledges this approach, in my view, with a poem like “Nuthatch” (“The story was the thing”), wherein her alter ego discusses the technique of news reportage (“Who-when-what-/why-where, and how?”), gives snatches of stories, and peripherally hints at a relationship with a man. When it comes to giving an enduring meaning to all this, the ironic understatement of the conclusion (“The world/was various then”) leaves us guessing how the world is not “various” now.

In “Slamkin” Potts draws the gargoyle out of the “slammerkin” who “wears her slatternliness like furs: her pine-and-cat funk/ the hug of tar in her pink bronchi. Cigarettes drip from her, like sap.” Yet, in the final lines, we are unsure whether the pronouncement is in the absolute or merely in relation to the subject of her portrait:

 There’s no blessing
in such platitudes as china saucers and lemon slices,
folded gloves on a stainless sink, laundered, ironed linen.

“Slamkin” is a finely detailed study, but it’s not clear whether we are learning anything beyond the ungainly sight and the smell of her paint, as contrasted with the way we are subtly shown the interior response in “Life in Space.”

The poet’s emotions are often such a well-kept secret that only subtext reveals the dark interior, as in “Insomnia’s Chant” (where in my transcription I have italicized words to emphasize what I believe to be subtext):

 I’ll envision no sheep, no floss of beach surf

welled on sand. No apposite mending of other bodies,
patching of loss, rents, frowns, in brown paper,

goodwill and duct tape. No making right, no making,
no yieldlovers’ backward curses germing

in my glands. No configuration of scale, paucity, those
others – and night hands, tranced, shuffling

memory aces – that time we woke. Same instant. Four –
his mother sleeping in the next room, fluorine

eyes in the closed dark. No wheedling after sense, home,
what was sold. No drawing under no river. No

hands, gentler. Soft-snared comma, spun, spore-lit
spiral nothing, hauling radiation, matter – gone.

Admittedly, these may be my misguided attempts at finding clues to the back story that keeps the poet from sleep, but each of the phrases I have italicized gives us a motivation, some inkling of the kernel that gave life to the poem, and their semi-obscured presence gives us a place in the poem.

If the veil is lifted it is usually via another persona. In “Flashpoint” (where “Memory won’t let you flinch./Each baroque façade’s a frame on a screel”), there is an effort to create aesthetic distance by deliberately blending the second person singular (“you”) and the third person (“she”): “Here is a girl in your own rare skin.” Again, in “The Caveat” and “Homemaking” the third person singular is used, but family secrets are being revealed. In “Magpie,” it is through a kleptomaniac’s self-portrait:

 The charm bracelet

belonged to his mother. Most are scavenged.
I’ve a nose for the scent of silver.

It’s the oily calm of the winter Thames, an edge
like the tartness of gin. I like to imagine

my blood’s a thread of wrought sterling.
Without these charms I’m animal, tender.

There is magic in being vulnerable to the life underlying the poem, the revelation below the surface of portraiture, and Potts needs to mine this vein a little more, as she does in “Ghost no. 1,” where the chilling effect of alcoholism brings Potts’ emotions out in a marvelous array:

I snap supermarket bags at your ears,
shuffle crockery, mimic the telephone
with the chirp at the tips of my teeth.
I’m a conjurer of uneasiness, spectre

of barely remembered door keys,
gas hob, medicine, disconsolate
child – your crush of vodka’d limbs.
Mine’s the suspension of breath.

You contemplate chaos, prostration,
beginning again in a new place
under a new name. I am the ice
in your liver – exhaled.

I do not suggest that Potts become more confessional, only that the enduring character of poetry is begotten from an emotional response to life apprehended by the poet. Potts’ great talent and promise cannot be denied, and she really only needs a little more confidence in her instincts to elevate her work to that of the very best of her generation.

On the downside Potts engages in cryptic understatement when she seems to urge us to draw more significance from concluding words than the poem itself would suggest: “As if a fist, a flame, could lick and shift: be more than its own beauty” (“November 5th”)’; “You trammel me home to your pale and blasted bed. In the morning, you bring me cold water – you bring me great flocks of white doves” (“Lorca”); “My parcelled heart’s sarcophagus meat, a wintered seed-pod – and this is the end of all worlds, a quiet cancelling” (“Sunshine”). Potts is as pure a wordsmith as you can find, and the lines sound very good in themselves, but they are without ample predicate in the poems, and therefore lack the meaning and emotional weight that they would intimate if we had more to go on. I contrast the foregoing examples with the ending of “A Partridge – A Pear Tree,” which magnificently illustrates the beginning of a love affair and contains a sizzling flourish:

At four A.M. he cawls,

true as a child’s crayoned circle of bird –
twig-foot, shut-eye. He’s
no hart, no dove, but gamey,
winter market plume.

His is a glistering, brass whirr
of wings, a glide – a chestnut tail.
I put by the feathers;
ease the meat from the bone.

Potts also tends to jump the blood-brain barrier with neologisms, converting nouns to verbs, adjectives to verbs, and verbs to nouns. The novelty is sometimes surprising, amusing and evocative, sometimes less so because it tends to distract the reader. “Our conversation gangled, various, virusing brightly” (“The Boundary Camp”); “This gilted pattern sticks in the craw” (“Cloth Trick”); “Our gut walls are shammied in tea, piebald with tannins” (“Tasseography”); “the faces/chalked cheeks, sallowed centres” (“Camera-snapped Psalm”).

For the elite reader literary references abound, not just in the epigraphs that act as directional signs on a number of poems, but in the tendency of compositions to appeal to those who follow poetry for more than the reading. Such poems as “Galatea/Pygmalion, Sunday morning,” “Flashpoint,” “When the Dog Bites, When the Bee Stings,” “Ghost no. 2,” “Your Second Skin,” “Cloth Trick,” “Resort” and “End Game” are as much about the act of writing poetry as they are about their ostensible subjects. So “Against Poetry” envisions the world without refined poetic ornament, “I’ve scraped the sky of its auspices, left only chuddied, cotton cloud.” Unlike the quote from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, where the irreconcilable are united and transmuted by the poet’s touch:

Nothing is lifted, or re-appraised. You will not
lustre me – my apparition in the Sunday bread aisle – floured
and dredged. I am never Persephone, always blustering, and bones.

This “blustering, and bones” is the “mind of winter” that Wallace Stevens said the poet must have, where the illusions we create to escape mortality, the motive for metaphor, are revealed. “You will not lustre me” is as much a personal statement as it is a statement about the politics of art and the manipulation of language (as perhaps even the idealistic Shelley did not realize). I think this is precisely the kind of pronouncement that Kate Potts will develop in later work, and it will be the thing that aligns her more with the experimentalists than the mainstream. This we see in new work like “Grizzly Bear,” which was chosen for commendation in the 2012 Basil Bunting awards (and about which Award Judge August Kleinzahler said: “This poem is entirely different from any of the others and utterly singular”).

Pure Hustle is guaranteed to impress. I have not even touched on remarkable poems like “The Runt,” “Acrobat Falls,” “Compendium of Water” and “Greyhound to Syracuse,” which are the kinds of poems that feature Potts, the projectivist, reaching into her future. This volume features a young poet with a vivid imagination, big heart and very adventurous poetic style and range. The poems are challenging but accessible. Kate Potts is someone you should read.

Steven M. Critelli © 2013


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