I've been reading Carol Potter's Short History of Pets and feel some alienation between it and Upside Down in the Dark only because I want a bridge between one and the other, a tone that is recognizable. But Short History has a persona of its own apart from her earlier book.
"You could call this nostalgia," the speaker tells the reader in Childhood The Rehearsal. The reader might assign that sensation. And do it legitimately. After all, these first poems are about someone's childhood. But what does the poet call it? It's named for what it isn't: "nobody drowned" and there's the "horrible wonderful." There's bliss over a bloodied shirt, the fact that a horse didn't crush the head of its thrown rider. This fact is happiness for the child of the poem (And She was Happy).
Absence dominates the tone of this collection.In the first section, poems are narrated in a disembodied voice with a psychic distance once removed from an event or the emotion of an event. In The Funk of Those Acres, the speaker describes what isn't there: "What's been here but isn't any longer" - now hidden or buried. But still present, possibly watching. She imagines "the warmth of their bodies." This is an absence and a presence that is palpable, a companion in aloneness, which "moves when you move and they watch you."
The distant voice of these poems is not meant to create mystery. It creates separation. Perhaps some of that distance is intended to separate this collection from the label of "confessional." This isn't confessional poetry. It is lyrical in its elements and its voice. It employs the witness self, a speaker akin to the omniscient narrator. Bodiless, the voice carries the personal on its impersonal back.
To empathize with the speaker requires dual readings: recognizing what is there and what is absent. Sister, brother, mother, father - the words are there, portrayed in a Hemingway-esque narrative, sparsely modified. There are few if any first names. Articles and pronouns are missing. The feel is slightly like reading a logical Stein. The personal narrator has stepped aside. Crafted the lines and walked away. This distance leaves room for the reader.
I read adolescent wandering, the cognitive dissonance of what is and what is not, held together by the string of line, the family lies, the "horrible wonderful," the fact that "nobody drowned." There's the "poundings" received from Gruff Daddy. "It's like anywhere you might live," says the speaker.
Carol Potter shows the creative use of distance, the power of lullaby and fairy tale, the use of paradox, contrast and occasional gleams of warmth and color, all the more fervent because of their rarity. This is a poet speaking without the freight of fear, without the gloss of shimmering device and without the stigma of self-absorption.
Short History of Pets rides into memory without a shield, lances all those old scenes, pierces them cleanly and presents the essence of what was. And when the subject moves away from that empty-crowded childhood , it moves into the stillness of heart. Absence is still a companion. What came before still present, though displaced by time. So that love has a short history, displaced by what came before: "It's that lesson about marriage / and the door you don't walk out of."
In A Spoilt, Exquisite Air, Or Why I Won't be Here When You Get Here, the speaker searches for a reason, imagines improbable causes, works through what is and what isn't. This poem employs the same Taoist duality of presence and absence:
Maybe I wanted from you what no oneThere's realization here, as in all the poems. Once out of childhood, the speaker switches to a first-person entity, then the universal "you." Moving into the final section of this book, she breaks through the past, hurries herself toward the unknown, the abyss or the limitless possibility. From The Monument on Top of It:
should want from anyone. I lay in that bed
night after night and then I got up and left.
Maybe I made you up.
Perhaps the marble floors were too much.
I cried about you and then I didn't.
I won't be here when you arrive.
I would like to say I forgave you for what happened,
but it looks like I didn't.
I waited and then I wasn't waiting any longer.
Something broke and I went forward with it broken.
There's the door and you are walking toward it so eagerly.The last few poems in Short History carry an elegiac tone, the silence of knowledge, the separation of heart from lover. But the absence has meaning, if only because it is accepted. No longer strange.
It's open and there's no one to see you step through.
You go through it because you can and the world's out there you say.
You can go out and fall as far as you want.
"It's like any kind of faith," the narrator tells us in Short History of Gravity. There's the trees swaying in the wind, the possibility of breakage, what would happen if the pretty trees collapsed, what happens when one accepts their beauty and their danger. "There's the beauty of the world and you're in it." What happens is something like peace. The struggle calms. There will always be the dog's glee and the dog's bite, yearning and removal. The absence of what we want always present.