Lesh Karan reviews Acanthus by Claire Potter
by Claire Potter
Reviewed by LESH KARAN
Acanthus is Claire Potter’s fourth collection of poetry. Potter writes in a language that weaves mythology with nature, fantasy with reality and then wraps it all up in tulle. If I had to write a one-word review, surreal feels apt, but I don’t, so I’ll start with another one: “acanthus”. This is to say that my first instinct is to look for a titular poem, because in my mind titular poems somehow tie up the work in a loose bow. There isn’t one. Instead, I find a note that follows the contents page, where I learn that acanthus is a plant. Here, I am also offered a sliver of ancient Greek history, of how the leaves became a motif: ‘Passing this votive basket entwined in foliage [on the grave], Callimachus decided to carve it in stone’. A Google search reveals that acanthus leaves are the leaves typically carved into Corinthian columns to symbolise rebirth, immortality and resurrection. This hints at both transmigration and transmutation – of transforming into another being in another time-place.
In her introductory note Potter also quotes Derrida: ‘everything will flower at the edge of a desolate tomb’, and writes that ‘it is on the overlapping edges of these two accounts that this writing might be said to begin.’ I take the words ‘overlapping edges’ to be the heart of the collection. What happens in overlapping edges? The blurb on the back cover tells me of other-worldly ‘literary spaces’ that the reader can fall through. However, it is the self-referential nature of the poem ‘Counterintuitive’ (p17) that further illuminates:
I could never avoid the truth I’d discovered when I first engaged with texts: the self-evident fact of there being no reader nor subject-matter – only images and feelings in a sort of eternity…
— Gerald Murnane
There is writing that escapes the head, rustles
like stars of purple thistle,
moves like the tiniest bones of clavicle, tilts like
a compass from the centre to radius to peregrine. This writing
cannot be analysed or
understood by conventional means. Its solitude is written
in a vine that veins a crumbling ledge, the foliage
of a dream in amber, a map folded then refolded
into the shingles of a summer fan
The Gerald Murnane quote could stand in as the epigraph to the entire collection, and the poem itself, an addendum to the note. A handful of poems feel meta and/or performative in this way. For example, I see the first stanza of the poem ‘Errand’ (p38) as what Potter is doing with her poetry:
In and out of leaves the blue tits sew the garden
because to the mother bird in my mind I’ve tied
an infinite string as she zig- zags fervently shirring
distance in a loose smocking of air
By which I mean Potter is the blue mother bird fervently shirring distance with an infinite (eternal) string to create a loose smocking air: the writing that escape the head.
Another poem I want to speak to is ‘The Art of Sideways’ (p 55), because I feel it could stand in as the loose bow that ties the work together. Here, things are ‘layered / and overlapping like shelves of ancient papyruses’. They are also askew: ‘rain can fall sideways’, ‘eyes look aslant’ and ‘there is an angle of forty-five degrees’. Direction (winter light is ‘a trajectory that points in all directions’) and time (a snake’s skin is ‘a simple clock / turning every so often leaving a scaled topography behind’) are messed with, too. Because in such worlds, time, beings and direction don’t play by reality’s rules. To various degrees, these are the themes that imbue the collection’s 45 poems.
Themes and self-referentiality aside, it is the imagery – alluded to at the tail end of the Gerald Murnane quote – that simply astounds me.
A swan sails her cygnets along a stretch of river
—momentarily they rouse in a ghostly armada
a flotilla of milk wings billowing across the grey water
the mother dips her head beneath a lid of duckweed
leaving a swivel of white teardrop behind
Newspapers describe the father as having flown straight into
a building and died without mentioning how or why
The thought takes me back to Greece, to a girl called Scylla who ended
a war by cutting a lock of hair from her father’s sleeping head
and passing it to Minos, his enemy. Scylla was shunned
then chased by her father until a deity changed her into a seabird
The swans preen layer by layer, a soft smoothing by the underside
of the beak, the ruffle and discard of superfluous feathers
The river plays like a silver hook in their glass eyes
(‘The Glass Eye’, p9)
Potter’s imagery is startling in its originality, and at times haunting, such as in ‘The Glass Eye’. But when it is sewn together with narratives and spheres of another time-place, such as Greek mythology, the poem erupts little sparks in my mind: How does the swan’s preening and discarding of feathers relate to cutting a lock of hair? Is the mother swan Scylla? And why is the river a silver hook? The answers don’t necessarily matter, but the questions, the doors that open into thinking and seeing and feeling, do.
Another favourite is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (p25). It feels personal – autobiographical – given the first-person voice, and is simultaneously magical, melding the domestic with the natural:
All summer, the bees worked
between the bells of laburnum
sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
—they saw a task and rose to it
I busy myself with the washing
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper
rosettes of flannel
The images in this first part of the poem sets up the overlapping of the bees with the speaker: ‘the bells of laburnum / sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender’ mirror ‘funnels of sock, boughs of jumper / rosettes of flannel’. This is how the speaker and the bees are subsumed into one being; likewise, their seeing a task and rising to it without being asked. And in the second half of the poem –
I look down my dress and see spikes of burdock
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground
Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs—
They all gather to me
Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically
until I disengage everything
to its proper place
and emerge like a queen
made anew from decades of trying
– I see the burdock thistles stuck to the speaker’s dress as the chores that gather to her. And her decades of trying as acts of love, where a worker bee can become a Queen bee. Such is the magic of such love, and its music (there is much beautiful slant rhyme in Potter’s poetry, too).
‘The Hidden Side to Love’, I discover, was published in Meanjin (Summer 2016 and online). The only difference I note is the lack of full stops in the collection’s version. This aspect of form is representative of the whole collection: there is, pointedly, no full stops at the end of lines (if a sentence ends there) or paragraphs (in the case of prose poems) – in fact, there’s minimal punctuation altogether; and when full stops appear, they do so rarely, only in the middle of a line, where a sentence has ended, but not always. Instead, Potter uses line breaks, cesura, dashes (sometime multiple in a row to create a solid line) and indented text. Also, many of the works are prose poems; if not, then the lines in several lineated poems echo prose in their line lengths. It’s all very contemporary and lends to the orphic atmosphere of blurring the edges: Where does one thought/idea/image begin and end?
The last poem I want to speak to is my absolute favourite: ‘Metamorphosis’ (p 19). It is a prose poem of two paragraphs and the speaker is a spider; no, the speaker is inside a spider, and we see the world through the speaker’s eyes looking through the spider’s eight eyes:
I wake inside a spider at the pivot of a web. It feels like a graduation from my previous state until the breeze starts up and my webbed skirt starts to give. I cling to the silk threads, tilting backwards and forwards as though pinned to a warbling rocking chair …
I peer out from my lacy steeple. My eight eyes dissect ‘IL ov eN ew Yo rk 20 07’ on a mossed-over mug—crossed-eyed, the sun rotates in a wheel of sixteen. I’m whispering a name—Rumpelstilzchen? … I will wrap my golden thread …
This poem gives me joy to no end. It is playful. I can see then webbed skirt and feel the warbling rocking chair, but what gives me the most child-like glee is the visual representation of ‘I love New York 2007’ dissected into eight pairs of letters, for the spiders eight eyes, and then sun rotating in a wheel of sixteen, for the cross-eyed-ness. And, of course, anything is possible here because we have the whisper of the name Rumpelstilzchen, he who turned silk into gold in the eponymous fairy tale.
To circle back to the beginning, the introductory note, blurb and self-referential nature of ‘Counterintuitive’ might feel as if Potter has gone to much length to explain the work, suggesting that the poetry is challenging; and it is, in that it asks you to disrupt the logical. Thus, as a reader, I see these elements as foundational: that ‘crumbling ledge’ from which to enter the work. I also see them as an invitation: to follow Alice down the rabbit hole, so your subconscious, your inner world, can meet Potters’ on the page. And with that invitation, I find I am free to fall in, to tumble through the labyrinthine worlds without the need to land on my feet – because there is much joy in letting go. And there is much joy to be had here, in Potter’s original, surreal and musical Acanthus.
लेश करण LESH KARAN is a Naarm/Melbourne-based poet and essayist. Recent publications include Admissions, a Red Room Poetry anthology, Best of Australian Poems 2022, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Mascara Literary Review and Rabbit, amongst others. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and is currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. Lesh is of Fiji Indian heritage.