Review | Ornithologies, by Joshua Poteat
Every now and then one comes across a collection of poems that had to be written, poems sired neither by tenure desire nor by that mechanical, peculiarly American need to produce for production’s sake. The poems in Joshua Poteat’s first book, Ornithologies, winner of the 2004 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, are of that rare genus that pulse with emotional, intellectual—and dare we say it, spiritual—urgency. These are not poems of the contemporary narrative school of poetry whose undeclared mantra says “this happened to me and here’s what it means”; this poet has a medium to express, and the medium is expressed exquisitely.
To be sure, the ghostly hand of Poteat’s teacher and mentor, Larry Levis, to whom the book’s final poem is dedicated, exerts an anxious influence over these pages, evident in self-reflective gestures such as “when I was young and loved every girl that breathed” and “I will not say they were the eyes of my father, / although I would like to.” The nods to Levis notwithstanding, the echoes in Ornithologies are as subtle and difficult to pin down as the many birds that alight on the lines of this collection, which concludes with an “Index of Birds,” just in case you missed the poet’s wink. After all, there is no such word as “ornithologies”—there is only one study of birds, “ornithology,” which heretofore has encompassed all birds. Poteat takes liberties with the plural to suggest, perhaps, that a single study will no longer suffice, that disintegrated, niche or nano views are now our only means of piecing together a world.
The book opens with a startling figure of fragmentation, if decapitation can be so euphemized:
This ominous lyric, “Nocturne: for the Doves,” first of the four nocturnes with which the collection opens, points toward the darker Romantic tradition—not Wordsworthian incantations of seedtime and setting that have served as modus operandi for modern poets such as Lowell and Bishop, but rather the mysterious, alchemistic Romanticism of Coleridge and both Shelleys. The dove, ancient symbol of love and peace, lies headless, and its image creates an opening for multiplicity—a swarm of ants, the rustle and coo of living birds. The dismembered corpse is replaced, or redeemed, almost as quickly as it was presented, “the bright air / full again.”
Perhaps most striking in this poem and throughout the book is this young poet’s ease with the declarative, the quiet, almost offhand assertion, “To live at all is to grieve.” Poteat reminds us that, at its best, poetry must also tell. When is the last time a contemporary poet awakened readers with declarations as weighty as “Habit is the devil’s glorious invention, like I heard war could be,” or “Love leaves us dull with nothing to say”?
In “Our Memory, The Shining Leaves (Waterford Fair Civil War Reenactment),” the poet takes on the granddaddy of subjects—war itself—and makes a case for the poet’s conscious mind in the modern world:
Like Walt Whitman, that other singer-explicator of the Civil War, Poteat reaches through and beyond the songs of self to examine the responsibilities of one man in a social, conflicted world. While the indebtedness to Whitman is obvious in both the book’s pseudo-ornithological structure (including index!) and the epigraph from Roethke, “Be with me, Whitman, maker of catalogues: / For the world invades me again,” the poet’s deeper debt to Whitman lies in the post-Romantic, peculiarly American impulse to sing and speculate simultaneously—to praise self-knowledge and self-expression in the same breath which asks “shouldn’t we . . . understand our lives? . . . say what we meant to say?” These questions are and are not rhetorical; the very asking points to the possibility—or probability—that we can neither understand our lives nor say what we meant, but that impending failure is no reason not to try, as limitation is no reason not to sing.
And sing the poet does—this is a writer with a great ear and an even greater range. Although the most of the poems are long meditations composed of the languid, sprawling lines characteristic of both Levis and Whitman, Poteat’s shorter-lined lyrics, such as “Meditation for Everything We Have Loved,” are equally if not more powerful, and perhaps even more beautiful for their brevity:
The opening lines of the poem reveal a poet as skilled in song as he is in story, as deft with apostrophe as he is with the third person. It’s not an overstatement to say that this a poet who will be able to do almost anything.
If there is one flaw to be observed in this rich work, it’s this: There are moments when the poet seems too aware of his power—too sure that he can pull off anything. In rare instances the poet seems to reach too far, to go for the “look-Ma-no-hands” move, as in “Damnatio Memoriae,” where a description of an old woman, a fellow passenger on a plane, flies off into the fantastical:
The old woman’s play with the window shade may have been enough to convince the poet of the scenario that follows, but the reader has no basis for trusting the story. But this is perhaps a matter of taste, a question of tact; regardless, the poet’s occasional flight into fancy is a small matter in such a stunning collection.
If the excerpts from Ornithologies have not yet convinced you to order this book, browse back through the Blackbird archives and spend a little time with Poteat’s poems. Finishing Ornithologies for a second time left me feeling grateful that Joshua Poteat is young (in poet years), and I am eager for the work to come from this gifted writer.