Review of House of Words by Jonathan Potter
Spokane: Korrektiv Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1439258033. 94 pages.
[Reprinted with permission from the 2012 edition of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature]
“These pages turn / to Ash, with love,” says, in full, the dedication of Jonathan Potter’s debut collection (vii) — a pun with purpose. This tiny sample accurately represents the whole: ardent, eloquent, the work of a poet with an ear for multiple meanings and an eye for an elegant (and often loaded) line-break. House of Words contains, by my count, seventy-one poems, encompassing sonnets, sestinas, and free verse, heights of joy and depths of guilt and the false equilibrium of everydayness, to name only a few of the book’s many modes. But the seven simple, though multivalent, words of its dedication introduce the two linked themes that, singly or together, touch every one of its poems: language and love. A poorer poet might make such common themes look barren and banal. Potter shows instead how perennial they are, by collecting poems that all, somehow or other, deal with a few specific aspects of language or love that concern him especially. And since the poems are all highly personal (in an inviting way, not self-absorbed), and since they were written over many years of the fortysomething poet’s lifetime, the book has a subtle narrative flow. House of Words is not only a poetry collection, but a decades-spanning montage memoir of Potter’s relationships with two beloveds: a woman named Ashley (the “Ash” to whom the book is dedicated) in the here-and-now; and God Himself, always just beyond grasp.
Many poems in House of Words allude to the Bible — sometimes with a wink (“Adam donned a hard hat // while Eve snuck off … / … for repeat / bargain matinee viewings of / the Bergman film in black & white– / that famous chess game with death.” “Death,” 53), sometimes with absolute earnestness (“The willows are our years now numbered nine. / Our love has roots that drink from Cana’s wine.” “The Willows,” 92). The Bible provides the links between Potter’s themes of language and love, and between these themes and Potter’s use of language to express his love for Ashley and for God: If John the Evangelist taught the truth, then God is both Word and Love, Logos and Agape, all-comprehending Intelligence and all-benevolent Will. And if the Book of Genesis is right, God made man in His image: God gave man the task of assigning human words to the creations of the Divine Word; and directed humans to love, in imitation of the Divine Love, by creating the species as male and female. Lofty doctrines, supremely beautiful and ennobling, consoling and satisfying — if true. But the possibility that it is not true has always haunted believers, Potter included. And in recent centuries, certain assumptions of modernity have made Christian doctrines appear, if not less credible, then less comprehensible in the first place. That the world is fallen, Judaism and Christianity have taught for millennia. But lately, the very vocabulary with which they would diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment has become debased. Potter sketches his own impression of this predicament in “The End of the Twentieth Century” (45). But two historical figures appear briefly in this collection, indicating the nature of Potter’s project: Søren Kierkegaard and Walker Percy, the 19th-century Protestant philosopher and the 20th-century Catholic novelist he inspired. Both men tried to describe and correct the problems of their times. (Indeed, this book’s publisher, Korrektiv Press, which Potter co-founded, takes its name from a work of Kierkegaard — see http://korrektivpress.com/.) One of the epigraphs, from Percy’s The Moviegoer, describes a boy whose “monotonous speech gives him … the same advantage foreigners have: his words are not worn out. It is like a code tapped through a wall” (3). Another, from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, reconciles the belief that “God is love” with seemingly contradictory evidence: “[I]n the temporal world God and I cannot talk together, we have no language in common” (57). Through gentle puns (as in the dedication), Potter points out that our mother tongue is a code, a system of signs — and signs signify things. Potter also frequently alludes to the names God has given us, which we can hope to recover: “[Y]ou’ll find the well,” the poet tells his Godson after the baptism, “and when you get there you’ll dive down / and come back up with the secret prize / the golden egg with your true name inscribed” (“Note to My Godson,” 20). (For a deeper look at the themes of language and love in House of Words, see Joseph O’Brien’s review in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2010 edition of Dappled Things.)
Potter’s poetry is refreshingly clear — which is not to say that it yields up all its meaning and emotion on a first reading. It does not. But its recurring images are accessible, especially (though not exclusively) to a reader familiar with the Bible. To get inside this poet’s thoughts and experiences, we do not need to hunt him through the labyrinth of his imagination. The symbols to which he returns again and again are primal, or practically so, though charged with additional meaning by the Old and New Testaments: house, sky, fire, plant life, the turning of seasons, and — especially — water. This last occurs as a spring and a well, an ocean, and, most dramatically, a river. In addition to repeating and recombining his main symbols to show off their different facets, Potter has a knack for noticing man-made things. He sees when they exist in or alongside the natural world and treats them indiscriminately, parts of a whole: The sky that the poet hungers to look at — “the blue and the gray of it, the white and the black” — contains “clouds that shroud / the birds and wires and jet airplanes… // … sundogs and moondogs and stars and satellites at night” (“The Sky,” 27). The interaction of natural forces and technology provides some memorable, fresh images for the action of grace: In “November Reverie,” the poet sits in the winter afternoon and wishes “for a word / that might function / like a solar panel, storing up the last of the light / for later use” (81). In “The River,” a deeply personal expression of the same thirst for God that Psalm 42 likens to a hart’s longing for streams, the poet confesses, “I need the power of the river / to flow through my soul, / to turn the turbines of my mind” (28).
God speaks, if at all, in the still small voice of little incidents, and the poet must himself be still to know Him. The poem that provides the collection’s title sets its tone:
Build me a house of words,
A house of how and why,
And I will live in it with you
Under the silent sky,
For we will tell each other
Things we would deny
And believe them by and by. (Untitled, 1)
The word “silent” occurs four more times in that poem’s brief remaining length. There is gentleness and music, but very little noise, in either the sound or the sense of any of the poems here. (Potter is, incidentally, a university librarian!) The stillness sometimes hints of agnosticism. Mostly, though, it refreshes the reader, sensitizing him to subtle epiphanies occasioned by such little things as “a dollar in the pocket / of a winter coat in summer” (“You and I,” 10), and heightening the impact of the occasional violent image or incident.
Potter saves his strongest language to describe his longing for the good things of creation, for Ashley, and for the supreme Goodness and Beauty of God: “Burn the lids off my eyes / with seeing,” he prays (“Psalm,” 6). Potter — like his hero Walker Percy, and the heroes Percy wrote — craves. Craving the color-changing beauty of the sky, the warmth of the last winter sun, the power and abundance of a flowing river (whether of water or of coffee), he wants to enjoy the goodness the created world can offer. Yet he knows creation cannot satisfy him, and so craves the Creator it signifies.
Absorbed in the earthly contentment of throwing baseballs at a basement target and ricocheting them off the walls — “fingering the seams, / eyeing the zone, winding up, unwinding, releasing” — the poet concludes, “Take me out to the ball game, that’s my prayer” (“Under Chub’s,” 68). In addition to this longing, Potter recreates grief, guilt, joy, recklessness, wistfulness, intellectual abstraction, and more, with originality. They all contribute to the grand design, since they all find their origin, their resolution, or both, in God. (Also contributing to the grand design are many delightful bits of puckish wit, seeded throughout the book, which shall remain unnamed so as not to spoil the jokes.) But craving — the desire for satisfaction in the present and longing for eternity — is the keynote and cornerstone of this House. It is a strong debut, a gentle corrective, an extended love letter, and a nicely wrought document of life at the beginning of the third millennium as an observant Christian.