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Tulips Sans Chimneys

Tulips for Elsie cover image

Mr. Potter’s given us a bold adventurous book with plenty of sharp turns at high speed, with some gestures toward Neruda and Merwin but also “Sk8,” a gr8 skateboarding poem, and sonnets, and brave ventures into rhymed verse, poems for friends and relatives, “Stopping by Blogs on a Frosty Evening,” and poems of passionate love with angels looking down from above. Plus tulips and Elsie. —Garrison Keillor

I have enjoyed the company of Jonathan Potter’s poetry for years and rejoice at the arrival of this new collection with its unabashed delight, authentic intimacy, and emotionally convincing, often playful music. Potter is at turns a graceful, organic monologist and a wry, deft formalist. These are poems of generous mythmaking, self-deprecating humor, passion, and the glories of fatherhood. They inhabit a Seattle of historical icons and the poet’s own skateboarding youth, a London of “tidy grime” and love, and the derelict and divine streets and poetry community and waterfall of Spokane, this poet’s answer to William’s Paterson. By the time Potter wishes he could “become myself with vengeance / and take you with me,” he has done both. —Jonathan Johnson

In an era of poetry that plumbs humanity’s darker depths, it is a pleasant respite to read Jonathan Potter’s Tulips for Elsie, a collection that wears its pathos and its prosody lightly as it confronts life’s familiar concerns—love, sex, family life, and his beloved native place (Spokane, Washington)— with full-bodied affection and gentle irony. Many poems here are sonnets—not just Petrarchan or Shakespearean but also Onegin stanzas!—yet Potter makes rhyming in these conversationally-toned fourteeners look effortless. Particularly engaging are the portrait sonnets featuring poets and writers associated with Spokane (Alexie, Howell, Walter among them), the longer poems about the poet’s lively and accomplished daughters, and the poetic palimpsests replying to or parodying well-known classics. By the time we finish reading, we may feel ourselves, with the poet, to have “co-authored  . . . a beautiful book of longing.” —Carolyne Wright

May Day

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on the Occasion of the Marriage of Peter and Lauren

I
Lay by a sense of time, in all the works
And days that harvest out your bonds of earth
Under stars that will sift and shift like sparks
Resplendent, ever new as things that birth
Engenders deep within this bloom of May.
Now take again what time’s plenty bestows
And pluck this fifth-month day. Let no decay
Negate the moment. Build instead the rose
Deep as the hottest blessings of the sun:
Proposals are preludes to all the things
Enlightened in the asking. There’s but one
That gives an answer, shaded in songs
Exclaiming May the Sixth, a day in spring
Recalled in time: Lauren and Peter’s song.

II
Exclaiming May the Sixth, a day in spring,
The world has put its ear to earth, a kiss
Recalled in time: Lauren and Peter’s song

Is played with strings that circle squares. We bring
Our bodies to the dance, our souls in place,
Exclaiming May the Sixth, a day in spring.

But which among our million moments ring
The clocks to bring us round and feel the trace
Recalled in time? Lauren and Peter’s song.

The wine is pure, the bread is everything
That calls us to witness what will suffice,
Exclaiming May the Sixth, a day in spring.

The kiss that makes a mutual language sing.
So yours and yours becomes a single space
Recalled in time. Lauren and Peter’s song

Will play on — God bless and earth avow — these strong
And willing partner to a strident grace
Exclaiming May the Sixth, a day in spring
Recalled in time: Lauren and Peter’s song.

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Drinking in Bed with You and Lucinda Williams

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Our bed’s been drinking, spinning morning dry
As Lucinda pours her loud blood in song
From whiskey bottles, singing about why
Both love and coffee scald, both black and strong
As night – but sunlight lays its warning blade
Across your tapered thighs. There, spider veins
Put paid to what our nudity has made –
Now flush with alcohol – the blush that stains
My middle-aged desires. Your rounded hips
Are building flesh to slender curves; these rise
As, rolling on your side, you bring your lips
To mine and cut the lines that held my eyes.
The spirits, going sober, speak to bone:
We limp through love; you reconnect the phone.

Marsh Pennywort*

marsh pennywort

Marsh pennywort repays in dividends
As it multiplies interest, its coin-
Rounded leaves, dangling thin purse-strings for fronds,
Supports inflation of its foreign green –
Hard currency in wetland’s liquid time,
Precious specie preponderating pond-
Economies with toad-spawned tadpole slime,
Necessarily blessed because so fecund.

Now too, the marsh will pay what seasons played,
Yet holds interest in soil across the board
While reed and rush enriched by fluid coins
Of marshy realms devalue winter’s trade.
Resplendence sees pennywort well-prepared
To issue species: nature’s greener groynes.

*Thus begins an overhauling of my Carlos Linnaeus sonnet cycle, this time in the quatrain, alas, changing out the meditations on Genesis, which ended the old versions, for a more rounded, satisfying poem. In the revision here I attempt to stay true to the poem’s own interior logic, rather than attempting to impose an arbitrary logic on the poem based on a meditations which organically has nothing to do with the plant involved. At any rate, it continues to be a work in progress…

A few things to know about the Marsh Pennywort – while mildly invasive, it also does a good job of preserving marshlands by strengthening the soil with its root systems. Also, a groyne, as you may or mayn’t know, is a man-made jetty-like structure used to control shore erosion. Suffice it to say that the pun on the word proved irresistible.

Maidenhair Tree

gingko print

Fühlst Du nicht an meinen Liedern,
Daß ich eins und doppelt bin? – Goethe

Maidenhair tree, you living fossil (also “Ginkgo”) –
Around tomorrow’s roots you grow from ancient days
Implying leaves evolved from petals each time they blow,
Dynastic in brilliant hues. In fan shapes you praise
Early autumn’s fanfare – flower house fandango
Neglecting neither flesh nor mind. You hide to show
High courtship with seasoned arts learned in woman’s ways –
As blushing bush will show to hide what loosened stays….
Informed by loneliness, your autumn-baring limbs
Release your leaves upon the cold-creek mountain air.
This plants you – orphaned phylum, species, class – and limns
Relevance to love as organic Yiji love:
Each fall you play the courtesan and let your hair
Enlighten Kingdom Earth through the pleasure that you give.

Rain and Fog and Straw and Man

Morning Fog

Like hushed antiquities ensconced in crates,
Excelsior, and mummy’s cotton gauze,
This roadside farmland holds no common cause
With time or place. A breeze investigates
The dialogue of rain and fog, yet yields
No evidence of crows nor their scarecrow,
But only emptiness in open fields
That proves a second harvest – stubbled straw.

So modern man, a target on the move,
Will enter such a landscape in his mind.
His feet will neither sound nor mark. The mist
Envelopes them, and rain is quick to drive
The point – the past erased or redefined,
Mere straw to scare the crowing nihilist.

Photosource(no relation)

Oath and Abundance

visitationFor Elizabeth, on her birthday

Elisheba, young Aaron’s wife, saw
The scorching sun and torrid sand
On Israel’s treck avow no shadow
Nor soothe the azure sky – such land
Where all the colors drained from Eden
And drowns a rainbow’s hope for heaven…
The voided desert shades refuse,
In justice, spectrum’s seven hues.

Elizabeth, though, aging wife to
Old Zachariah, sits and rests
And waits to see her promised guests
Descend the everlasting hills now
From heaven’s blue – her mantled earth,
An advocate for mercy’s birth.

Hear, Here, the Goldfinch at the End of All Fence Lines:

FenceLine

picturesource

Autumn cries its hues, both burnt and hurry-harried –
Fox kit’s brassy exile-cry wassailed on spring’s wind.

Here, too, sloughed straw is drawn out and quartered, carried
Houselessly by goldfinch through canebrake, bracken-shinned,

Where crows shelter in a famine-branch of absence,
Tarry in tarry clumps amid tree-limbs’ smoke-pitch.

The gilded goldfinches flit in flame-tipped chevrons,
A panoramic whole, yet more a part by much

Of house-search, home lust, at the end of all fence lines
Where weathered wood of corn-crib and tobacco shed

Posts fascinations, falling slant with manqué rains
At the end of all fallow fields, marking what could

Make the finch declaim with barren bran, golden tare,
Harvest’s hatch, winter-cinched, abiding by its fire.

The Lydia Stone

judas kiss

Condemned to shine, it’s rubbed or cut and set
Within a thorny gallery. Clean to bone,
The chasing hammer cleaves – and eyes forget
Their first impressions, leaving God alone.

With perpendicular inlay of place
And time, such stone is cold as early spring;
Its dogwood winter strikes a lifted face
For silver coins; it sounds the golden ring.

Its standard currency becomes the name
That royalty bestows with spreading palms.
It bites against the grain; it drills for flame
As shadows beg to seize at midday’s alms.

The ancients rightly called it βάσανος
For proving mettle with a tortured kiss.

Look what came in the mail

chron poem 3

 

chron poem1

Must be Potter’s neighbors…

revhousefront

…because they also have a house of words.

Furth Steps Forth

… when firemen pried up planks from the sidewalk near the north end of the block, intense heat drove them back. The basements of buildings were roaring furnaces …

Jacob Furth, dressed in tails and top hat,
was hastening across Western Avenue
when he saw smoke rising around a slat
near the curb. He hailed a fire crew
busy hauling hoses toward the dock
at Pier Two, then knelt on the boardwalk
to get a closer look. Felt the plank
for heat. As the firemen began to yank
loose the boards, Furth stepped back
to survey the entire block. Up the street
there was a shout, then a blast of heat
as the firemen fell back, their faces black
with smoke. Furth stepped forth … nervous …
the basement itself was a roaring furnace.

Moran Calls For Help

Noria

The fire had crossed Second Avenue, and was heading up to Third. Smoke could be seen in Tacoma, and the roar of the fire heard for miles. Help had been called in from Tacoma, Portland, and even Victoria, B.C. …

Realizing their geoduck was cooked,
Moran raced into the offices of the Sunset
Telephone-Telegraph Co. and unhooked
the contraption himself. “Get
me Tacoma!” And Portland and Victoria,
B.C., and then, remembering a noria
he’d seen on the faraway Kickapoo
River, put out a call for someone he knew,
had heard legend of, anyway—a Wisconsin
firefighter by name of Paddy or Mick
O’Somethingerother, who with a single lick
and a little spit could put out the fire in
Hades itself. “The name? People are dyin’
here! Wait; I got it … Get me O’Brien!”

Disillusionment at Four O’Clock on a Thursday Afternoon

By four o’clock, most residents knew
downtown Seattle was finished.
After crossing First and Second Avenue,
billowing and bellowing, undiminished,
the towering inferno climbed to Third.
The roar of the fire could be heard
for miles around, and smoke was seen
from as far away as Tacoma. Between
the heckling crowds and their abecedarian
abilities, some of the volunteers dropped
their buckets on the spot, stopped
by their own worthlessness. Marion,
Madison, and then Spring were consumed
in a matter of minutes. All doomed.

Epilogue: Moran Speaks from the Grave

This simpler house provides the meaning
To days and weeks and months and years:
I hear coyotes’ crafty keening
Regale the hills. I watch the bears
Awake in spring to feast and famine
Astride the banks and pawing salmon,
A chance to tip the slippery scales.
I watch the baleful breech of whales
From deep beyond what depth imagines –
An eagle spins a thermal wheel
As heaven hears the loon and teal
Refrain Seattle’s fire legends…
What starts in serendipity –
Is finished in serotiny.

Happy Birthday Dear Pushkin

On Pushkin’s birthday, eighteen-eighty-
Nine (ninety years old the bard
Would be, but for romantic fate he
Gave up his life, a cast-off shard
Cast off too soon), Seattle kindled
From gluey scrap where sharpies swindled
The downtown down-and-outers out
Of weekly pay for Skid Road clout
With seamstress’ skirts and garters seeming
Undone for doing what we do
When left to our devices, through
The rise and fall, the devil’s steaming
Pile of what you will, a choir
Of angels singing round the fire.

John Back

“When I throw the water on, the glue flew all over the shop into the shavings and everything take fire.” … shortly after … John Back left Seattle.

John Back, a Swede with lanky beard,
Was heating glue and feeling sick.
The glue smell always made a weird
Sensation in his throat, like thick
Molasses spread on char-burned toast
Each time he took a breath or swallowed.
John turned his back and thought a ghost
Said something in his ear. What followed
Made John wheel back around to see
The glue, now hot and getting hotter,
Was boiling over — blazingly —
Which made John grab a pail of water.
The water spread the gluey flame
And John left town and changed his name.

The Grand Inquisitor rendered into an Onegin Stanza

Christ came, and seen by all Seville,
distracted good folk from feeding sticks
to a hot fire under an iron grill,
where lay well-done, screaming heretics.
Amidst His miracles passed the Roman
Catholic cardinal, erect gnomon
to His shadow, Grand Inquisitor,
finger pointed at the visitor.
“Is it thou? Be silent! Off to prison!
For fifteen hundred years, we ate bread
blessed by thou. Really now; the dread
spirit of dessert supplies the frisson
de plaisir
we require. Enough tricks! We
prefer fire, crackling and whistling. Dixi!”