Summer reads 5: Claire Potter’s Acanthus

Claire Potter, Acanthus: New Poems (Giramondo 2022)

Anyone looking for a clear, accessible introduction to contemporary Australian poetry would have trouble finding better than Martin Duwell’s website Australian Poetry Review. Every month, he publishes an informed, thoughtful and helpful review of a recent poetry collection.

I went to his review Claire Potter’s Acanthus because I was despairing of my ability to write coherently about this book, even though I enjoyed it immensely. Reassuringly, his post begins by describing these poems as ‘simultaneously fascinating and challenging’. He quotes from the Author’s Note that accompanied his review copy (and which undoubtedly accompanied mine, but was lost when I packed for my summer away from home):

Many of the poems traverse the clarity of a dream-like state: diverting from an imaginary centre and meandering across strange ground. As with all poetry, fragments matter; figures and objects – as if on the level of the bee – are significant; unintelligible feelings turn into a blueprint language that errs and wanders in order to find a resting place. Nothing in the collection was fixed beforehand, you could say the writing took place in order to think a way through, think about certain things or events that at the time didn’t have any formal presence in my mind . . .

Duwell describes this as ‘a fascinating attempt to make sense of – or to make a whole out of – very disparate poems some of which are extremely strong’. He then goes on to his own fascinating discussion of the poems, with plenty of examples. For a general introduction to the riches of this collection, I recommend his essay.

Having talked about the poetry as challenging, which could be code for ‘unreadable’ but isn’t, it’s even more desirable than usual that I talk about one poem in detail. One that that grabbed and held my attention is ‘The Hidden Side to Love’ (page 25). It was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Meanjin, and you can read it without my commentary at this link. Here goes:

The Hidden Side to Love

All summer, the bees worked 
between bells of laburnum

sockets of foxglove, blades of lavender
-– they saw a task and rose to it

There’s nothing problematic or ‘challenging’ in this economical evocation of a garden scene. There’s a strong sense of place in many of the poems in this book. Claire Potter is from Western Australia and currently lives in London, and though this garden could be in Australia, the setting feels very English. I’m pretty ignorant about plants, and had to search images of laburnum and foxglove. ‘Bells’ and ‘sockets’ capture their appearance nicely. But why ‘blades’ of lavender, which I think of as puffy rather than sharp or straight-edged like a blade, even a blade of grass? It’s an unsettling note: I don’t think it leads anywhere, but it keeps the reader slightly on the alert.

I busy myself with the washing 
untwisting funnels of sock, boughs of jumper

rosettes of flannel

After the brief description of the bees in the garden, comes this sweet, straightforward metaphor. Bees rise to their task with the flowers; the poet/mother rises to hers in the house. ‘Bells’, ‘sockets’ and ‘blades’ had enough of a suggestion of domesticity to lay groundwork for this leap; now ‘funnels’ suggests a similarity of shape to the sockets of foxglove, and ‘the ‘boughs’ and ‘rosettes’ bring garden images into the house. This comparison of animal and human labour has a long tradition – I think of the famous poem found in the margin of a medieval manuscript (‘I and Pangur Ban, my cat – / ‘Tis a like task we are at’).

In spare moments I put words in the freezer 
reheat coffee, fill inkwells

I stir out hot dinners

Ah, it’s not just the housework. The bee-like work also includes words, ink, quiet time with a second cup of coffee. The transition isn’t clearcut, but almost dreamlike: one minute you’re putting, say, leftovers in the freezer, then you look down and they’ve turned into words. Putting words in the freezer could be a metaphor for taking the volatile medium of speech and freezing it into words on the page. Writing poetry is part of the work being compared to bees’ labour.

But the housework reasserts itself – dinners have to be cooked, and stirred, and by implication put on the table for someone to eat.

Passing along the hall sheaved in light
I imagine a nectarous meadow

I think of waxen wings brought thudding 
to the ground

I look down at my dress and see spikes of burdock 
thistles in plaits hanging to the ground

In the context of the quote from the Author’s Note above, you could say that the simple metaphor of the first six lines is an ‘imaginary centre’. Now the poem moves to a ‘dream-like state’: first ‘I imagine’, and ‘I think of’, then ‘I see’. In the course of these next six lines the poet has come to experience herself as a bee – a giant bee wearing a dress, but still in some dreamy way a bee. All isn’t rosy: bees can be ‘brought thudding / to the ground’. The poet-bee has burdock thistles clinging to her (I had to look them up: they’re spiky). If you had to imagine what the pollen that sticks to a bee’s legs would look like if magnified a thousand times, you could do worse than picturing a head of thistle. As far as I know, however, burdock thistles aren’t a danger to actual bees, but the poem is meandering (as per the Author’s Note), and this giant bee is encumbered by them. Or – if we tie this image back to what we know about actual bees – the stuff sticking to the poet-bee’s dress is somehow part of a greater purpose.

The import of the image of woman with thistles trailing from her dress as she walks down a brightly lit hallway is resolved in the next lines, but before it’s resolved the image has stood in surreal splendour..

Crayons, soldiers, ropes of daisy 
the couch, the doorknob, the stairs –

They all gather to me

So yes, these objects that demand the poet’s attention – children’s toys and other detritus, fixtures and places that need cleaning – cling to her, like pollen perhaps, or like something that will send her thudding to the ground. They are he real-world equivalents of the burdock thistles.

Until I stand and rub my hind legs emphatically 
until I disengage everything

to its proper place 

She’s a bee. She rubs her legs together, disengages the pollen and deposits it in the hive where it belongs. ‘A place for everything and everything in its place’

and emerge like a queen

This isn’t a biology lesson. A worker bees can’t become a queen. But a poet-bee can. There’s a sweet mock-heroic tone here: once you’ve got all the cleaning done and everything is in its place, you can have a moment of regal satisfaction. Roseanne Barr used to refer to her sitcom character as a domestic goddess. My first boss, the managing editor of a small publishing company, used to describe herself as managing a household as well as a company. These are achievements not to be dismissed or belittled. What in my younger days we used to call shit-work can actually be a source of great satisfaction, the achievement of beauty and order in one’s environment.

made anew from decades of trying

To hark back again to the Author’s Note, the poem has erred and wandered until it came to a resting place – and then it wobbles. The last line doesn’t negate the triumphant transformation into queenship, but it does apply the brakes a little. This cheerful point of view didn’t come automatically: it took years to arrive at.

But what’s love got to do with it? I think of Kahlil Gibran’s phrase, ‘Work is love made visible.’ (Link to his poem ‘On Work’ here.) The tone of this poem is long way from Gibran’s. For a start, this work is visible only to the person doing it. Other people are implied: someone wore the clothes she sorts, eats the food she prepares, plays with the toys she puts away. These others – presumably a partner and children – aren’t visible to the reader when the work is being done, and by implication the work is invisible to them, hidden. The old feminist slogan, ‘A woman’s work is never done, or honoured or paid for,’ comes to mind. The poem manages to hold Gibran’s epigram and the feminist slogan in place at the same time, neither negating the other.

There’s so much more in this book. But that’s what I’ve got capacity for today.


I am grateful to Giramondo Publishing for my copy of Acanthus

One response to “Summer reads 5: Claire Potter’s Acanthus

  1. Great commentary. And, among other things, thank you for “I and Pangur Ban, my cat.”

    Liked by 1 person

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