Review by Cheryl Snell (email)
ZERO DEGREES AT FIRST LIGHT
by Christine Potter
David Robert Books, P.O.Box 541106, Cincinnati, Ohio 45254-1106; ISBN 1-9334-5644-2, 68 pp.,$17
Christine Potter's Zero Degrees at First Light is a collection of poems that takes nothing for granted. Her voice, experienced and clear, can also be vulnerable and unsettled. She tells us about life--about moving into a 200 year-old house, teaching with laryngitis, an encounter with The Crazy Old Lady Who Lives Across the Street. Her narratives and meditations, many written with extended, refracted lines, observe the common scene until the universal reveals itself anchored to a particular moment, supported by insights arrived at organically.
Many of these pieces are filtered through an almost elegiac tone. We watch Potter walk the tightrope of our times with heightened awareness that the next moment may change everything. "How quiet / we are, lost in the complicated normalcy of whatever is changing around us, / whatever is endlessly saying goodbye." ("Last Warm Night on the Patio at the Italian Restaurant")
She sometimes pinpoints presence becoming absence with images of disappearing:
The roof line of your grandparents' house
fades to cobalt, to indigo, and disappears in the night
like a round stone dropped in deep water.
("To My Husband, Who Dreamed of Tidal Waves as His Father Was Dying")
And, in this poem about grief:
The best is like waiting for snow
all day: see it begin, see the most tender
flakes dissolve in a creek that barely moves.
Soon enough, everything else just disappears."
(Talking to Beethoven, 1967)
The relationship between nature and self is explored with appreciation and respect. Images of light and sound from the physical world often connote the fluidity of escape, a sense of vacancy, a poignant lack.
So it all tumbles apart after an hour or two of watching:
splashes of blue tangled in clouds, the stars
bleached out, hidden under day, invisible as inner rooms
of a neighbor's house. Everything but light lies.
(To My Husband, Who Dreamed of Tidal Waves as His Father Was Dying)
It's someone's wedding veil, that light over the brook--
and how fast water moves under the footbridge,
its strange, loud brilliance.
("Sleeping in an Empty House")
These lines, grounded in nature, open out into a statement of faith--
You believe in exactly what comes tomorrow:
bright, harmless fog that clouds the windows
as if something enormous had breathed upon them--
mercy that's blind, and steady as time.
("Tornado Warnings After Dinner With Your Family in Indiana")
Attention is the faculty that Simone Weil called "the very substance of prayer." These poems attend to the senses, drawing us in with images that are precise, startling and evocative. Potter wends her way back in time and forward in psychological space, and an unknown place--the 200 year old house, for instance--begins to give up its secrets. "We haven't seen the single, perfect beam, half-covered with bark / and marked with the swing of a forgotten axe / that still supports the kitchen."
In "To My Husband, Who Dreamed of Tidal Waves as His Father Was Dying," the movement of time pushes us to think about the departures and arrivals in our own lives. "You and I have not arrived, yet. Your father / has just been born, and the story of what will happen next / is taking a breath before it can go on." Eliot says, "Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning," and Potter comes to her conclusions patiently, all the while condensing and distilling the perceptions she gathers.
The poet's contemplative tone doesn't exclude joy or humor. Her subjects are not constrained by the form in any of her more traditional poems. She has a modern style inclusive of traditional elements and the poems are accessible, with no forced rhymes, meanings that are subtle and resonant. The following sonnet's simplicity yields a complex emotional center:
On the Closing of Ichi-Riki, Nyack, NY (Where I Have Eaten For Twenty Years)
When dining on sashimi seemed as dear
as ninety-minute phone calls, out of state,
to boyfriends I should never have gone near,
I came here anyway and cleaned my plate
of everything except that spikey herb,
the garnish, near the ginger and wasabi--
but since I'm older, I am undisturbed
by doomed relationships, my former hobby.
Now I can order toro without guilt
and easily afford to pay the bill,
this restaurant's closing and my youth is spilt.
Epiphany at last; I feel its chill:
time's passage is the most expensive dish,
a truth in life and love--and in raw fish.
The final couplet briskly brings the details in this richly textured picture to a satisfying close.
"Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see," Ruskin once said. A sense of recognition and renewal is evident in the poet's reach toward the metaphysical. The war poems recall the blurring of vision often examined in Denise Levertov's war poems.
6:40 AM, Just Before the War
It's always been January,
salt blown like tired snow to the curb,
sky salt-colored but for frostbitten pink
toward the East, in the squeaking cold.
The sun rises battened under thick clouds,
indifferent to day as someone who flicks on a light
in an empty room. He's forgotten the name
of the people who live downstairs,
and doesn't believe Spring will ever come.
He pulls a grey sweater over his head,
just to hear static crack in the wool.
I used to know him, but not anymore.
On television, the President keeps speaking
and speaking about queasy possibility. I wait
for the blizzard I dreamed of last week,
but it doesn't matter; they always load the planes
in January. Already, the war correspondents
comb their hair in hotel mirrors,
too tired for reason, the winter too far gone.
My favorite poems from this luminous collection are an affirmation of a basic truth--being alive embraces both pain and joy. This is one of the strengths of Potter's poetry: her vision of the temporary and dangerous nature of life coupled with a deep appreciation for that life. To tell us about it is her job as a poet, and she does it very well.
Cheryl Snell is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Flower Half Blown and Epithalamion and a novel, Shiva's Arms.