Charles Potts: Inside Idaho
For a few years, at the tail end of graduate school and the nose end of my post-graduate life, I wrote many reviews and essays about poetry, most of them very critical, some of them snarky, some even caustic. I’m not sure now why I chose to write that way, other than the books I was reading really did leave me feeling dry and uninspired, but soon enough the job of trashing even poems that I genuinely loathed became a chore. So, I stopped, but lately I have again felt the urge to write about poetry, instead of just writing poetry, to find some contemporary poets whose work I can dive into, read deeply, and learn something from. My only agenda is to try and stay away from the standard reviewers tool box: no poetic genealogies (unless absolutely necessary), no armchair psychology, no breathless-but-nonsensical praise; even if I dislike a certain kind of poetry, I will at least try to learn to read and judge it on its own terms. Then again, I might have another agenda, one (or more) that I’ve hidden from myself, and at least one goal of this project will be to investigate my own preferences and predilections, poetic and otherwise. I will try to do at least one a month, and if anyone has suggestions of poets I should read, please shoot me an email.
Two-thirds of the poems in this collection appear culled from previous books by the author, which account for the 1996-2007 bit in the title, and also for the absence of a mention of “collected” works, since the bulk of the work here is new. The distinction between a collected works and a bundling of previous work with a substantial number of new poems is important to reading them, I think, especially considering the author here has written a huge number of books, none of which I have read. I am not reading through the entire story of Potts’ development as a poet, in other words, I am reading something about his development in a particular 11 year period, and about the choices he made to represent this period. It’s also possible that this is just a hodgepodge, that Potts didn’t have enough material for a new book so he borrowed some stuff from earlier ones, but I’m going to assume the choices were intentional.
The first two sections of the book, “from 100 Years in Idaho,” and “from Lost River Mountain,” are the previously published sections, leading me to believe they were written earlier than the rest of Inside Idaho. Already these titles indicate a strong attention to place, and to the state of Idaho in particular, and indeed most of these poems treat rural Idaho as both Brahman and Atman, so to speak, the source of inspiration and the form that inspiration takes, the diction, word choice, and so forth. Having never been to Idaho, I am further distanced from Potts’ work, but my first reaction is to assume all poetry rooted in a sense of place desires to transcend that place and seek a kind of universality, like the best work of Frost or Jeffers or Harjo &tc., but I’m not sure that reaction is correct. Perhaps rooting ones’ art in a particular geography through the use of distinctive place names, flora and fauna, cultural experiences, and so forth, is actually meant to resist universality, and my reaction is simply a prejudice that a work of art should strive to communicate something to every person. Come to think of it, resisting universality this way is in fact communicating something, and something universal: this place is unlike any other place. But now I’ve gone too abstract and in any case, the more I read these poems, the more I see that Potts is really writing about Potts, and Idaho is just where that happens:
I remember Idaho from some preposterous angles
With the good sense to leave out the private parts,
Unlike the other log cabin that Grandpa herb built near
Darlington with 1896 excised in the header
Still standing as a loafing shed with no foundation,
Or the Teppenyaki banquet after Dad’s memorial service
Where everyone went fishing for flipped shrimp in the air
(“The Homestead Act”)
Most of the poems in the first two sections—actually, most of the poems in the book—treat Idaho as a place of memories, a site for re-living, for comparing and annotating the poet’s present world:
Passing near Clyde in Little Lost
Where my mother wept and worked to teach
All eight grades in a one room school house,
Two golden eagles a mile apart,
One on the roof beam of a barn,
The other on the cross arm of a light pole,
Ignore my grand noisy motion in their panoramic eyes.
The Toyota Tacoma is too big and indelible to bother with.
In each of these excerpts, Potts maintains some emotional distance from the Idaho that haunts him, which helps them succeed as works of art more than other, more directly emotional poems later in the collection. The raw emotion on display in the final section, for example (“Wild Horse”), has a more immediate effect on me because of lines like “I am responsible for children in a world about to unravel / And nothing I try to do about it seems to help” (“The Crumbs of Christmas”) and “Gone forever / But still here inside me / In my crying arms and bones” (“Wild Horse”), because they are naked expressions of pain, and thus I would like to comfort the speaker. Then I remember that I am reading a poem, and I’m not sure what to do with such expressions anymore. The poems in the final section are about Potts’ wife dieing suddenly, hit by a car while on her bicycle, but really they are about Potts dealing with that event, much as his poems about Idaho are actually about Potts dealing with Idaho, and perhaps that’s where my problem starts: such pain as Potts feels is real and palpable, and worthy of great sympathy, but when stated this plainly, it’s no longer a sad song, it’s a song that the singer has broken down in the middle of, sobbing. The idea that the song is so sad it causes the singer to break down in fact has dramatic potential, but Potts seems more interested in revealing what he felt than in creating a drama that will carry us along. The poems are, in that sense, unidirectional: he tells us something about how he feels, and we hear, but what we feel is not so important, which, in light of the tragedy, is understandable.
Understanding however, is not quite enough, as uncharitable as that must sound. The earlier poems work best when they sweep along, using sudden line breaks to propel the reader through an experience. The poems in the middle sections, “Lullaby of the Lochsa” and “Sunburnt Romantic,” take more chances with form and tone and so are more striking, both when they succeed and when they do not, and a concern with the poem as a made thing is most palpable here:
Just past a sign for Looking Glass
What about this famous Indian Chief
Rear View Mirror
Sung Dynasty clouds
Hanging in the tops of pine trees
Pilgrimage to Pahsimeroi
The granite on the roadside
Slick with water
(“Lullaby of the Lochsa”)
The reference to the Sung Dynasty in almost too much, given the poem’s shadings of classical Chinese poetry-in-translation, and this influence (along with classical Japanese) is scattered throughout Inside Idaho. More of it would be welcome, in fact, since a greater focus on the on objects of sense and less on what the poet was feeling or on sudden, bland philosophical ruminations (“How can beauty be so useless / Or does it have to be practical, any use at all?” –”The Wreckage from Red Hill”) would, I think, help many readers stay entranced. Again, though, I wonder if that’s the point: to my mind, good poems convey meaning while subduing the ego of the reader, hypnogogically lulling them into the world of the poet. If that idea holds, then suddenly wondering, after a fairly hypnotic section detailing a trip into the mountains, if the beauty of the world means anything has the effect of interrupting the reader in the midst of a revery with something a great deal more dull than mountains. Could this be the point? If it were done more regularly, and with more force, perhaps, but these moments are too artless in their artlessness to seem like the work of artistic intent, just as many of the poems in the final section are too focused on their own pain to seem like they are interested in comparable pains the reader might feel.
I have had little to say about the rhythm of the poems, since most of them depend on a visual, prosy rhythm, and are heavily reliant on sudden line breaks, as mentioned earlier, so the real rhythm at play here is the way the images are arranged, the way the different pictures and ideas “rhyme,” so to speak. It’s hard to imagine these poems being read, though I’m sure Potts reads them, I just have a hard time imagining what he does with them. As sets of images and impressions, the rhythms generally work, and there are enough interesting juxtapositions at play, as should be evident from the selections above, to keep me interested. I’m glad to have read these poems, and to have learned more about the person who wrote them—I worry that I have missed something, however, as I don’t have any desire to re-read them, which is something I value in a poem. Perhaps I need to learn to better value art as the transitory coalescing of sense impressions that is surely is, or maybe it’s a matter of scale. In any case, thanks for the poems, Mr. Potts.
Also, I listened to some CDs, as I continue to try and listen to all the CDs I own, in order: 528) John Prine: The Singing Mailman Delivers; 529) Kate Bush: 50 Words For Snow; 530) Andy Statman: Old Brooklyn; 531) Tom Waits: Bad as Me; 532) Marlene Dietrich: Das Beste 1929-59.