Potter, Claire. Acanthus. Giramondo Publishing, 2022. RRP: $25, 84pp, ISBN: 9781925818956.
In the classical account Claire Potter retells to introduce this book, an acanthus plant regrows around a basket of precious items left at a child’s grave. This is despite the plant’s tubers being buried under the basket, which is also weighed down by a tile. Acanthus is thus a fitting name for a sequence of twining, florescent poems that have roots in the heaviness of loss, sometimes alluding to stillbirth, relationship breakdown or terminal illness—‘My mother’s mauve // fingers like mice along the bedrail’ (38). Moreover, these poems seem to have required a long struggle to develop, mature and be gathered, with Acanthus not appearing until twelve years after Potter’s previous, and first, full-length collection, Swallow.
Reviews of Swallow were mostly laudatory—Sandra Burr called it ‘extreme poetry’ with ‘rich complexity’ and ‘irresistible beauty’, and Sarah Holland-Batt praised its ‘intertextual play, resistance against resolution, and […] ghostly literary echoes’—but Geoff Page expressed frustration with its ‘ultra-romantic diction’, noting that Potter was a poet of exceptional ‘metaphorical density’ who was ‘willing to risk obscurity in the pursuit of it’. More neutrally, Paul Hetherington remarked that much Australian poetry at that time, including Potter’s, was suitable for ‘people who wish to work relatively hard at their reading’ (51–52). This remains true of Acanthus; as Beatriz Copello points out, these poems are ‘dense with layers of subtexts, hidden meanings and references’. Since Swallow, however, the showiness and experimental language-play have been dialled back. The seventy-three pages of poems in Acanthus display a mature, confident style: while still intensely lyrical, the writing is evenly paced and generally uses unbroken, unselfconscious syntax, allowing lush imagery, fluid rhythms and ear-catching turns of phrase to do the work and—in Sarah Day’s words—‘enrich one’s experience of the day to day’.
Daily experience anchors these poems in a particular kind of life—the kind that includes gardens, flowers, birds, ‘camomile tea’, ‘dried lavender in the bedroom’ and ‘trinkets and paisley / shawls’ (42, 62, 31). It also involves dog-walking, cooking for a child and swimming alone in a London pond as ‘willows whisper / and shimmer like sea anemones in the breeze’, suggesting a longing for a distant ocean (64). Potter was born in Perth and now lives in London, and most of the poems seem to be set in England or, sometimes, Australia—but this life has also been lived in Rome, Pisa, Venice, Paris and New York. It involves not only the luxury of travelling between continents and seasons, but also the sadnesses that can bring: in a ‘blank wintertime’ that contains ‘nought of what counts’, the speaker resolves to ‘make a meal of bottled birdsong / of cold flowers’ (43). This kind of life is illustrated in vivid language that readers with similar lives will relish; however, its details are so heavily foregrounded that readers whose lives are very different may find it hard to empathise with the sorrows and joys that underlie the poems.
A particular kind of mind, too, inhabits these poems. It is the kind of mind that is comfortable invoking classical figures (Icarus, Antigone) and literary forebears. Unlike Swallow, Acanthus does not include notes except where quotations are used, but extensive reading clearly informs the work. Rimbaud, T. S. Eliot, Judith Wright and others are named, and there are many allusions. ‘Out from elms, floating and rising’ seems Whitmanesque (33); ‘It’s 6pm and I’m pulling on my jeans, detaching gum from my pocket, ratcheting my fly and running out the door to meet you at a reading’ echoes Frank O’Hara (16); and a city fox ‘weightlessly veering off into a sleeve of shadow as if no more than a fox on my street’ is perhaps also a reminder of Ted Hughes’ thought fox (15).
As well as noticing plant, animal and human natures and presenting them in close-up, this kind of mind—an artist’s mind—might have disturbing dreams and imagine surreal places and creatures. Potter seems refreshingly unembarrassed about revealing these, perhaps because she has learned to do it without cliché. Writing is done ‘on the seabed’ (17); a bedroom is invaded by a weirdly morphing ‘man-fish’ (56); ‘my mother’ is a swooping black bird whose ‘wings rake the pond’ (64); an eyeless ‘salamander’ is ‘cloven in the coals’ of a fire (59).
Often, these poems start in mid-action or mid-thought, without any scene-setting. Where the imagery is clear, this presents no difficulty, but I struggled with the abstract vagueness of openings like ‘The years plot vagrancy in delicate lines’ (40) and ‘Even threads of pink and yellow wildflowers / pressed into a circle of summer make a ruin’ (64). Until one has read the rest of the poem, possibly several times, thinking about how the parts might connect (and googling ‘circle of summer’), these openings remain merely words: rhythmic and delicate, certainly, but inscrutable. Although I agree with UK poet Carrie Etter that ‘reading’s goal is not to decode but to inhabit the text on its own terms’, and that people should stop asking what poetry means (Etter 122), ignoring meaning seems inappropriate for these poems because they are so replete with stories, both explicit and implied, that they seem to beg the reader to ‘decode’ the thoughts and memories of the mind they portray. The reader must, indeed, work hard.
If we are prepared to do that—to read closely and thoughtfully—these poems, which may at first seem impenetrably tangled, gradually reveal their layers. We begin to see through the greenery to the basket of treasures and the reasons it is there.
Burr, Sandra. ‘Review of Swallow by Claire Potter’. TEXT 15.1 (2011). Sourced at: https://www.textjournal.com.au/april11/burr2_rev.htm.
Copello, Beatriz. ‘A review of Acanthus by Claire Potter’, Compulsive Reader, 19 May (2022). Sourced at: https:// compulsivereader.com/2022/05/19/a-review-of-acanthus-by-claire-potter/.
Day, Sarah. ‘Inhabited Space: Subtle Edge-Work in Two New Collections’, Australian Book Review 443 (2022). Sourced at: https://ww.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/archive/2022/june-2022-no-443/978-june-2022-no-443/9209-sarah-day-reviews-acanthus-by-claire-potter-and-glass-flowers-by-diane-fahey.
Etter, Carrie. Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets. Exeter, UK: Shearsman, 2010.
Hetherington, Paul. ‘Sometimes Difficult, Always Diverse : Aspects of Contemporary Australian Poetry 2010–11’, Westerly 56.1 (2011): 50–66. Sourced at: https://westerlymag.com.au/digital_archives/westerly-561/.
Holland-Batt, Sarah. ‘Dwelling in Multiple Possibilities: Claire Potter’s Swallow and Cameron Lowe’s Porch Music’, Southerly, Long Paddock 72.1 (2012). Sourced at: https://southerlylitmag.com.au/72-1_lp-sarah-holland-batt.
Page, Geoff. ‘Pleasures and Risks’, The Canberra Times, 20 May (2011), p. 25. Review of Swallow by Claire Potter.
Poet and writer Jackson was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. She works as an editor and a casual academic. thepoetjackson.com.