Portland poet Dawn Potter’s latest collection of poems is called “Accidental Hymn.”



The human condition

Dawn Potter captures people of all walks of life and moments

Special to The Ellsworth American

In some collections of contemporary poetry, the book will start off strong, then lose a little staying power as one proceeds, the lesser work stashed toward the end. With Portland poet Dawn Potter’s “Accidental Hymn,” you can commence on the last page, in the middle, at the beginning — anywhere — and get the impress of her writing, which is consistently brilliant. Let us consider the ways.

There’s Potter, the portraitist, empathetic yet realistic. Poems like “Barry,” “Keepsake” and “My Male Gaze” offer vignettes of individuals who might pass unnoticed were it not for this poet’s attention. In “Barry” it’s deliverymen and their musical preferences, in “Keepsake,” the high school janitor who once saw Thelonious Monk perform in Old Town.

“My Male Gaze” relates the story of Gary Strange, once upon a time “Mr. Right,” now an “oldster” posting photos of himself every other day on Facebook. An echo of E.A. Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” character studies can be heard here, but Potter is not as lugubrious as that famed poet, though she might agree with his statement, “The world is…a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”

The 13-part “Mr. Kowalski” takes the portrait genre to the tour-de-force level — if it were possible, I’d cite it in its entirety. This poignant tribute to a Polish-born violin teacher blends dream, memoir, and biography. Here are a couple lines:

 

Playing the violin saved my life

could be a bumper sticker.

One night I may glimpse it on a passing car

 

while dream-driving a moped over the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Not that it applies to me.

In Mr. Kowalski’s place, I would have died.

 

Violin lessons have appeared in previous Potter poems, as have images of backroads Maine — she once lived in Harmony — but she brings something fresh to the subjects with each iteration. The poem “la terre perdue” evokes a northern world where summer nights “sink into a blue so black / it was the wet ink of a fountain pen / it was old work shirts forgotten in the rain.”

Cemeteries are a favorite motif of poets; a short list would include Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in the Country Churchyard,” Gary Soto’s “A Walk through a Cemetery,” and Sylvia Plath’s “November Graveyard.” Potter’s “Canto” belongs on the “best of” list. Standing before the “merchant mausoleums” in the Valley of the Kings in Portland’s Evergreen Cemetery the solace-seeking poet feels “sweetened”: “Around me, the stony edited lives — / born, married, fathered, earned, died — // seemed to swell into ballads.”

Since the publication of her first book Boy Land in 2004, Potter has often turned to her family, her husband and two sons, for inspiration. This time around, “Soul” stands out, recounting how a son assumes the persona of Otis Redding. The poem includes these lines:

 

I once told the devil I’d sell him my soul

if he’d give me Aretha’s voice.

He never got back to me.

 

Such humor accents Potter’s verse. Indeed, part of the pleasure of her poems lies in the range of unusual prompts, from the Olivia Newton-John song “Have You Never Been Mellow” to an eight-track tape player.

The title poem, the last in the collection, is the finale of a series of 14 “Accident Sonnets” written between Jan. 6 and Jan. 21, 2021, “a particularly fraught period of American political unrest and uncertainty,” the poet noted in a statement last year. Where the first 13 deal with “the dread and sadness associated with this moment in history,” the 14th “makes a shift toward hope and renewal as the poet experiences the ecstasy of spring. Here are the final lines:

 

…and the man I’ve adored

for thirty years is getting out of his pickup truck after a long

 

day of hammering, and here I am again, running up

to him and crying The crocuses are up! And here he is

laughing, saying Show me.

 

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