by Dawn Potter
The need for stories, and the myths we tell ourselves—individually and collectively—in order to persevere, informs the poems in SAME OLD STORY (CavanKerry Press; March 2014; $16.00, paperback), the new collection from two-time Pushcart Prize nominee Dawn Potter. Whether working in sonnets, long narrative, or free form verse, Potter seeks to identify the commonalities hiding in the tales we formulate and pass on. From Ovid to Shakespeare and the great poets that have followed, from folklore to the symbol-infused banality of our daily lives, the poet finds the threads that bind us as humans to each other and to the world around us.
“From the mythos of antiquity, to fairytales, to nineteenth-century novels, to relief when ‘the plow guy’ shows up on Valentine’s Day, in a world where ‘newsmen/chant wind-chill rates and hockey stats,’ Potter marries the quotidian and the sublime pretty much line by line,” says Gray Jacobik. “That pairing is dictional, syntactical, rhythmical, and often conceptional as well, but always, always, the scope is sweeping and the affect—in this reader’s experience—unparalleled. In her ‘Notes from a Traffic Jam,’ the poet exclaims, ‘Oh, sometimes I fear I’ve lost the will to imagine/this comedy, this ugly beauty, this moving-picture world,’ but Potter doesn’t have to imagine it. She sees it clearly, and how brilliantly she has shaped her craft to capture it and give it back to her readers illuminated and writ large. Potter’s sustained acts of synthesis and transformation are an astonishing achievement.”
The poems, some of which first appeared in such prestigious publications as Sewanee Review, Green Mountains Review, and U.S. 1 Worksheets, are wrapped by a prologue and epilogue that reinvent the story of Phaeton, the son of Helios, who drove the chariot of the sun too close to earth. Phaeton’s recklessness and fear—“Phaeton no longer knew if he gripped the reins” – comes to embody our own earthly anxieties, played out in everyday occurrences. Another archetypal story, inspired by a Scandinavian fairy tale, is the basis for “The White Bear,” a long narrative poem that anchors the collection and explores the fragility of love when forced to conform to the confines of the world’s expectations and demands.
Many of Potter’s poems, though, are modern in their concerns, taken from contemporary experience and often rooted in a strong sense of place—in most cases the beautiful, unsparing New England landscape she calls home. In “UglyTown,” the poet writes,
The sun is under no obligation to shed its optimistic beams
on the ugliest town in Maine—not now, not in March
when I’ve steeled myself for gravel-picked mud and despair,
for broken branches and a plow-scarred dooryard
rimmed with a winter’s worth of dog turds, pale and crumble
among the pale remaindered weeds.
She always searches for the story, but is forced to contemplate, “That’s the point to remember about writing./It doesn’t solve anything.” The real world Potter observes is anything but mythic: “Trailers squat by rusted plow trucks;” “Cold wind blusters under a second-rate sun;” fathers “armor/themselves against loss, hawking phlegm/into coffee cans.“ Yet it is this very imagery of the ordinary, richly and uncompromisingly displayed, that imbues the poems with timeless power, that brings fresh insight to the same old story.
“Variously delightful in their strategies and shapes, the poems of SAME OLD STORY know that merely examining life cannot make it worthy,” says Robert Farnsworth. “Dawn Potter evokes the fragile poise of our longings. Her deft formal skills, her self-questioning wit, and her brave infiltrations of ordinary experience with poetry’s cumulative resources illuminate every page of this memorable book.”
About Dawn Potter
Dawn Potter directs the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching held each summer at Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, New Hampshire. The author of three collections of poetry, she has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Potter sings and plays the fiddle with an acoustic band and lives in Harmony, Maine, with photographer Thomas Birtwistle and their two sons.