blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Review | Ornithologies, by Joshua Poteat

Every now and then one comes across a collection of poems that had to be written, poems sired neither by tenure desire nor by that mechanical, peculiarly American need to produce for production’s sake. The poems in Joshua Poteat’s first book, Ornithologies, winner of the 2004 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, are of that rare genus that pulse with emotional, intellectual—and dare we say it, spiritual—urgency. These are not poems of the contemporary narrative school of poetry whose undeclared mantra says “this happened to me and here’s what it means”; this poet has a medium to express, and the medium is expressed exquisitely. 

To be sure, the ghostly hand of Poteat’s teacher and mentor, Larry Levis, to whom the book’s final poem is dedicated, exerts an anxious influence over these pages, evident in self-reflective gestures such as “when I was young and loved every girl that breathed” and “I will not say they were the eyes of my father, / although I would like to.” The nods to Levis notwithstanding, the echoes in Ornithologies are as subtle and difficult to pin down as the many birds that alight on the lines of this collection, which concludes with an “Index of Birds,” just in case you missed the poet’s wink. After all, there is no such word as “ornithologies”—there is only one study of birds, “ornithology,” which heretofore has encompassed all birds. Poteat takes liberties with the plural to suggest, perhaps, that a single study will no longer suffice, that disintegrated, niche or nano views are now our only means of piecing together a world.

The book opens with a startling figure of fragmentation, if decapitation can be so euphemized:  

                On the side of a desert road
                                                     a headless dove,
             its body a basket of ants,
                          basket of creosote stems.

 To live at all is to grieve
                                     and from what life
         did we gain this trust,
                    awake each dawn

to find the bright air
                                 full again,
        rustle and coo
                    in the widening palms?

This ominous lyric, “Nocturne: for the Doves,” first of the four nocturnes with which the collection opens, points toward the darker Romantic tradition—not Wordsworthian incantations of seedtime and setting that have served as modus operandi for modern poets such as Lowell and Bishop, but rather the mysterious, alchemistic Romanticism of Coleridge and both Shelleys. The dove, ancient symbol of love and peace, lies headless, and its image creates an opening for multiplicity—a swarm of ants, the rustle and coo of living birds. The dismembered corpse is replaced, or redeemed, almost as quickly as it was presented, “the bright air / full again.”  

Perhaps most striking in this poem and throughout the book is this young poet’s ease with the declarative, the quiet, almost offhand assertion, “To live at all is to grieve.” Poteat reminds us that, at its best, poetry must also tell. When is the last time a contemporary poet awakened readers with declarations as weighty as “Habit is the devil’s glorious invention, like I heard war could be,” or “Love leaves us dull with nothing to say”? 

In “Our Memory, The Shining Leaves (Waterford Fair Civil War Reenactment),” the poet takes on the granddaddy of subjects—war itself—and makes a case for the poet’s conscious mind in the modern world:

And as the light carries us to the hill as though
we are flying into ourselves, shouldn’t we finally,
after all of this, understand our lives?
Shouldn’t we say what we meant to say?

Like Walt Whitman, that other singer-explicator of the Civil War, Poteat reaches through and beyond the songs of self to examine the responsibilities of one man in a social, conflicted world. While the indebtedness to Whitman is obvious in both the book’s pseudo-ornithological structure (including index!) and the epigraph from Roethke, “Be with me, Whitman, maker of catalogues: / For the world invades me again,” the poet’s deeper debt to Whitman lies in the post-Romantic, peculiarly American impulse to sing and speculate simultaneously—to praise self-knowledge and self-expression in the same breath which asks “shouldn’t we . . . understand our lives? . . . say what we meant to say?” These questions are and are not rhetorical; the very asking points to the possibility—or probability—that we can neither understand our lives nor say what we meant, but that impending failure is no reason not to try, as limitation is no reason not to sing.

And sing the poet does—this is a writer with a great ear and an even greater range. Although the most of the poems are long meditations composed of the languid, sprawling lines characteristic of both Levis and Whitman, Poteat’s shorter-lined lyrics, such as “Meditation for Everything We Have Loved,” are equally if not more powerful, and perhaps even more beautiful for their brevity:

What do you love the most?
           Say the reddish work of death
as it strolls through the fields:
           The peaks of the sky

between the reeds and stream.

The opening lines of the poem reveal a poet as skilled in song as he is in story, as deft with apostrophe as he is with the third person. It’s not an overstatement to say that this a poet who will be able to do almost anything.

If there is one flaw to be observed in this rich work, it’s this: There are moments when the poet seems too aware of his power—too sure that he can pull off anything.  In rare instances the poet seems to reach too far, to go for the “look-Ma-no-hands” move, as in “Damnatio Memoriae,” where a description of an old woman, a fellow passenger on a plane, flies off into the fantastical:

Watching her decide whether to leave
           the tiny plastic window shade up or down
was enough to convince me that one day long ago

a man gathered a crown of lilacs from a ditch
           to put in her hair

and she looked at them so closely and full of wonder,
           the man knew he had it made, already
owned the pearl buttons on her blouse . . .

The old woman’s play with the window shade may have been enough to convince the poet of the scenario that follows, but the reader has no basis for trusting the story. But this is perhaps a matter of taste, a question of tact; regardless, the poet’s occasional flight into fancy is a small matter in such a stunning collection. 

If the excerpts from Ornithologies have not yet convinced you to order this book, browse back through the Blackbird archives and spend a little time with Poteat’s poems. Finishing Ornithologies for a second time left me feeling grateful that Joshua Poteat is young (in poet years), and I am eager for the work to come from this gifted writer.  end of text

Joshua Poteat’s first book of poems, Ornithologies, won the 2004 Anhinga Poetry Prize, and was published by Anhinga in 2006. His chapbook, Meditations, won the Poetry Society of America’s 2004 National Chapbook Award. He has poems appearing in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, Ninth Letter, American Letters & Commentary, Gulf Coast, and other journals, as well as in the anthology DIAGRAM.2 (Del Sol, 2006). His many awards include the 2006 Ruth Stone Prize from Hunger Mountain, as well asprizes from American Literary Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and the Arts, Nebraska Review, Marlboro Review, Bellingham Review, and River City, and grants and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, the Millay Colony, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, San Francisco State University’s American Poetry Archives, and many others. Poteat lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he works as an editor.

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