Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World
by Joshua Poteat
University of Georgia Press 2010
Reviewed by Ken L. Walker
” the wild / horses / guts spread / across the field “
In 1979, Alice Aycock designed a sculpture that resembles the foundation of a peculiar west coast house, or simply like a boat stuck in time. The sculpture is the size of two apartments—thirty eight feet long, eight feet high—and puts the uncomplicated tool list of steel, wood, pulleys and a revolving drum on display. The Machine That Makes the World floats in the Sheldon Gallery at the University of Nebraska; it is also the title of Joshua Poteat’s newest book, which transmogrifies J.G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science into poems.
The book opens with an epigraph from Fernando Pessoa: “Science is nothing more than a children’s game at dusk, / a desire to catch the shadows of birds and stop / the shadows of grass in the wind.” A gear right-away leaps into the prologue-esque poem, “Illustrating the Illustrators,” where Poteat’s protagonist (perhaps Heck, perhaps the lyrical poet his self) claims that the “pencil” is “a machine,” as the last line seizes the reader’s shirt with a carcass grip: “We said, If death is like this, then give us more.”
A close spot later, “Illustrating the Seventeenth Century” (interestingly following in the footsteps of the hyper-realist Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal) begins in a day’s residue: “Evening comes, black wig of roots after the storm // Dandelions cataract the ditches, deserted as stars.” Later in the poem, the question “What is suffering?” gets retorted in this way “. . . It just means too much rain / can make a weed drunk with courage [. . . ] Given’s as good as gone.”
Each poem in the primary sections gracefully appraises one of Heck’s “plates,” (illustrations, basically)—black and white shaded diagrams of hand skeletons, open doors, light-ray angles, planetary orbits, bridges, telescopes, et cetera. Some “plates” reappear in facsimile form as an appendix to Poteat’s book. Heck’s quite the wormhole, having no Wikipedia page, while basically being historically evaporated; he thus emerges as an extremely interesting choice for Poteat in the sense that the emotional spectrum Heck’s “plates” conjure are not bright or flowery but perversely ornate, very similar to an Aycock sculpture.
A majority of the “Illustrating . . .” (as almost all are titled) poems reek of the cow-patch where Nietzsche and Emerson possibly stomped and danced together, seldom if at all tiring of the surrounding landscape’s guts. Poteat rarely desists from disgustingly direct truth-telling, posing as a borrower, not a manipulator and putting things back in their heavily original places while subtly juxtaposing them from the changes they’ve endured over time. This kind of licensed pilfering remains an inward act but also shares the American purpose to bastardize the outdoors and, simultaneously, forget that farms are being turned into bleak gray laboratories.
There is also a lyrical scrupulousness throughout, best exemplified in the poem “Illustrating the Thirteen Transits of Mercury in the Nineteenth Century.” This is a long, sequenced split-series prose poem dealing with Heck’s drawing of Mercury’s annual solar angles. One portion of the sequence looks like this:
Mercury asleep under the translator’s wife
I’ve never been alive. I mean fully, as a barn
becomes itself as it burns. I’ve been trying to see
how long I could keep a thing like that forgotten.
It wouldn’t be right to give it away now.
The conceptual framework continually stays in tact, in part because of the primary setup (Heck, Aycock), but also because the alteration of poetic form and content is parcel to what David Wojahn pointed out to be a “Cabinet of Wonders.” That cabinet contains intestines, moths, slugs, footprints, grass blades, gnats, briars, pigs, puffbirds, moorcocks, wrens, fireflies, squirrels, and a “fat ale-wife”. It’s an insane, boiling soup that never seems to violently erupt. One of the better perusals of that cabinet appears in “Illustrating an Answer to a Question Through the Order in Which a Bird Reveals Letters by Eating the Grains Set on Top of Them.”
I do not need muffins. The simple things most please me:
six wrens climb their grass ladders each evening
before gnats gather, the goat rakes out a place to sleep
among the pines, pink moths chew wool scraps,
and the gypsy boys piss into canoes at the bridge
If you are the Lord then we are equally men.
Here, Poteat exhibits a gristled care similar to Larry Levis, Charles Wright, or even Etheridge Knight yet completely separates his self from that vein of conciliatory conscience-analysis and draws attention to the nominal nature that throbs right outside the front room’s window. The surrounding creatures are, for the most part, commonplace organisms that have evolved alongside human beings, and thus, have evolved with the machine. They beg us to concentrate on that very notion.
Poteat does get some things wrong, especially when he tows the perforation of meaning/non-meaning. In that sense, he periodically implements a questionable sentimentality that lazily pours a varnish over clichés. Examples: “for what can one do but let the world happen?” and “Our god then was not the same god now.” and “all I could give, I gave.” and “Always keep the brightest for last.”
Some folks may also find trouble with the variance in form; he moves from indented choreographic tabular line breaks to prose blocks to (it’s true) sparsely spaced erasures. Poteat presents an appendix which acts as the final section of poetry which also erases many of the poems which appeared earlier on in the book. It’s a fascinating experiment that also permits a new reading of the preceding poems while training the normally-prepped reader for a fresh language world. Look here, at “the ebb”:
I had enough of
across the field
love , here.
The breathing room that the stringing of poems into sections and appendices allows makes reading the entire book in one sitting much simpler, compartmentalized as it may appear. Yet, also, one could read a single section per day. If the entire book were to be in prose block format or set as the above erasures sans segments, it would possess nowhere near the same lively affectations that it does as it is in its full form.
I recently interviewed Joshua Poteat, an incredibly modest man that seemed to see things in a realistically uncomplicated sort of way. He also seemed to treat the non-popularity of poetry with a healthy, gray practicality. The greatest triumph of his book as an objet d’art is its delicate recognition of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that “the only horrible thing in the world is ennui.” Perhaps the gnats and the fireflies are full of more crazed existence than most of us.