Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Dawn Potter: How the Crimes Happened

With a "pricked ear / canny as a bitten fox" ("Violin Recital"), Dawn Potter’s poems in her second poetry collection are full of voice: personas ranging from Eve to Mrs. Dalloway’s Peter Walsh, the loves and pains of young people, the difficulties and joys of parenthood, and a brood of hens strewn throughout to boot. The poems in How the Crimes Happened are at once moving, playful, and beautiful, and as a unified project, this book pays keen attention to balance: a collection that neither feels whimsical and limited in its scope nor gloomy.

At the core of these poems is a nostalgia for many things: childhood, young love, retro music, classic literature, and even a stolen future. In "April," lines of Chaucer are weaved throughout the poem creating an interesting pairing of classic and modern language: "on the wall Joe Strummer // smashes a guitar, slow-hand Chaucer nudges my lips— / …than longen folk to goon... / We’re not exactly tripping anymore." Potter’s poem "Protestant Cemetery" opens with the commanding statement, "Keats is dead, time’s swift apprentice / tramping the grimy London lanes, / pockets crammed with pencil stubs, two mice, / a half-penned letter of delight" which is followed by a haunting meditation on the connection between the speaker and Keats set by religion and poetry: "Dying, you came staggering to Rome to live, / choking on black phlegm and gore … Nothing we make will matter." Similarly, many of Potter’s poems pay homage to poetic tradition — there’s a litany, a madrigal, an aubade, a sonnet ("Heavy Metal"), eclogues, a poem of rhymed couplets ("Don’t be afraid to"), and an epic set at a high school basketball game, complete with epithets ("First Game").

Additionally, Potter also pays homage to rock and pop musicians, such as Jim Morrison, Barry Manilow, and AC/DC, all who find their way into her poems. And yet somehow I do not find this juxtaposition of the classical with the modern to be jarring in neither tone nor subject. In fact, this collection seems to argue the opposite: the importance that tradition plays in modern life. The two poems that bookend this lively collection, "Radio Song" and "Sleep," bridge a gap between lyric poetry and the energy and cadences of pop and rock songs. "Radio Song" ends:

… play me for a fool, I’m so,
I’m so

unsatisfied, oh clutch my throat,
cry for me, over and over,
I bite fingers, I lick salt.

The poems in How the Crimes Happened move through several different modes, at times serious and lyrical ("Violin Recital," "Touching"), while others are amusing ("Why I Didn’t Finish David Copperfield," "Ethics, a Lament"), but the poems that are working at their best are those where these polarities are married. The effect Potter creates are poems that are touched by moments of humor and gravity, that are lyric in their narration; poems such as "Eclogues," "Diner," and "Peter Walsh." These poems are like life, honed by their honesty, spurred by both music and silence. More than their lyric preciseness, their emotional integrity, is the sincerity of that emotion which is I find most compelling about Potter’s work, a quality so rare in contemporary poetry. An example of this can be felt in these concluding lines from the second section of "Eclogues":

A breath of sweat rises from your sunburnt neck,
salt and sweet. My love. Marry me, I say. You cast
an eye askance and shrug, I did. How odd it seems
that this is where we’ve landed: chasing chickens
through the woods at twilight, humid thunder rumpling
the summer sky, dishes washed, a slice of berry pie left
cooling on the counter. I’ve been saving it for you.

How the Crimes Happened brims with such sincerity.

Dawn Potter
How the Crimes Happened
Cavankerry Press Notable Voices, 2010