The River’s Asylum: Joshua Poteat’s Steampunk Pastoral

Anna Journey

The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again). Diode Editions, 2014. 29 pages.

For the Animal. New Michigan Press, 2013. 23 pages. $9.00.

“In the asylum’s cadaver room, // a janitor holds his lantern in wonder / over a bucket of breasts cut from the winter’s dead,” Joshua Poteat writes in the title poem to The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again), one of his two recently published chapbooks. Although Poteat is consistently drawn to grotesque figures, baroque language, and ghostly, neo-gothic landscapes, he’s also a poet of restless aesthetic inquiry whose stylistic and formal approaches vary considerably among his two full-length collections and three chapbooks. In the spirit of Keats’s fluid and flexible “camelion Poet,” Poteat continually seeks out alternative ways to reimagine his worlds, which are both natural and made universes.

What Poteat’s worlds have in common is their dedicated imagistic palette (creepy Victorian esoterica) and their particular positioning of landscape: a genre I’d define as the “steampunk pastoral.” Here the “daguerreotyped acres” of early-industrial, Southern landscapes appear as the elegiac cusp of a lost Golden Age, a mythic and gothically seductive era pre-dating the manifold corruptions of contemporary urban life. Poteat braids or collages such arcane scenes with a contemporary speaker’s often melancholic, philosophic reveries. Instead of the simple Sicilian rustics of Theocritus, however, Poteat favors complexly beleaguered nineteenth-century grotesques. And instead of Marlowe’s pleasant dales dotted with fragrant posies and lambs, Poteat’s figures trek the eerie, disintegrating countryside streaked with “the creek of wild bees” and where “the animal in black needlerush pulls apart the century.”

Poteat’s oeuvre charts the poet’s departure from his debut’s lengthy, braided narratives and toward the shorter, elliptical lyrics, prose poems, and erasures of his second book. Furthermore, the range of Poteat’s formal choices enlarges with each new work, as most recently demonstrated in his forays into intertextuality (the erasures and modes of collage in The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again)) and disjunctive psalms (the incantatory, neo-baroque beast fables in For the Animal). While many poets who publish chapbooks do so as precursors to full-length collections (as is the case with Poteat’s first chapbook, Meditations, the poems of which he includes in his full-length debut), Poteat seems to view his two recent chapbooks as self-contained volumes for work that is more determinedly experimental.

Poteat is the author of two full-length collections, Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World (University of Georgia Press, 2009), published in the VQR Poetry Series, and Ornithologies (Anhinga Press, 2006), winner of the Anhinga Prize for Poetry, as well as one previous chapbook, Meditations (Poetry Society of America, 2004), which received the National Chapbook Award from the PSA. In these three collections, Poteat proves himself to be a remarkable poet of historical meditation and complex narrative weaving. His most characteristic poems are lengthy descriptive-meditative lyrics inflected with ghostly landscapes, sensational figures, and a beguiling array of nineteenth-century curio-cabinet esoterica. In Poteat’s work, we encounter historical phantoms (Robert E. Lee, Walt Whitman), Southern Gothic grotesques (an albino boy, an asylum employee charged with incinerating owls, “coal-quay whores with wooden legs”), macabre fantasias (drowned loves with “crawfish teething their hair,” a speaker who imagines a death-by-beekeeper’s-daughter: “A sack of bees over my head”), anachronistic sites of industrial production (matchstick factories, tobacco plants), arcane tools (bone chisels, bayonets), apocryphal gizmos (the “Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs”), antique texts (a book of Irish curses, the “Uniforms of the American Revolution Coloring Book”), intertextual devices (a parodic index in his first book that catalogues the many birds that appear in Ornithologies, an appendix in his second book featuring visual diagrams by the German engraver J.G. Heck), all of which he reimagines and assembles through a neo-baroque, and often contemporary steampunk, sensibility. In this same vein, Poteat is also a talented visual artist, specializing in light boxes and collages, often layering snippets of Victorian portraits, baroque typefaces, and vintage scientific illustrations over earthy, wood-grained backgrounds.

Along with grandfather Whitman and the usual suspects of Southern Gothic fiction—Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner—the governing influence on Ornithologies is Poteat’s former mentor Larry Levis, another poet of the grotesque and of the expansive, historically layered landscape. In Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World (subtitled “From J. G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science”), Poteat responds obliquely rather than ekphrastically to Heck’s Victorian engravings of enigmatic steampunk doodads, creating a series of jittery fables of melancholic reflection on physical and metaphysical ruin that “correspond” loosely to Heck’s images, a selection of which Poteat reprints in an appendix. In his second collection, Poteat departs from his elaborately woven narratives and cultivates a starker, more compact lyric mode informed by the ancestor of gnomic, elliptical poetry, Wallace Stevens; the ghoulish, neo-gothic delta-surrealism of Frank Stanford; as well as the second-generation neo-surrealist Mary Ruefle, perhaps especially her book of erasures, A Little White Shadow. The poems in the fourth section of Poteat’s Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World, titled “Appendix One,” for example, are erasures of the poems in the book’s first section.

In his new chapbook The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again), Poteat inverts this structure by placing the chapbook’s erasures first, before the original poems that comprise the source texts. This way, Poteat confronts the reader more aggressively with the visual gaps and semantic instabilities of the skeletal redactions. In a section of the initial poem, an erasure entitled “Farewell (and Hello   ),” for example, we encounter such lines as:

We want

                                                the river’s

asylum, its                                    ruined

                gowns

 

                                                of reeds,

                            its

 

                                                            handsome

                                                twilight

These lines—a radical condensation of several passages of a capacious narrative poem that’s been turned into an erasure—read like a pointillist’s neo-baroque. Here, the “asylum” is a different noun entirely from the asylum evoked in the source text, where a hospital janitor stands over a mysterious vat of amputated appendages: “a bucket of breasts.” In the erasure, the “asylum” is an abstract rather than concrete place—the word “asylum” transforms from an institution for the mentally ill to a form of protection for those who would seek shelter. Poteat’s “double” versions of his poems, in which words morph into different signs and where characters recede and often vanish into the pastoral, act as a kind of carnival mirror in which the object and its reflection in the warped funhouse glass appear remarkably different. This mode of intertextuality—Poteat’s “mirroring” of his erasures and their source texts—celebrates the radical perceptions of postmodernism: a vision that arises from multiplicity, randomness, and contingency. It’s as if, too, through redacting his Whitmanic, narrative-driven poem, Poteat distills the more elliptical lyric impulses of contemporary neo-baroque writers, such as Lucie Brock-Broido or Brigit Pegeen Kelly, both of whom have a similar interest in sensual language, macabre or mythic anachronisms, and vertiginous figurative associations inflected with imagistic and linguistic extravagance. Additionally, Poteat’s erasure revises his expansive, conversational idiom and enacts an austere, unstable syntax, filled with visual spaces signifying redacted material—bits of narrative that have receded—and staggering enjambments.

Later, we encounter the sections in the title poem, “The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again),” from which the erasure’s passage derives:

Knowing this won’t help much.

We want a face, a guilty look over a rabbit’s grave.

              The foxglove, the cornflower,

 

                      the sky from the river’s daguerreotyped acres.

                                          ~

We want a scene, a place that remains real,

              despite all this sad-getting-in-the-way-of.

The asylum, its awnings loose and ruined
              in the wind, the patients dressing the radiators
with soiled gowns.

              No, not that one.

The heart can confuse. A field of reeds, then,
a sycamore, the janitor undressing on the riverbank.

                      Yes, that will do. Stare at it.

Forget everything that grows around it.

                      If it’s possible, and I’m not sure if it is.


                                          ~

 

                      Thorn-grove of the blind: handsome lamb: harvest this day.

 

                                          ~

The heart knows nothing of this place,

              walking beyond the asylum’s gates
and through the mist of poplar seeds,

fluff and hilum, heron’s nest
                      in the rotted heights,

but it’s not a question of knowing
              the landscape and what hovers in it,

              of how it disappears into the horizon.

It’s how a sycamore bowing to the twilight
              beside a barn becomes ours now

                      by simply being there.

“The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again)” could be a template representing the style of Poteat’s early work: its gothic setting (an arcane asylum), its pastoral Victoriana (“the river’s daguerreotyped acres”), its rich alliteration and assonance (“fluff and hilum, heron’s nest
/ in the rotted heights”), and its braided architecture of narrative detail and philosophical reflection. Significantly, all of the source texts Poteat uses to compose his chapbook’s erasures are markedly similar in subject, structure, and style to the long, descriptive-meditative poems of Ornithologies, particularly the poems from the book’s section, “Meditations in the High Branches.” It’s possible, then, that the source texts, titled “The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again),” “Meditations in the Garden of the Blind (with Whitman’s Specimen Days),” and “Meditations in Desert Snow,” were composed during the period of his first book. Thus, we might understand Poteat’s recent intertexual gestures as a commentary on the place of narrative in his current aesthetic investigations, which is to say: the erasures of his descriptive-meditative poems enact a dismantling of narrative and the rejection of its touchstones: character development and recounting a sequence of events that unfolds over time. Poteat’s steampunk pastoral, in his erasures, offers us fragmentary, mobile-like flashes of landscape—potent instances of a more complete “story” to come. In “Meditations in the Garden of the Blind (with Whitman’s Specimen Days),” Poteat self-consciously critiques his own descriptive-meditative mode and the artifice of pastoral poetry: “and I can’t do this anymore, not again, // listing the rain’s earnest voices, / room by room the false animals sing.”

In For the Animal, Poteat’s other recent chapbook, the poet “lists” all kinds of voices—the “false animals” that become fabular, metonymic figures for our culture’s myriad inhumanities. The eighteen sections of Poteat’s For the Animal form a series of short, disjunctive beast fables, each one nine-lined, end-stopped, and propelled by a mock-liturgical anaphora (all lines begin with the phrase “For the animal…”). The nine end-stopped lines that comprise each section of For the Animal act as pensées: thoughts gathered, sequenced, or collated into a single larger gesture. The autonomy of Poteat’s individual lines provides each section with an almost visual effect; each line as it falls into its liturgical pattern has the force of a single brushstroke in a calligraphic Asian character. Take, for example, the sixth section of the sequence:

For the animal regrets what makes looking possible.
For the animal is destined to petition the dried blood of day.
For the animal is adored and collects skins of the animal.
For the animal is obsessed and kills time with the animal.
For the animal eradicates the eternal.
For the animal hums at the blossom.
For the animal is unpleasant in the marsh and the salt that clings.
For the animal binds us to our boyhood sickness.
For the animal holds the nail gun against the rotted foot.

In this section and in all of the others, Poteat explores the genre of the beast fable as well as adopts the quasi-psalmlike anaphora of Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century homage to his cat, an untitled fragment from Jubilate Agno, in which Smart begins, “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. / For he is the servant of the Living God.” Poteat’s rhetoric in For the Animal, however, is more ironical than playful. Smart’s meditations on the divinity within all God’s creatures—namely his cat Jeoffry—move with an elaborative and logical mode of association whereas Poteat builds his meaning disjunctively, via the juxtaposition of fragments. Through assembling macabre images of mortality (“the dried blood of day,” “skins of the animal,” “the rotted foot”) and jarring, existential aphorisms (“For the animal eradicates the eternal”), Poteat creates a collage-like framework of metaphorical association of fractured “prayers” both to and “for” the animal.

Instead of praising the divine within the animal, Poteat insistently reckons with the animal within the human and the human reflected within the animal. In section twelve of For the Animal, for instance, the animal is a composite of humans—fractured yet multiple—as if glimpsed through the eye of an omnipotent, vatic insect recounting a continuous fable of vice and ruin, evocative of Gnosticism’s lower world of imperiled flesh:

For the animal was a girl once and was afraid.
For the animal was a dead man in the sweet-gum tree.
For the animal’s affliction is unreliable and coats the grass like arms, like
     wind.
For the animal transmits its grievances on the black sound of lice.
For the animal remembers evil and sends out fires that are very like
     stars.
For the animal in 1900 taps on the window to test its muscle against life.
For the animal is a godless brother sleeping in your garage.
For the animal rubs its money cut on the amputee’s wheelchair.
For the animal’s room ails, hymn-to-hymn, graffiti on the bridge-sway,
     a tourniquet.

Hypnotic, nightmarish, melancholy, and animistic, Poteat’s pensées often recall the work of W.S. Merwin, specifically his poems’ incantatory music and apocalyptic mythos. Similarly, too, Poteat employs totemic figures that embody the agony of a culture in which a kind of “primitive” spiritualism has, like “a godless brother sleeping in your garage,” become irrevocably and mournfully displaced or diminished. Even language, Poteat suggests, strives to communicate and define its unstable signs “on the black sound of lice”—a darkly elusive and even parasitic medium. Like the “animal’s room” which “ails, hymn-to-hymn,” so do the sections in For the Animal progress “hymn-to-hymn” in a supplication by the human animal to those mysteries that seem to determine our lives.

Whether subverting the buoyant liturgical optimism of Smart’s iconic beast fable in For the Animal or experimenting with intertextual structures in The Scenery of Farewell (and Hello Again), Poteat’s restless aesthetic investigation is admirable and exciting to witness. If at the heart of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” lies the drama of identity, then at the core of Poteat’s eclectic vision exists the drama of our marvelous yet mortal landscape, specifically the myriad ways one reimagines its baroque spaces and beguiling inhabitants. Although Poteat’s artistic unpredictability leads him to experiment broadly with narrative and lyric modes as well as various formal devices (hymns) and constraints (erasures), his sensibility remains constant: he’s drawn to an early-industrial, Southern landscape and the vulnerability of its creatures, both of which reflect the grotesquerie, extravagance, and multiplicity of our times. As Poteat writes in the final poem in For the Animal: “For the animal mosquitoes the veil, reblooms the air, sorts through the hailstones for the right twilight.” Poteat’s vision contributes to our literature the genre of the steampunk pastoral, in all its hybridity and stylized éclat.

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