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Accidental Hymn by Dawn Potter
(Deerbrook Editions, 2022)
6 x 9 paperback; 94 pages
Dawn Potter is an empathetic and insightful storyteller of the sorrowing heart. The poems in her newest collection, Accidental Hymn, present communities and characters for our inspection, gently but insistently, and they invite us to look carefully at children, leaf-litter, and the darkness of trees and sometimes of people as well. Nothing is too insignificant for her attentive gaze, and we can see ourselves and the world around us better for this careful attention. Dawn’s speakers are the collective voice of the common person: she captures the hard-working, angry, sad, loving, celebratory voices of the Maine woods and coast, the hills of Appalachia, the house-bound and the homesick, the loved, and the lost. They are also the poet herself, using the persona-voice of a poet/ wife/ gardener/ musician. We travel with her to the past—hers, ours, and an imagined one—and we wander in the half-light of wondering what if? What now? And why? We end up feeling a deep empathy and a kinship with the myriad characters met throughout Accidental Hymn; and this, of course, is no accident.
The poem “The Maine Woods” sets the tone of the collection with its final stanza, in which the speaker tells us that “Loneliness was better/ than never coming home, / and never coming home/ is the tale I’m about to tell.” With this, we already know that there is an element of darkness that will be the subtext for many of the poems. Tone is a difficult element to pin down, sometimes: “I know it when I hear it” is often the default for many readers. Yet, tone is a controlling element in poems that capture the reader’s attention, and Dawn Potter’s control of the poem, in order to create such an evocative feeling, is worth taking a deeper look into. The poem itself is free verse, albeit carefully divided into four-line stanzas. This deliberate choice to segment the poem doles out the images and emotions slowly, in order to build dramatic tension throughout.
The poem begins with an imperative: “Don’t imagine I was Thoreau.” To disabuse the reader of any romantic notion that living in the woods, fetching water and firewood, and living on acreage removed from crowds was idyllic is important to the speaker and to the poem itself. The speaker’s choice to live alone, unlike Thoreau’s, was not a philosophical one:
For a while, I had a dog, but then the dog died. On Friday nights I even had a husband.
The poet, through both allusions to Thoreau and the use of careful craft elements such as word choice, line breaks, and the creation of dramatic tension, builds a poem that explores the fine line, the nuance, between alone and lonely, between joyful and happy. She achieves this through both line and stanza breaks, coupled with word choice:
It was important to force time through a sieve. I avoided taking strong measures with myself.
The long pause created by both line and stanza break invites the reader to consider what is meant by “force time,” and then follows the surprising image of the sieve. The next phrase, “taking strong measures,” echoes the metaphorical language used by a past generation. What exactly might “strong measures” be? Again, readers need to take a few breaths in order to allow themselves to consider that thought. The penultimate stanza employs an absolute, with the use of the word “never,” as in, “I was never joyful. Not for a moment,” and words like “begged,” “coaxed,” and “scream.” These are fraught words, carrying with them connotations of desperation and loss. Where else can the reader go? Carried along into the final stanza, we are faced again with an absolute: “never coming home,” which is repeated twice. This use of anaphora, coupled with the word “loneliness,” sets us up for the “tale I’m about to tell.” The tale, of course, is the thread we follow throughout the entire collection.
In other poems, Dawn provides a stringent look at generational and social expectations, as seen in “Disappointed Women.” The focus is not judgmental, but it is unflinchingly honest. In this poem, we are given a snapshot of recognizable women who struggle against these expectations, but who also pass on the expectations like a harsh legacy.
So, how do we get there? Again, the use of anaphora is a significant craft choice. The poem is arranged in five tercets, each of which has a repeated beginning. The first two stanzas’ lines begin with “they” plus an active verb; what the women, as a group, did, and most of it huswifery. The third stanza’s lines each begin with “One” and an active verb, but the actions are unique to each of the women:
One stored a Bible… One hoarded paper… One stared at Lolita…
This repetition serves to give the reader insight into the interior lives of the women in the poem, who, as a group, seem much alike, but singly, they come into focus with these actions. Looking at the same lines again, one can hear the repetitive echoes of “or” and the “o” sounds. Building the sonic element into a poem is crucial; poems are meant to be heard, and this, in turn, helps to create the intended response in the reader. There is a sense of regret, of woe (another “o”) in this poem that cannot be denied. Even that one line, “One stared at Lolita”; not read, stared at. What does this character make of such a book? This is a deft move, in and of itself; we know this character, and we feel compassion or even pity for her.
In the fourth stanza, the reader is given a corrective with the repeated use of “I mean,” providing further insight into the private lives and yearnings of the women. The last line of this stanza breaks off at the third “I mean,” which leads us to the final stanza, an opening into the speaker’s own reluctant acceptance of this spare heritage:
I washed my hands. I sat at the table. I ate what they gave me.
Again, we hear the intended repetition of sound; this time, it’s the “I” and the variations on “a”—an intended sigh, a flattening of desire. The speaker does what is expected of her: the subject-verb-object spare statements feel like a kind of defeat. “I ate what they gave me” speaks volumes; this is a poem of particular women/ many women, a generational chain of repressed interiority that likely resonates with every new generation of young women, but one that, we are led to understand, will probably repeat itself every generation. These characters are both personal and universal, and the experiences catalogued are also ones that reflect patterns of social expectations that span many generations.
In the second section of the collection is Dawn’s tour-de-force, “Mr. Kowalski,” a poem I have read many times, heard many times, and every single time it knocks me to the floor. Rage, fear, compassion, confusion, and acceptance all play pivotal roles in this longer poem about Dawn’s childhood violin teacher, a man who survived horrors at the hands of Nazis, who was both physically and spiritually damaged, but yet one who exacts compliance with an iron will. This is a poem of pain, sacrifice, obedience, passion, and perspective.
This is not a poem to be taken lightly, and neither is the poet. The events of the poem are tightly controlled; we travel with the speaker into her own past, the teacher’s past, and into the present, but we are never lost. The poem is divided into thirteen numbered sections, each one with a clear setting and intention. The first section is in the speaker’s present, recalling a fearful dream of crossing the Tappan Zee bridge in the rain on a moped, of facing very real fears because of the greater fear of her mother’s possible disapproval. The second section brings us to the immediate present of feeding goats, which is pleasant and mundane, but it ends with a transition back to a contemplation on the nature of fear, which is what the third section is about: fear. We meet the title character, Mr. Kowalski, in this section. He has died, and the speaker is forced to confront a complicated reaction to the news: the speaker –Dawn, we can safely assume—says, “I was appalled at my relief.” To acknowledge the very-human feeling of relief, the release from fear and confusion, at the death of someone so formidable and influential in one’s life, is both shocking and bravely stated, and the reader is taken aback, if only for a moment. Relief at someone’s death? That opens up a deeper idea, one that most of us would rather not engage with, one that we are socially conditioned not to speak aloud. It is this Truth that sets the tone for the rest of the poem, as the speaker introduces us to Mr. Kowalski’s past (sections 4-6). The speaker tells of the horrors of his younger life, how he was damaged and broken by the Nazis, and how the results changed his life –and thus, later on, the life of the speaker—in ways that irrevocably formed them both.
Section 7 starts with “Playing the violin saved my life/ could be a bumper sticker.” This is not the turn we expect, yet it is the one we need, in order to understand the fear and admiration that coexist in the narrative of the poem. In the next three sections, 8-10, the speaker tells us about her early violin lessons, her mother, her pondering about what it was like to be Mr. Kowalski, and the tortures he survived, as he “spent six hundred days under a Ukrainian pigsty/ without a violin” (Section 9, lines 20-21). The rest of the poem continues on in much the same vein; the external setting of feeding livestock, the internal musings of the speaker about training as a musician and the effect it has on her life, and the doling out of more information about Mr. Kowalski.
Interestingly, the final sections of the poem follow a recurring focus on hands. Mr. Kowalski’s hands were damaged by the torture he endured, which he was almost, but not quite, able to overcome completely. The speaker’s fingers, through years of repetition, run through octaves after octaves, “and the automaton fingers marched on and onward.” The training is both restrictive and freeing, much like the relationship between the speaker and the teacher. Mr. Kowalski had big dreams for his student, and the young girl, now adult woman, both desired and fought against the expectations. The poem ends with a prophetic line: “You must cross this bridge you are afraid to cross.” This is a directive drawn straight from the experiences of the speaker of the poem, the character of Mr. Kowalski, and of the poet herself.
There are also lighter moments in the book, such as the poem “In Praise of Boring Sex.” Today’s American culture tends to aggrandize sex, and it usually shies away from long-partnered, aging love. With this poem, Dawn bursts that bubble with a mock-heroic invocation to the reader/muse, to “Sing to the mouth-breathing body beside you.” We are treated to a short poem that elevates and celebrates the reality of mature bodies, love, and yes, cats that inhabit the bed as well. What a relief! The poem is ode-like in that the speaker is happily singing about the mundane, the things we know exist but that are not usually praised, much like Neruda’s odes written to everyday items like socks and salt shakers. Too often, people only associate poetry with highly-charged, “important” topics; this poem shows the reader that every-day people’s lives, and the “boring” things that comprise those lives, are worthy of both discussion and praise.
The collection is also a beautiful paean to place, whether it is a physical topography or an emotional one. Dawn’s long-time experiences deep in the woods of central Maine serve her well, as do her more recent explorations of in-town living in Portland. The juxtaposition of poems like “Walking into Town,” in which the reader comes up against logging trucks and dodges potholes, and the poem, “Concord Street Hymn,” with its rich descriptions of mysterious neighbors, salt-wind, and so many daffodils, creates a map of the heart, as reflected in the notion of place as almost a character in the narrative. Dawn’s work navigates the physical setting and the emotional landscape well; what is it about deep-woods-Maine living that is both difficult and praise-worthy? And what is glorious and challenging about living in a smallish city by the ocean? It’s not just about muddy roads and broken pavement; it’s more how those settings both trigger an interior voice to speak, and how they also amplify the speaker’s tone as well. “Walking into Town” has logging trucks “belching diesel” and the “soot-stained sky glowers” in advance of snow, and there are those pot-holes and frost-heaves and true material poverty. The character we meet is an older woman who is scavenging for beer cans in the ditch to buy baloney for her toddler grandson. This tender assessment of the character by the speaker, set in such an impoverished and un-beautiful place, is heartbreaking and transformative, if only for a moment.
In “Concord Street Hymn,” we are in a different setting, yet one that is connected to the poverty and grit of the other. The characters are different; one is a blowsy, loud neighbor who criticizes the speaker for being outside without a hat and for being outside so much (“‘you don’t even have a dog’”). Others are hidden behind their shades, known only by their license plates. It is chilly, early spring, and there are so many daffodils, but there are also needles on the sidewalk, sand-scarred gutters, and cigarette butts. Do the daffodils mask the ugliness, or do they balance the setting, showing us that the real world has both, needs both, in order to work? Dawn has given us tempered joy in this poem; there are both flowers and dirt, and the world she writes about is all the more recognizable because she does.
In the poem, “The Garden,” the speaker is confronted by a situation that is profoundly moving: a man, who is suffering from likely substance abuse, loss, and who is seemingly experiencing other challenges as well, needs a flower for a grave, to mark the death of a friend from an overdose. The poignancy and compassion present in this poem are heart-breaking. There is no judgment, no polemic about substance addition, no political agenda present. The poem, instead, delves into what is deeply needed: compassionate witness and co-existence.
We can start with the title of the poem: whose garden? It is helpful to know that Dawn Potter is a careful, dedicated gardener, but who else’s garden might this be, as well? While it might be a stretch, but an allowable one, given the way the poem unspools, the garden in the poem is also an echo of Eden. Innocence, abundance, and safety are lost through painful knowledge and experience, and this is seen through the compassionate portrayal of one man’s substance addiction and living with housing insecurity.
Much depends on the integrity and humanity of the speaker in this poem, one who is a persona much like Dawn herself. She says, “I am a shock-haired poet wiping my hands/ on a clean apron; how can I tell him/ anything at all?” We are transported from the request for a flower to a much larger request: humane treatment and understanding. The use of persona, and a relatively simple interchange like this, are a deeply affective and effective means by which poetry can confront complicated and troubling social issues. The dialogue in the poem is both between the characters and between the poem and the reader. What is said, what happens, and what the result of the conversation might be presents us with a compelling vignette: what would we do? What can we do? The poet and the distressed man exchange names, and in that moment, it all becomes very clear. Simple human compassion, in the face of so much tragedy we cannot hope to fix by ourselves, is, in itself, an answer.
The title of this collection insists on a closer reading of the words chosen: Dawn Potter is a careful craftsperson with language, and she is a classically-trained musician. That brings us to consider the word accidental. In music, an accidental is a note or pitch that is not part of the key signature that the musician is playing in. And clearly, a hymn is a song of praise, usually with religious connotations. So how, then, is this book of beautifully-crafted poems both hymnic and accidental? Accidental Hymn, as a full collection, has, at its core, a deep empathy for loss, especially the almost-impossible to articulate: loss of homeland, loss of self, loss of boundaries, routine, loves, and one’s own way. But it also gifts the reader with re-invented norms, a sense of purpose and hope, and occasionally, even joy. In fact, the entire collection approaches the central question, “What do you need?” (posed in “The Garden”) with a tenderness that is not weighted by facile emotion.
In this way, amid so much sorrow, there is also beauty, compassion, and moments of joyful discovery. The poem from which the title comes is the last one in the book. “Accidental Hymn” celebrates early spring, long-held love, and a shared moment of simple pleasure: “The crocuses are up!… Show me.” This poetry collection serves as a grace note that takes us out of our expected patterns and opens up new opportunities to see the world, not in dis-harmony, but in ways that guide us back into the world, to hear and see it for what it is.
Copyright 2022 Carlene Gadapee
Carlene Gadapee is Associate Creative Director- The Frost Place Studio Sessions at The Frost Place.
Thank you. I read Maine Woods and Disappointed Women. Words evoking powerful emotions. I’ll read more. I have to admit I need to recover a bit from yesterday.
I guess for me it is of no importance to develop a provocative voice compared to the importance of teaching a child to read. Maybe I can try to do both.
As said, I believe desire is a gift of energy – physical, creative, erotic, spiritual. We can’t buy it or sell it, only use it for the highest good. It is unfolding for me.