Book Review: House of Words

Reviewed by Joseph O’Brien

House of Words
By Jonathan Potter
Korrektiv Press, 2010
94 pp., $15
ISBN: 1439258031

“Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” Penned in a letter to her sponsor and editor T.W. Higginson, Emily Dickinson zeroes in here on what the human imagination is about when it sets down to create—although “create” is not quite the word we want in this case.

Unlike God, who truly creates ex nihilo, humans only make to the degree that they possess a certain sort of wisdom for cooperating with the “stuff” from which they compose their art—that is, God’s creation. For a painter, that stuff is oils, brushes, canvas; for a sculptor, stone, bronze and the cajoling of the chisel; for the poet, at its most fundamental, this stuff is, as Hamlet sasses off to his Uncle Polonius, “Words, words, words.”

Witnessing to the disintegration of New England’s Puritan tradition, Dickinson sought to reinvest her own “house” with greater ghosts of meaning than those which haunted Cotton Mather and Co. Absent religion, she saw that art could serve as a last great locus and ultimate liaison between the present world and the next. She also saw in art the evidence of man’s unique place in the universe—his singular capacity to people his house with shadows and phantoms. For once upon a time, God created the world—and He left Adam to name it. While Adam continues to look on what he makes with pride, he may no longer believe his words adhere to a greater moral universe. And yet he can’t shake off the feeling that he’s being watched . . . .

It is this same sense of haunted loss which Walker Percy refines in his own “Christ-haunted” understanding of the 20th century: “When the scientific component of the popular wisdom is dressed up in the attic finery of a Judeo-Christianity in which fewer and fewer people believe,” he writes in his book on language Message in a Bottle, “and men try to understand themselves as organisms somehow endowed with mind and self and freedom and worth, one consequence is that these words are taken less and less seriously as the century wears on . . . .”

So the poet has his work cut out for him: to resurrect words by breathing the “ghost” of meaning back into them. Through this process, a consummation between the imagination and God’s creation, every word has the potential to rise like Lazarus and every poem has the dazzling ability to shiver the spine and afflict the stoutest soul with gooseflesh.

It is no small thing, then, for Spokane poet Jonathan Potter to gird his first book of poems with this same aesthetic. Published by Korrektiv Press—an offshoot of the blog (to which this writer is a regular contributor)—House of Words assumes Dickinson’s view of art and shows how language—words—can still go bump in the night and elicit a meaningful response from the reader. (Incidentally, the book’s cover image, “House at Fishtrap” was taken by Rick Westcott, featured photographer in this issue of Dappled Things.)

Indeed, Potter builds his house of words with a patently disciplined imagination. There are poems about words and poems about things. Forming a thematic whole, the poems build his rooms, each with its own function, character, and attending spirits. From the porch to the bedroom—that is, from the introductory poem written to his wife (to whom, significantly, the entire work is dedicated) to the final sonnet sequence celebrating their marriage—the reader enters the house and takes a tour of the poet’s discoveries—startling, beautiful and culminating in a restored faith in words:

Build me a house of words
A house of how and why
And I will live in it with you
Under the silent sky,
For we will tell each other
Things we would deny
And believe them by and by.

In House of Words, Potter’s poems avoid the pedantic by hitting upon and presenting throughout the book the perfect ambiguity of words—both their frailness and their strength. As the opening poem “Wordsong” states, “all words here lie”—a marvelous line which doubles back on itself with its punning finale. Words in Potter’s house do lie, in fact; and besides being found lying about everywhere in the book, they’re laid down everywhere as a construct of composition and contemplation.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that “words” are a constant theme throughout a book of poems, worked with Horatian precision into variations, magnifications, and elaborations. For instance, it’s a part of the mystery of language that the poet can find himself a stranger in his own house, “My inkwell heart filled up with shards of light/ And left a trail of words I couldn’t write.” Abandonment by the muse is re-imagined as a cold barren darkness, “I was . . . / . . . wishing for a word/ that might function/like a solar panel,/ storing up the last of the light/ for later use . . . // No word came though . . .” (“November Reverie”).

In “Parable,” the poet finds he can only escape the darkness of life by “wriggling out of it word by word.” In another poem (“Valentine”), clenched in the teeth of winter, lover and beloved try to decipher “the words of the icy moon.” At times, the house is too big (or the lexicon too small) for expression so that “all you have/ Is this white page/ With hardly enough words to fill it” (“Jacob’s Ladder”)—at other times, wandering from their home address “Vagabond words and/ hooligan syllables/ lisped up to me in the alley” (“Stop-Word Animation”).

Outside of the book’s concern for words in general, there are fantastic moments in House of Words for the things of this world—always suggestively haunted by the things of the next. For Potter, words function most effectively when they echo in the memory.

By maximizing the various relationships and patterns of words—in repetitions, correspondences, variations and counterpoint—Potter’s poems slowly twist out in pleasant epiphanies and relentless ironies that chase down the mind long after a first reading. For instance, in “Letter,” a childhood incident prompts a jarring meditation on time—ever the same and ever changing: “Two small friends drop a leaf in a stream/ And when it floats away too far to see/ They run to catch it and bring it back again.” As the friendship skips ahead to meet itself in time, though, the heady joys of love are muted by more sober intrusions:

In your letter we are the same two friends
thinking about that New Year’s Eve
we danced home to keep from falling.

The thought flutters out,
a magician’s dove,
and we are the audience of the moment.

Your letter spirals to the stream
and I walk home, not stumbling now,
only kicking through the leaves on the sidewalk.

And by the time the fourth part of House of Words rolls around, we who have been invited in are all “the audience of the moment.” Potter achieves in this section a cohesion of vision and composition which brings into nice focus the book’s concern for language and ultimate meaning.

Comprising a sonnet sequence celebrating marriage, the last section begins with the words of “The Proposal”—“I had you on the line that night, and we/ Were talking about our families, I think”—which first draw the beloved into the lover’s house of words. Speaking on the phone becomes a kind of transference whereby, carried over the threshold, “your voice forming a pattern like black lace,/ I closed my eyes to let your soul appear.”

Serving as coda for the sequence—and the entire book—the sonnet “Insomnia” draws the search through this haunted house of words to a close in the marriage chamber. The burden of words (“My mind at war with words that fall/ Like hail to rattle coffin lids and bones,/ My skull and brain, so empty and so full,”) threatens to destroy the harmony of the house by disrupting its natural order. Even his academic belief in God’s existence—“I think he doesn’t but believe he does”—is only a bleary-eyed sort of comfort:

The night begins to lead me down these paths
That circle round a mirror in the dark.
If God is love, then I will bear the wrath
Of love and build a bed to ease my ache.

If not, then I will still ascribe to sleep
This house and promises I’ve tried to keep.

The poem moves quickly from the agnostic speculations of a late hour to the first dawn’s light of affirmative belief, but not without the requisite sleepless suffering. In the end, though, the sonneteer sticks by words—Abraham-like, prepared to sacrifice all for faith—and words return the favor by serving him at his moment of greatest need.

In fact, he sticks by these last words in House of Words because they amount to his word—his promise—given to his beloved, in good times and bad, rich or poor, in sickness and health—and he breathes them like a vow, given freely, without reservation and in love.

Joseph O’Brien lives on his rural homestead in Soldiers Grove, WI, with his wife cecilia. Together they are having the time of their lives raising hell with their eight children: Barbara, Seamus, Bernadette, Norah, Liam, Anastasia, Mara Naomi, and Lucy. He is currently working as a staff writer for The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, WI.