Ornithologies

Ornithologies

by Joshua Poteat
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From Blackbird: Every now and then one comes across a collection of poems that had to be written, poems sired neither by tenure desire nor by that mechanical, peculiarly American need to produce for production¿s sake. The poems in Joshua Poteat¿s first book, Ornithologies, winner of the 2004 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, are of that rare genus that pulse with emotional, intellectual¿and dare we say it, spiritual¿urgency. These are not poems of the contemporary narrative school of poetry whose undeclared mantra says ¿this happened to me and here¿s what it means¿ this poet has a medium to express, and the medium is expressed exquisitely. To be sure, the ghostly hand of Poteat¿s teacher and mentor, Larry Levis, to whom the book¿s final poem is dedicated, exerts an anxious influence over these pages, evident in self-reflective gestures such as ¿when I was young and loved every girl that breathed¿ and ¿I will not say they were the eyes of my father, / although I would like to.¿ The nods to Levis notwithstanding, the echoes in Ornithologies are as subtle and difficult to pin down as the many birds that alight on the lines of this collection, which concludes with an ¿Index of Birds,¿ just in case you missed the poet¿s wink. After all, there is no such word as ¿ornithologies¿¿there is only one study of birds, ¿ornithology,¿ which heretofore has encompassed all birds. Poteat takes liberties with the plural to suggest, perhaps, that a single study will no longer suffice, that disintegrated, niche or nano views are now our only means of piecing together a world. The book opens with a startling figure of fragmentation, if decapitation can be so euphemized: On the side of a desert road a headless dove, its body a basket of ants, basket of creosote stems. To live at all is to grieve and from what life did we gain this trust, awake each dawn to find the bright air full again, rustle and coo in the widening palms? This ominous lyric, ¿Nocturne: for the Doves,¿ first of the four nocturnes with which the collection opens, points toward the darker Romantic tradition¿not Wordsworthian incantations of seedtime and setting that have served as modus operandi for modern poets such as Lowell and Bishop, but rather the mysterious, alchemistic Romanticism of Coleridge and both Shelleys. The dove, ancient symbol of love and peace, lies headless, and its image creates an opening for multiplicity¿a swarm of ants, the rustle and coo of living birds. The dismembered corpse is replaced, or redeemed, almost as quickly as it was presented, ¿the bright air / full again.¿ Perhaps most striking in this poem and throughout the book is this young poet¿s ease with the declarative, the quiet, almost offhand assertion, ¿To live at all is to grieve.¿ Poteat reminds us that, at its best, poetry must also tell. When is the last time a contemporary poet awakened readers with declarations as weighty as ¿Habit is the devil¿s glorious invention, like I heard war could be,¿ or ¿Love leaves us dull with nothing to say¿? In ¿Our Memory, The Shining Leaves (Waterford Fair Civil War Reenactment),¿ the poet takes on the granddaddy of subjects¿war itself¿and makes a case for the poet¿s conscious mind in the modern world: And as the light carries us to the hill as though we are flying into ourselves, shouldn¿t we finally, after all of this, understand our lives? Shouldn¿t we say what we meant to say? Like Walt Whitman, that other singer-explicator of the Civil War, Poteat reaches through and beyond the songs of self to examine the responsibilities of one man in a social, conflicted world. While the indebtedness to Whitman is obvious in both the book¿s pseudo-ornithological structure (including index!) and