Marrow of Summer
by Andrea Potos
52 poems, 64 pages
Price: $16
ISBN: 978-1954353121
Publisher: Kelsay Books, 2021
To order:

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

If I had to choose but one title from all of the titles of the poems listed on the contents page to capture the essence of this collection it would have to be the penultimate one: ‘Always Believe Something Wonderful Is About To Happen’. Not only does it stand out from the rest, being the only title written in italic script, (being a quote from Sukhraj Dhillon), but it also underlines the fact that in every poem there is a sense of gratitude for everything, no matter what. This is a book of hope.

The word ‘marrow’ in the title of this collection is not so much to do with the pith or pulp of plants, or even the soft tissue that is to be found in the hollow of our bones, but more to do with exploring what is essentially the essence or best part of something. Such an exploration helps us to appreciate and rejoice in the inner meaning or purpose of everyday occurrences and things.

The cover design by Shay Cullighan aligns itself closely to the text of ‘In Early Summer You Start to Understand’:

… the deep hours of June with green lathering over

everything, and the tall stalks of daisies swaying so close
you can almost hear inside their yellow cores;

Reading these poems, it is clear that Potos draws inspiration from the poetical works of John Keats and Emily Dickinson. The former is mentioned prominently in at least five poems and the latter in a further four. There is humour here, too. This is particularly evident in ‘Imagining Heaven’ and ‘Conversing With Keats’. The latter is an imagined 200th anniversary celebration at which Keats himself is present welcoming visitors to his home in Hampstead. Potos places herself in the persona of one of the visitors:

I gave him news of a poem:
‘a most beautiful title’ he told me.
We conversed of the burgeoning spring
beyond his windows, the nightingale he’d been relishing
at dusk these past days…

before she floats away from him and out of the room. Both poems are somewhat surreal and inhabit the kind of space that we associate with dreams.

In the same way that Potos finds herself inhabiting Wentworth Place, she also inhabits the Emily Dickinson Museum. Here, she seeks inspiration and wonders if she can ‘float along the lost thermals / of her thought’.

Artists such as Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo are another source of inspiration. Colour, too, is a major contributor. ‘Revelation in Retail’ is, in itself, an ode to colour.

Two companion pieces in the book entitled ‘Partial Syllabus of Red’ and ‘Partial Syllabus of Yellow’ explore in more detail this aspect of colour. Even though the poems are not presented side by side, it is interesting to compare them and to examine their component parts. Both poems provide us with additional vocabulary to describe the different types of red or yellow. For red, for example, we have vermilion, burgundy, carmine, crimson, scarlet, etc., and for yellow we have chrome yellow, lemon yellow and golden ochre. The first poem describes how cochineal is derived from squashed female bugs that live in the prickly-pear cactus in Mexico. The second poem describes how a partially transparent deep saffron mustard yellow pigment is derived from tapping latex from the gamboge tree in places like Cambodia and Thailand to make a colour that is used to dye the robes of Buddhist monks. Both poems then go on to describe how these colours were used to illuminate, in the first poem, medieval manuscripts and in the second, sacred pages. Both poems refer to the use of these colours in cave paintings found at Lascaux in southern France. Both poems mention Helios, the sun god. Stylistically, the first poem comprises 18 lines in six triplets and the second 16 lines in eight couplets.

The word ‘partial’ crops up in another poem title. Potos has a fondness for this word. This time the poem is called ‘Partial List of First Lines’. Sometimes poems are better known by their first lines than they are by their titles and it is not so long ago that older books contained an index of first lines as well as a contents page. The seven first lines that comprise this piece do not, however, match any of the first lines in this collection. Instead, they could be taken as an invitation to poets to create their own poems from these small beginnings. so that, as Potos says in ‘When A Certain Word Comes To You’ they might find themselves ‘rippling along / waters leading somewhere hopeful’. In other ways, the piece reminds me of Roethke’s desire to leave many of his poems in a state of partial completion; to write nothing but fragments. Straw can feed a fire.

In addition to writers and artists, these poems are very much orientated towards family members and friends. Potos dedicates her book to ‘all the beloveds, gone on’. That word ‘beloved’ reappears later on in the short poem entitled ‘Of Prayer Now’ where ‘before sleep comes’ Potos says that she conjures them all

finding again
their magnanimous, smiling faces –
my queue of beloveds,

In so doing, Potos remembers ‘love in all / its past and present forms’.

In ‘Creating’ Potos recalls her grandmother, her ‘Yaya’, working on the hems of dresses on her Singer sewing machine and then, in the second stanza, Potos makes an effective transition to her own ways of being creative with pen and ink on paper. Heaney did a similar thing with his poem ‘Digging’ comparing the work of his father with that of his own craft as a writer.

The poems about her mother are tinged with sadness but there is beauty in them too. In ‘Finding My Mother in an Emily Dickinson Poem’ (a found poem) Potos writes movingly about the moment of her mother’s passing:

my mother lapsed away
that blue-gold afternoon –

my mother made her light escape
into the beautiful.

Those words ‘lapsed away’ are blissful in their associations of gentleness, quietness and rapture. It is a leave-taking as effortless and natural as a leaf falling to the ground.

In ‘Daughter Home’, written during the pandemic in 2020, Potos expresses her joy at hearing her daughter’s laughter

….from two floors away, when
I see the dinner table set for three and not two,
the dishwasher loaded with extra bowls
and flatware…

Everyday objects, human emotions and spiritual insight are at the core of what this book is about. Even though many of the poems are short, they are full of colour and startlingly memorable in their quiet repose.


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