Catherine Woodward reviews
By Kate Potts
Pure Hustle is Kate Potts’ first full length book of poetry. It is a collection about imagination, a theme which she explores from multiple angles, but her predominant theme would appear to be the role that imagination plays in the process of memory making and understanding human experience.
Making memories and understanding events involves some creative effort on our part, we use imagination to transform experience into recognisable, meaningful narrative sequences; in Pure Hustle Potts tunes in to that portion of the mind that creates as it thinks and explores miscellaneous events in terms of how they are imagined. The findings are quite exciting.
Reading Pure Hustle is a strange, Through the Looking Glass sort of experience, the imagined landscapes of many poems are metaphorised versions of our own world, the world turned image to greater or lesser degrees, the same but different. Potts has us looking at the world under the laws of imagination; complex feelings and experiences are understood through systems of imagery which are personal to the speakers and characters. ‘Resort’ is a fine example
In the other world, you wake –
spin out your limbstalks, sun tough,
electric – arch and dive in, make
no silhouette, no pool wave crest or wake
It is a slanted, thought-provoking way of viewing the world. The reader is often required to infer real events and objects from the shape made by their absence from the poems, but this is a totally natural action: the accompanying style to this abstract stance features a fascinating kind of indirect description and loosens entrenched ways of thinking about the world, about actions and time. In this way the real and imaginary can be interchangeable, so that we recognise things by their essences, not by surface description. In other words, Potts’ style makes it possible to recognise the real when it is described in terms of the imaginary.
For example ‘Hog – huddle of cottons and belly,/he’s flung unconscious’ (‘Greyhound to Syracuse’) is the initial description of a sleeping man on a coach. ‘Beyond us, the terraces heave a little in their elaborate stays,/haunch and lift, dog-keen, on bricked heels’ (‘November 5th’) is a row of neighbours watching a fireworks display. ‘The light’s buttercups – quick, mossed water’ (‘Proof, Maybe’) is a remembered amalgamation of family holidays in the country. In this manner Potts is able to bring much to mind using very little. Her poems inspire questions: whose imagination am I peering into? What is real here? What isn’t? Subtly she loosens the distinctions ‘You’re loose,/skinned – a stark brew – prodding the bag of leaves/as if it holds last tannin, last tea-kick – strong as a horse’ (‘Flit’) allows us to imagine a woman and a cup of tea in the same terms at the same time, as the same thing. There is an unparaphrasable logic in operation in these poems that allows the reader to understand this mirror image world, to feel that it is familiar, even if the reason for that familiarity isn’t immediately clear.
When Potts comes back over that border in poems such as ‘Life in Space’ and ‘Tasseography’, the real world, by comparison, appears locked off, stilted, trapped in ignorance, making these poems all the more moving. Potts’ control of her theme is commendable.
But there is an element to this collection that I found even more intriguing than all the above; as these poems are predominantly about creative thinking they are also inevitably about the process of writing poems. They are about the creative logic that selects a particular metaphor or develops an image complex, it is as if these poems are the larval stages of other poems just waiting to be written, they are shadowy and embryonic and for that reason they can be quite chilling. Potts is clearly conscious of the transformative aspect of poetry; in two of the collection’s best, ‘Insomnia Chant’ and ‘Against Poetry’, she refuses such perversions, negating speaker and poem in the process. I found these thrilling to read as examples of active deconstruction in poetry.
The kind of language used in Pure Hustle is something I thought I’d leave until the end of this review. The collection has been most beneficially praised by Jo Shapcott who puts particular emphasis on the excellence of Potts’ language. To quote Shapcott ‘Kate Potts is a poet whose ear and eye for her work are as close to perfect as can be’, Potts’ language has ‘deft and surprising turns’ and ‘intense musicality’. I thoroughly agree, but in a disagreeable way. As much as I enjoyed Pure Hustle, as much as it fascinated and inspired me I couldn’t get around the suspicion that it was too perfect. The rhythm and weighting of her sentences is aesthetically perfect, her tight-packed syrupy bars of sound are pleasing to any word-lover’s ear. One might mistakenly suspect that that Potts has put musicality first, at times to the point of grammatical pile-up. This perfection suggests contrivance, the poems lack a kind of freedom and sincerity, they lack a palpable joy in poetry. I am sure that Potts has all these things within her but if so I did not feel that they came out Pure Hustle. These poems are, as Jen Hadfield puts it ‘tightly-rhythmed’ and ‘assonance-jellied’ there is something in them that cannot escape the tight seal upon them. It is as if the poems are required to meet a quota of poetic tone, that they are being restricted by a necessary pleasantness of language.
Kate Potts’ poetry, however, is too curious, too far reaching for that to be a major detriment. There is much richness and dynamism in Pure Hustle despite the perfectionist restrictions of Potts’ language, language which, it has to be said, is after all deft, surprising and sharp. But I won’t be praising that language so unanimously. Pure Hustle is a colourful and engrossing read, particularly for anyone with an interest in creative process. I am certain that it will be rewarding. I also think that Pure Hustle’s language difficulties raise some important questions for poets: who/what are we writing for? What ought we to judge the merit of a poem by?
Catherine Woodward reviews regularly for Eyewear. She lives in the city of Norwich where she is enrolled at UEA on the Studies in Fiction MA.