Dawn Potter Poetry — Introduction by Betsy Sholl

The Vagabond's Bookshelf; A Reader's Memoir by Dawn Potter
The Vagabond's Bookshelf; A Reader's Memoir by Dawn Potter

Dawn Potter’s new book, Chestnut Ridge, traces the history of her birthplace in western Pennsylvania through three centuries and various voices.  The poems change in style as the age changes, beginning with formal and moving toward free verse. These poems are a history lesson for us all, letting us overhear many voices from early missionaries when the area was the western front of the country, through the civil war and into the 21st century when men and women begin to shift roles.  Like Maine, areas of rural Pennsylvania have a distinct character that is slowly being eroded by mass culture.  These poems remind us to look and honor the roots of where we come from. It is a feat of skill to move through so many shifts in form and voice.  Betsy Sholl

Dawn Potter is a poet, writer, blogger and teacher who recently moved from rural Maine to Portland.

Laurel Caverns

               1802

In this year
two men were lost in the caverns for three days.

When found,
they were locked in each other’s arms
waiting for the end—

two travelers, eyes wide in the blackness,
ears pinned to the whisper of wings,
the seep of water.

When found, they were locked in each other’s arms.
Breath by shallow breath,
they had fabricated life.

Blind touch bound them.
They stole heat from the brush of a cheek,
the cup of a calloused hand.

And so they survived the ordeal
of never embracing again.

 

Standards of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors

           1914

“Nothing is censored in Pennsylvania but the poor mans amusement, Why?”
                                             —Anti-censorship banner, Pittsburgh Screen Club

The Board will condemn
any motion picture portraying
prostitutes, houses of ill-fame

a girl’s seduction, her confinement
for immoral purposes, or assaults upon women,
with lewd intent. Refrain from showing

childbed scenes and subtitles that describe them.
Pictures revealing the modus operandi of criminals
are suggestive and incite the weak to evil action.

We disapprove all murder, poisoning,
house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking,
the lighting and throwing of bombs,

the use of chloroform to render men
and women unconscious, also binding and gagging.
Do not illustrate the traffic in cocaine.

Gruesome and distressing scenes
are likewise forbidden. These include shootings,
stabbings, profuse bleeding, prolonged views

of corpses, lashings and whippings,
lynchings, electrocutions, surgical operations,
and views of persons in delirium.

Avoid scenes in which the human form
is shown in the nude. Do not undertake
the topics of abortion or malpractice,

eugenics, birth control, or race suicide.
The materialization of the figure of Christ
may be disapproved. We forbid

the brutal treatment of animals,
and objectionable language in subtitles.
Depictions of burning and wrecking

may degrade the morals of the young.
Gross and offensive drunkenness,
will never be tolerated

if women are present.
Do not exhibit pictures which deal at length
with gun play, and the use of knives,

and are set in the underworld.
Vulgarities of a gross kind,
such as often appear in slapstick

and may burlesque morgues, funerals,
hospitals, or insane asylums,
are disapproved, as are sensual kissing

and other indelicate situations.
Bathing scenes may pass the limits of propriety.
Avoid immodest dancing

and the needless exhibition
of women in their night dresses.
Do not show women in suggestive positions

while smoking. The argument that your story
is adapted from the finest literature or art
is not a sufficient reason for approval.

 

The Miner Who Loved Dante

           1924

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.
                –Dante, the inferno, translated by H. W. Longfellow

 

I haven’t wandered your way lately, Nell,
not since the police clapped me up
and I lost my shift at Number 2.

But I remember the porch of our borrowed house
and the pigeons that fluttered up from the roof
when the old lady banged her pail.

And Sue . . .  remember Sue, who sang alto to your mezzo?
In those ragged evenings, how stillness would sift
over the men, old and young, listening from their steps

or squatting outside the canteen, half-full bottles of wine
balanced on the ground between their knees.
Night opened her arms to us like a favorite aunt,

like Lena—plump, smiling, one hand at rest on my damp hair
as a hundred pigeons dipped over the river.
And all the while, Nell, you and Sue sang

of hearts, of summer, of fleeting secrets,
and we listeners believed that the songs were ours.
For no one, no one in the world, was as alive then as we were.

 

The Husbands

                2004

Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.

In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
Televisions gabbled,
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.

They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.

They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
they sat.
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.