Jacob Polley’s “Potsherds”

Polley’s “Potsherds” seems to me to echo the cadences of some of Mahon’s earlier poems like “An Image from Beckett” and “Lives” (both also written in triplets) and “The Apotheosis of Tins”. I think it’s interesting and suggestive to hold these poems together in the mind and let them play against each other, but of course “Potsherds” has preoccupations and a voice all its own, and it’s these that I want to look at.[1]

The opening lines are brilliantly paced to combine quietly understated language with imaginative sweep, especially in the dramatic expansion of perspective brought by line three:


Dug into the floors
of our houses
beneath the sea

our jars now hold
no whisper
of the cornfield

and only by their
handles can
the shapes and functions

of our ewers
be conjured
though the evidence

of intact smaller pots
fashioned for salt
or precious spice

to weigh so sweetly
in one hand
makes clear we

variously contained
as oils and alcohols
the dessications

of fish and flower
and in suspensions
of brine and animal fat

only those parts
of the world whose keeping
required of us an art.


The whole poem is a masterpiece of syntax, imposing its qualities of restraint and scrupulously weighed progression by simultaneously 1) unfolding as a single sentence that must be taken as a whole, and 2) being broken up into short lines that bring the twists and turns of its thought into focus idea by idea, image by image, almost word by word, so that there can be no hurrying towards the climax. There’s a sustained pleasure in simply reading slowly through the poem. Different tones and feelings shine out distinctly against each other. Line five, for example, brings a quietly startling imaginative shift of gear as instead of not holding a substance, as one might have expected, the jars are said not to hold a whisper. This one word evokes the living world of wind blowing through corn, the scents and sounds and sunlight of the country above the sea[2]. For me, and perhaps also for Polley, it also specifically evokes the sun of Wilfred Owen’s “Futility”, touching the corpse of a farm labourer become soldier in the First World War and “whispering of fields unsown”. Such romantic lyricism is intershot with the drily objective language of archaeological assessment and the simple pleasure of “to weigh so sweetly / in one hand”, keeping the mind and feelings on the move in a complex play of shifting sensations and modes of apprehension.

The last word, “art”, makes fully explicit what I think we’ve been feeling for some time when we reach it, that among other things “Potsherds”, like “Doll’s House”, is a meditation on the power of art (including poetry) to preserve the fugitive essences of life. It too is a variation on Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

The humility with which Polley approaches his original appears in the title – not pots but their fragments. This might suggest pessimism about art’s power. After all, Keats’ urn and its pictures are commandingly whole, even if its contents are long gone. I think Polley’s poem hints at a more positive conclusion. For one thing, although the pots it describes are shattered, the single sentence construction gives the poem itself, the verbal equivalent of the pots, a feeling of graceful completeness. Secondly, although the poem says that the jars hold no whisper of the cornfields, it is one of the paradoxes of imaginative writing that when a piece of writing asserts something’s absence it makes that thing present to the imagination. Though the jars may not hold the whisper, the poem does.

But of course the poem only holds the idea of the whisper, not its substance. This thought takes us into another fine implicit meditation on art, Polley’s poem “Keepers” (there’s an obvious play of words in the title). In this, the speaker and a companion or companions watch bee keepers raising honey combs “like golden books” and the speaker says “They could have been us, attending at last to something / of substance, with a taste and use, obvious to anyone”. “Us” in this context surely suggests poets, and the whole sentence expresses conflicting feelings about the rival satisfactions of substance and idea, of life and art.[3]




[1] “Potsherds” is quieter  than any of these poems by Mahon – much quieter than “The Apotheosis of Tins”, with its grotesque yoking together of conflicting images and ideas and its seesawing between sometimes savage irony and eerie beauty.

[2] It’s an imaginative bonus that this idea of the jars’ (not) holding a whisper may make us think of the way you can fancy yourself to be hearing the sound of the sea when you hold a shell to your ear.

[3] At risk of making the perception of literary analogies seem like a nervous tic, I’m reminded of the last stanza of Yeats’ “Meditations in Time of Civil War”:

I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair
Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth
In something that all others understand or share;
But O! ambitious heart, had such a proof drawn forth
A company of friends, a conscience set at ease,
It had but made us pine the more.  The abstract joy,
The half-read wisdom of daemonic images,
Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.

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