What I’m Reading: Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World

Joshua Poteat will forever hold a special place in my poetry life. He won the Anhinga Prize the year before me and graciously welcomed me to the flock at AWP in 2006. If you haven’t read Ornithologies…go read it now. I was thrilled when I learned that his second book was out from The VQR Poetry Series, published by The University of Georgia Press.

I spent much of Saturday morning with Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World. Couldn’t put it down, in fact. Then, had to re-read much of it today. The book is a series of poems inspired by J. G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science, even including an appendix of plates from Heck’s book. However, the poems are not representational; instead, they receive inspiration from Heck and then take flight into their own wild and amazing complexity.

Sections one through three contain what I consider classic Poteat poems–poems that spread across the page in swaths of words, lush as bolts of fine silk–highly imagined and intricately wrought with an exacting attention to language. Then, there are two appendices. The latter is the illustration of the plates. However, the first appendix is a fantastic exploration in the art of excision. Using the text of a selection of poems from the first three sections, Poteat then excises and erases words and some punctuation, leaving the form of the original intact. It is a stunning act of revision that forces the eye to trace a wandering path across the page and search carefully for punctuation (a period or a comma could be lost easily in the white space). Rather than being confounded by these new versions, I found myself awed by the changed nature of the poems and their intent. Very, very cool. (Others may already have done this, but since I don’t often read widely in the experimental realm, this was my first exposure to such writing on this scale.)

As is the case with many of the poets that I absolutely love, most of the pages of this book are dog-eared. I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. Her is a random selection:

From “Illustrating the echo in arched rooms”

……………………………………. … Remove the fox

……….and there is a quiet unlike any twilight you have heard.

Remove the crown of light above the fox’s head, and nothing
………………will be the same again, not for you, for your family,

for your village and its one path to the river where spiders

…………draw maps threefold in sand, there under the trees

where the foxes rest, deep inside the arched rooms of their dens.

It is so hard to choose, but here is another:

From “Illustrating the construction of railroads”

At the edge of all fields, there is a space

………for disorder. Blackberry through the gowns

of black locust, doveweed, and spurge,
………………………..the hardened vine of ailment digging in,

burrowed to the clay, to the railroad mound

………where the ties lay unabridged, unraveled.

These margins exist. They are not meant
………………………..to contain us.

Support poetry today. Buy or borrow a copy of this book.
Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World
Joshua Poteat
The VQR Poetry Series
The University of Georgia Press, 2009

Posted by Sandy Longhorn


Fantastic, Sandy. I've been waiting for a while for this book to lay down, and, now that it's out, waiting for the university library to shelve its copy. Thanks for your micro review.

Sandy Longhorn

You won't be disappointed!

Joshua Poteat

hey sandy,
thanks so much for the shout-out! extremely sweet of you. hope all is well in your neck of the woods…


Sandy Longhorn

Two Joshes one post…how cool is that?

J.P., all is well here, thanks for asking.

It is a very interesting book. I'm reading it a second time more carefully and planning to do a two-page review of it.

Sandy Longhorn

Hope you'll share the review!