We Lit the Lamps Ourselves: New Poems by Andrea Potos

Andrea Potos - We Lit the Lamps Ourselves

by Vasiliki Katsarou

Eating Her Wedding Dress contributor Andrea Potos’ latest collection, We Lit the Lamps Ourselves is an exquisite volume.  The poems slip seamlessly into and out of the voices of women poets of the past, including the Brontë sisters, Emily Dickinson, and Sylvia Plath.  The poems are bolstered by the beautiful lexicon of the nineteenth-century poets themselves, whose brief quotations are in italics. There is a silence—a primal hush–that surrounds Potos’ poems that touches on the silence of great poetry itself.

Broken into two sections, We Lit the Lamps Ourselves takes up the question of genius—and specifically, female genius–a perennially debated subject, especially in the world of contemporary literary fiction.

(W)ho can say what happens / to a woman alone in her room, asks the poem “Two Emilys” and later, the poem “Charlotte Brontë, Student” alludes to the creative dynamism of the female psyche:

what we are not given to know,
what cannot be reduced–
woman’s mind bursting the bounds of breads and puddings,
of embroidering collars and bags.

And even in the less equivocal voice of Brontë’s biographer, Mrs. Gaskell:

She must not hide her gift in a napkin, (…)

she must bow to the word, the God-
appointed pen.

I appreciated Potos’ savvy emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon component of English in her use of crisp, monosyllabic words like heft, shun, turf, hew, sheen and capitalization of abstract nouns like Real, Infinite, Possibility, Imagination, Repair–along with unabashed references to Divinity–which make these poems feel situated in the world of the mid-19th century.

I was also surprised to find that this luminous volume, in its voluptuous interiority, reminded me at times of the lyrical poetry of a poetic mentor– the expatriate American poet Gustaf Sobin, born in New England, and living in Provence where he passed away in 2005.  (His poems were collected recently by Talisman House, Publishers.)   This, for example:

to dwell on pristine
dunes of mind, each wind-
lashed grain afire

(From “Being Emily Dickinson”)

In the second half of We Lit the Lamps Ourselves, the contemporaneous persona of the poems is more distinct.  This voice addresses the past in a more evident, less conflicted way, with references to the gym and the mall, Reeboks and the cineplex.  Has her excursion into the past given the contemporary poet some sort of leave?

(…) permission
to empty our boxes of Milk Duds
and JuJu Bees, our Good ‘n Plenty
and tall cups of Hi-C,
the dark velvet drapery rolling open,
manuvered by careful, invisible hands,
while far away on the walls–the relief sculptures
of gnarled, windswept trees,
cliffs where a heroine might perch
awaiting her story.

(From “At the Mall Cineplex”)

As an erstwhile filmmaker who herself wrote and directed a film set in 1843, I found Andrea Potos’ collection, We Lit the Lamps Ourselves, to beg the question of whether it might feel necessary today– in our media-saturated age of IMs and technological neologisms–for the artist to immerse herself in a bygone era in order to approach poetry’s more timeless underpinnings.

Vasiliki Katsarou

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