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Tracing Paradise

Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton

Dawn Potter
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Tracing Paradise
    Book Description:

    One winter morning, poet Dawn Potter sat down at her desk in Harmony, Maine, and began copying out the opening lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Her intent was to spend half an hour with a poem she had never liked, her goal to transcribe a page or two. Maybe she would begin to appreciate the poet’s art, though she had no real expectations that the exercise would change her mind about the poem. Yet what began as a whim turned rapidly into an obsession, and soon Potter was immersed in a strange and unexpected project: she found herself copying out every single word of Milton’s immense, convoluted epic. Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton is her memoir of that long task. Over the course of twelve chapters, Potter explores her very personal response to Milton and Paradise Lost, tracing the surprising intersections between a seventeenthcentury biblical epic and the routine joys and tragedies of domestic life in contemporary rural Maine. Curious, opinionated, and eager, she engages with the canon on mutable, individual terms. Though she writes perceptively about the details and techniques of Milton’s art, always her reactions are linked to her presenttense experiences as a poet, smalltime farmer, family member, and citizen of a poor and beleaguered northcountry town. A skilled and entertaining writer, Potter is also a wideranging and sophisticated reader. Yet her memoir is not a scholarly treatise: her enthusiasms and misgivings about both Milton and Paradise Lost ebb and flow with the days. Tracing Paradise reminds us that close engagement with another artist’s task may itself be a form of creation. Above all, Potter’s memoir celebrates one reader’s difficult yet transformative love affair with Milton’s glorious, irritating, inscrutable masterpiece.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-152-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. 1 Chores
    (pp. 1-10)

    At so me juncture of nearly every morning, I copy out a few lines of Milton’sParadise Lost. I type my day’s dose on a small laptop computer perched on a foldout shelf in the study corner of my bedroom, a jumbly combination of the beautiful and the half-baked: the lovely crammed inset bookcases built by my husband Tom and the temporary (for ten years or so) clamp-lamp lighting we haven’t gotten around to replacing; the elegant antique cherry writing table his parents bought us when we had no furniture and the cheesy fake-Persian rug I got on sale at...

  5. 2 Stumbling into Harmony
    (pp. 11-20)

    Perhaps on e definition of paradise is that it’s a place that doesn’t dash your hopes. I arrived in Harmony when I was twenty-eight, newly married, newly unemployed, eager to find my place on earth. I came to the north country prepared to be happy, and Iwashappy.

    In this era of aimless migration and faceless commercial landscape, finding a real home on earth is a miracle. Yet any attempt to explain its succor risks transforming the homebody into a mouthpiece for provincial nostalgics or back-to-the-land politicos. For it’s very hard to explain a marriage, human or otherwise; and...

  6. 3 Wild Invention
    (pp. 21-32)

    I had solved the mystery of Milton’s rhythmic line. Clots of verse throbbed down the page; what I read was a hidden music, not language. It was a vast discovery … I had found the template … quivering, exalted, I opened my eyes. My hot pillow had buckled into miserable lumps, the lines cascading away from me, sucked down into the drain of dreams. The clock ticked; my husband coughed once, coughed again, sighed, and burrowed his head into the comforter. I heard Mathilde the barn dog barking, barking, barking in the still night.

    Later, scooping Purina into the dog’s...

  7. 4 The Undefiled Bed
    (pp. 33-42)

    Though by no w we’ve been married for nearly sixteen years, more than once Tom and I have announced over a beer that we’d never do it again. As far as I can tell, neither one of us is hinting at divorce. And as far as I can tell, our declaration isn’t one of those conversational ice chunks that occasionally float up from the marital iceberg: those double-edged couple-ish remarks like “She doesn’t eat parsnips, so I don’t cook parsnips” or “I’ve always left the decorating up to you” or “He’s never enjoyed talking on the phone.” We in fact...

  8. 5 Gardening
    (pp. 43-52)

    Harmon is an unpropitious place to plant a garden. Jutting from the U.S. map like a gloomy granite outcrop, the northern half of Maine looks and feels more like New Brunswick than Massachusetts. Here in Somerset County, the growing season is ridiculously short: June, July, and August are the only reliably frost-free months. But even high summer isn’t worry-free. Local history (via my friend Linda, whose family has lived on the Trafton Road for a hundred years or so) offers up numerous anecdotes of midsummer snow, not to mention ice-, rain-, and mud-sodden tales involving town fields, roads, ponds, snowmobiles,...

  9. 6 Angels, Obedience, and ATVs
    (pp. 53-64)

    Angels, as “eternize[d] here on Earth,” tend to be a rather feminized and delicate lot, inclined, when adults, to wear limp ecru nightgowns and stare off dreamily into the distance; when children, to display much chubby thigh and damask cheek. This is not the case with the angels ofParadise Lost, though they are unquestionably handsome in classic Hermes-and-Apollo style. Take Raphael, for instance, with his gorgeous and sultry wings:

    A Seraph wing’d; six wings he wore, to shade

    His lineaments Divine; the pair that clad

    Each shoulder broad, came mantling o’er his breast

    With regal Ornament; the middle pair...

  10. 7 Clear-Cuts
    (pp. 65-78)

    When financial advisers, ex-college roommates, middle-aged attendees of poetry readings, and the like ask, usually in tones of disbelief, what possessed me to move to a hole in the wall like Harmony, I often find myself stammering, “It’s quiet here,” or “Land was cheap,” or some similar reductive inanity. Such questions make me anxious. I fear that the spectacle of my everyday territory is liable, in an onlooker’s eyes, to disintegrate into a strange and gothic absurdity. And I’m not wrong to fear. Most onlookers are primed for weirdness: either comic or sinister will do. Incest, overalls, and family feuds:...

  11. 8 The Mystery of Sons
    (pp. 79-94)

    Unlike Milton and God, I am the mother of two boys. And unlike those single-minded and ambitious fathers, I have not suffered a son’s death. These three differences—motherhood, a pair of sons, and my boys’ everyday physical presence—have vastly influenced my moral and emotional comprehension of the world. I have learned, for instance, that my life is not my own: I am the handmaid of my children; I minister to their demands; I deny my yearnings in service to theirs. Culturally this is a mother’s role; but while it is demeaning and self-destroying, it is also vivifying and...

  12. 9 “Celestial Song”
    (pp. 95-106)

    After spending roughly two years copying outParadise Lostword for word, I am now far less sure about what constitutes a good line of poetry than I was before I started the project. Why is a certain conglomeration of words termed beautiful or ugly, silly or satirical, dull or impassioned? How do preconceptions about the aesthetics of language and what constitutes an acceptable style of expression influence my judgment?

    As designated great art,Paradise Losthas received canonical tenure; it’s been promoted to a mahogany case in a locked upstairs room. Criticism of the poem no longer involves crowing...

  13. 10 “What Harmony or True Delight?”
    (pp. 107-116)

    Even here in central Maine—country of junked trailers and gravel pits, tattoo parlors and poisoned rivers; this “conflagrant mass” blotting the white man’s biography of success—I live in an Eden of sorts. Perhaps it’s true that “some Blood more precious must be paid for Man,” but my neighbors and I nonetheless believe that no one will chop off our hands at dawn or disembowel our babies before our eyes. Never in memory has our town succumbed to smallpox or plague; and though our wells sometimes go dry in August, they always replenish in the autumn rains. “In mean...

  14. 11 Killing Ruthie
    (pp. 117-126)

    I asked my friend Steve to shoot my goat.

    Steve is what his wife calls “a born-again redneck.” His parents are genteel, well-educated, violin-playing Quakers, but Steve decided not to graduate from high school. He preferred to educate himself, and now he knows what ants taste like (“fruity”) and how to turn raccoons into a couch blanket. Steve is a man who can efficiently pull a trigger but won’t scorn you if you cry. Among men who handle guns, this is not a common trait. He said he could shoot my goat on Sunday morning, though he wasn’t in the...

  15. 12 Dust
    (pp. 127-134)

    Over the course of this self-imposed reading assignment, I’ve spent a good deal of time not liking Adam and Eve, or their tame forest, or their smarmy heavenly protectors. I’ve complained about them and ridiculed them and heaved gusty sighs of despair. In large part, I haven’twantedto care about them. I’ve wanted to ignore them, refigure them, tart them up. I’ve wanted to tear them out of the coloring book and lose them under the couch cushions. I have indeed wanted to discover and argue with and possess Milton and all of his crazy greatness. But I haven’t...

  16. Afterword
    (pp. 135-138)

    In early December 2007 I finished copying out the final lines ofParadise Lost. Accomplishing the job had occupied me sporadically but steadily for more than two years. Some weeks I copied out page after page. Some weeks I managed only a few lines. Some hours my fingers chased each other fluidly over the keyboard like Rogers and Astaire sparkling in easy tandem across a spotlit stage. Some hours I mangled every word, stuttering through typos and flawed punctuation, misunderstood verbs and unanticipated line breaks—an epic chore narrowed to “backspace and try again, backspace and try again.”

    Copying was...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 139-144)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 145-146)