Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton
Reviewed by Kathryn Miles
I begin this review with a confession: I am no fan of John Milton. One of my enduring memories of graduate school was a particularly rough Renaissance poetry seminar in which the professor—a noted Milton scholar—asked what was amiss with our class. After explaining that we had, as instructed, read all of Paradise Lost for that day, she looked aghast. “You’re not supposed to read it,” she corrected. “You’re supposed to skim it.”
This admonishment did little to soften the resistance I’ve felt towards the epic, and so I felt a certain trepidation upon beginning Dawn Potter’s lovely memoir, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton. Potter, after all, not only read Paradise Lost; she also transcribed it.
All of it.
That’s the kind of project that can give a reader pause. But Potter is quick to allay any nervous incredulity her audience might have, and she readily admits that her relationship with Milton has been as fraught as anyone’s.
What, then, would prompt an otherwise reasonable contemporary poet to undertake such a project? For starters, there was the suggestion by her friend and Maine’s former poet laureate, Baron Wormser, that she do so. Equally as compelling was Potter’s own belief that she would be a better writer and thinker by “seriously studying great works that were antithetical to me in some inner personal way.” Paradise Lost, she explains, always seemed too sanctimonious and conscious of its own craft to enter her pantheon of favorite texts. It comes as much as a surprise to Potter as her readers, then, when she discovers both a lyrical and philosophical connection to the massive poem.
Tracing Paradise details this kinship in delightful and unexpected ways. Part literary criticism, part ars poetica, part book of days, the memoir invests Milton with new vibrancy while musing on larger questions of existential sustainability. We learn, for instance, about Potter’s experiments in homesteading and the sacrifices and joys of her life as a parent. Along the way, she also offers gracious insight into the complicated relationships we form with the natural world. At each moment, Potter reveals myriad ways in which Milton enhances and explicates the commonplace.
Consider, for instance, the chapter “Angels, Obedience, and ATVs,” in which a trip to visit the Roman statue of Michael spurs a hilarious meditation on all-terrain vehicles, masculinity, and Milton’s depiction of Adam and Eve. Other treatments of Paradise Lost, such as the one applied to the euthanasia of a family goat, are perhaps more of a stretch. But Potter can be forgiven this occasional looseness. Her aim is not so much thesis-driven argumentation as it is an exploration of affiliations. “Like most twenty-first century American poets,” she explains, “I swim in the warm and shallow waters of the personal.”
Happily, so too do most twenty-first century readers. And there is much of the personal to celebrate in Tracing Paradise, from its distinctly decadent sentences to its unflinching honesty. Just as valuable is the book’s wise reminder that poetry—even canonical, much studied poetry—can still inspire surprise and a sense of wonder in us all.
Kathryn Miles is an author and professor of Environmental Writing at Unity College, where she teaches courses in narrative nonfiction, nature writing, and journalism. Her first book, Adventures with Ari, combines backyard naturalism, personal memoir, and canine ethnography. It was named a Bark! Magazine notable book for 2009. Find her online here.