Book Review

I recently discovered the pendulum wave. Much like Newton’s famous cradle, the pendulum wave involves a string of metallic balls suspended end to end, with some dangling higher or lower to increase visibility. Rather than lifting and releasing one, causing them to clack excitedly together, all balls are propelled sideways at once. The resulting movement resembles a serpent at first—a sensuous slither—but then the balls fracture into individuated rhythms. At some point, they spontaneously pair into groups, revolving like a double helix. After clamoring, flailing, and dancing, they morph back into a serpent—now sluggish—wiggling in slower and slower increments until stilling to a halt.

Nick Francis Potter’s collection of poetry comics, Big Gorgeous Jazz Machine, has the workings of a pendulum wave. Moments of improvisational messiness and machinelike precision coexist through image-text pairing. Over the course of twelve comics, constructed with traditional artwork and stenciled lettering, Potter prompts us to consider not only patterns in domestic life, but also universal principles that govern us as living beings.

The opening comic, “Prologue,” is essentially a wordless poem. It resembles the Cambrian explosion, suggesting the abundant swell of new life, with organic dashes and stipples that gradually populate panels before abating. Potter’s ambiguous, nonrepresentational marks leave room for interpretation. Intricate details can be seen as components of a cellule, a landscape, or a galaxy. While purely visual, this comic sets a tone for the remainder of the collection, contouring grander lyric patterns.

In subsequent poetry comics, Potter introduces stenciled lettering. The comic “Imaginary Houses” includes poetic captions for a series of illustrated buildings, each less structurally sound than the last. Potter’s style creates a quilted architecture. Striped and polka-dotted rooms join into a watercolor patchwork. Penned stick figures dawdle inside their houses, enacting the comforts and quarrels of domestic life. One caption reads:

Inummeral crowds filter through
the various housing compartments,
handshaking constantly. A low-battery
jazz machine strays from the pulse.
Gorgeously, chaos ensues.

Potter suggests that beauty may result from fatigued disorder, especially in immaculately ordered spaces. Architectural distortion signifies a breach in insular domestic life, inflecting mundane worries with larger preoccupations like mortality, extinction, and impermanence.

In the comic “Some Notes on Domestic Phenomena,” words scatter across panels in an ergodic sprawl. Handwriting replaces stenciled lettering. Colors swirl, blotch, and scribble. A pair of repeated hands clench and unclench. Pages like the one subtitled “Regarding recurrent dread” join domesticity with entropy. In exaggeratedly fragmented words, Potter writes: “Wha /t s /hould we do / about dinner?” Dread and routine go hand in hand. Much like “Imaginary Houses,” this comic asks how domestic spaces reflect and contain our animal selves. How do ordered architectures yield disordered feelings?

Midway through the collection, another wordless comic, “Interlude,” rhapsodizes with the same visual style as the prologue. Once more, graphite drawings ebb and flounder. This time, however, the progression is less straightforward. Instead of performing growth and reduction, this comic resembles a consolidating whirlpool. Despite its wordlessness, or perhaps because of it, “Interlude” manufactures a space where smaller details and broader existential narratives can interact, priming us for future comics where the two scales meet more pointedly.

The poetry comic “Some Notes on Domestic Objects” refocuses on household mundanity. A page captioned “Regarding Houseplants” reads: “They’re just / dying / on the / back porch.” Much like the preceding poetry comic, “Some Notes on Domestic Phenomena,” this comic uses multimedia scribbles—crayons, paint splashes, and pencil sketches—to summon a childlike portrait of entropy. Rather than offering a wholly bleak portrayal of family life, image-text configurations suggest hectic intimacy. The household, with its chaotic rhythms and frustrations, also becomes a site for beauty.

Perhaps the largest departure from Potter’s intimate scale occurs in “After the Animals,” where domestic spaces contrast with environmental catastrophe. After all animals disappear without explanation, Potter writes:

We search for the animals in
the pantry,
behind curtains
without success
Adrift in loss, we begin to
wear their ancestor’s
We enter the unhacked
wilderness as animals,
slipping into the
landscape’s clothing

In this poetry comic, humans voluntarily abandon spaces which have constrained them, clothing themselves as animals and reinhabiting an untouched landscape. This pivot from the home to the world actualizes prior thematic threads, offering an expansion rather than a retreat. The wilderness is no longer reduced to backyards or potted plants, but embraced in its wholeness, however scarred.

The final wordless comic, “Epilogue,” performs expansion. Graphite marks from “Prologue” and “Interlude” return, flooding panels with rich detail. On the final page, details disperse, suggesting a dramatic retreat or a deadening. We are left with twelve sparsely populated panels, some showing signs of erasure like a stray dialogue bubble or the remnants of a face. While Nick Francis Potter’s poetry comics are intimately concerned with domestic life, they also interrogate the household as self-destructive machine, entrenched in patterns of expansion and extinction. Details that feel enveloping and close, like everyday objects and routines, become telescoped outwards. Like a pendulum wave (or a big gorgeous jazz machine), this collection sometimes splits into individuated rhythms, but it is ultimately governed by larger motifs. Dinner becomes an existential question. Wilted houseplants become environmental catastrophes. Together, these comics slither in syncopation, break into dazzling fragments, and then culminate in eerie stillness. The ensuing quiet is equal parts the quiet after a disaster and the awed silence after a musical performance.

About the Reviewer

Kristin Emanuel holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Kansas, where she studied ecofabulism and the comics poetry movement. She is now a PhD student researching Poetry & Poetics at Washington University in St. Louis. Her latest poems and comics have appeared in journals such as Sidereal Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Shenandoah, The Rupture, and The Indianapolis Review, with new poems forthcoming in Storm Cellar and The Pinch. She was also recently selected as a finalist in Boston Review's 2022 Annual Poetry Contest.