review by Ron Gaskill

I would start my comments on Anne Whitehouse's latest collection, The Refrain, with compliments to her publisher, Dos Madres Press of Loveland, Ohio. Dos Madres has published over forty books of poetry, and this one is spaciously formatted on heavy cream paper within beautifully designed covers. It is a pleasure to hold and to read, which befits its contents. Many favorable words have been written about Whitehouse's poetry, and I agree with almost all of them, though I would tend out of my own reserve to be hesitant with comparisons of any poet to Blake, Frost, Eliot, and Yeats. How many ways can one elaborate upon "an accomplished meditation on life's meanings"? Most of what I wrote in my review of her other books, I would say again here: "These poems portray exactly what they intend to portray, true feelings and a quest to understand our physical and spiritual existence." We feel that we are encountering the human being behind the words. These poems are about something. And I would lean on the words of another reader, David Castronovo: "Whitehouse… produces a deeply humane volume that's a bold change from the weightless irony and knowingness of postmodernism." It is a pleasure also to read poetry so independent of reference; her symbols, often drawn from nature, are developed integrally, in the way for example of Baudelaire, with his indelible image/symbol of a swan struggling in the dust, who happens to be one of the few poets to whom Whitehouse refers.

If there is anything that separates the new poems in The Refrain from the earlier work, it is that the language of the final section, "The Decisive Moment," is even more clean and economical. The tone is held, the beat is rarely missed, the notes are invariably on. When she is at times prosaic and matter-of-fact, one tends to say "ah…nice" rather than uh-oh. In the title poem, "The Decisive Moment," she has just attended a photography retrospective of Cartier-Bresson; she is walking in Central Park and writes: "The heightened perspective, the swirls of motion / made a picture Henri might have taken." Thank you, I say—how many postmodern poets would have found a way to construct those lines so that there would no longer even be a person walking in Central Park. Not that I am one to draw lines in the sand; I also take pleasure in arcane and referential poetry, and a recent evening with six friends, Google, and a bottle of wine explicating a dozen lines was my idea of an excellent social event. My preference, however, is for poetry with content other than itself. "...the swirls of motion made a picture Henri might have taken…" The park is there, the photographs were there, and the line says precisely what it wants to say: Henri might have seen this in just this way. That is the content. The content is not, in this case, a reconstruction of Central Park to resemble a photograph. As the poem develops, the subject becomes how a person frames the world in order to keep painful feelings at bay.

Probably enough has been said about the poetry of Anne Whitehouse. We can move on, then, to the question of what she has to say. Exactly what is her content, her view of the world? It is an existential world where both heaven and hell are of our own making. The human world is subject to forces not always within our control, both in nature and within our minds. Through art and love something is salvaged, and in nature, memory, and spirit there are moments when we feel the presence of something beyond ourselves. In "Excavation," a poem of loss, of "deaccessions," of floods and pests, we come to an image that sticks: "Sometimes I miss the feel / of her soft little hand in my palm, / four fingers curled around one of mine." In "Remembering Cora," her family's tragedy was "turning her bones / to cottage cheese… but her spirit soared far away / to the Rockies and the Sierra, to Florence, Paris, and Rome… And her daughter sat at the shiva / with bent head bearing her grief." In "After Irene," "We went about repairing the damage, / finding what was essential, / how to survive." The worst in life is brought on by ourselves: "The first witch was my mother… We four sisters and a brother / consumed her poisoned love." But in "Wish Fulfillment," the artist persists: "I feel it and know it / and keep on playing." And in "The Refrain," the book's final poem: "Where were we going / away from home? Not to the cities / of our dreams— / Venice, or Rome, / but to a long, curving / claw of sand / washed up in mangroves / to form an island." On the island that we inhabit, we make our lives. The poetry of Ann Whitehouse not only is a pleasure to read; it has something to say. In The Refrain, form and content have met. When this happens to a poet, the question is where to go next. There are various avenues that a poet may take to discover new directions. For example, there is the possibility of writing diversions and experiments, which might turn out to be more substantial and essential than the poet suspects. There is also time for conscious philosophy and meditation on one's path, for study and for stretching out into new forms. By the time a collection is published, the poet is already moving on. It will be interesting to see Anne Whitehouse's next work.

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