THE POETRY OF ANNE WHITEHOUSE
review by Ron Gaskill
One Sunday Morning, Finishing Line Press, 2011.
Bear in Mind, Finishing Line Press, 2010.
Blessings and Curses, Poetic Matrix Press, 2009.
After reading Anne Whitehouse's chapbook One Sunday Morning, what is the best thing that can be said about it? That a poet was here, but something more: a person was here. It is certain that these poems portray exactly what they intend to portray, true feelings and a quest to understand our physical and spiritual existence.
Whitehouse's personal narratives and meditations might even seem anti-poetic in their technique. They are never elevated beyond the believable, yet they achieve a unique effect in their persistent attempt to discover and reveal the subtlety of experience. Her subjects are drawn from nature, from stories and observations of people, and from her own meditations. The value of the poems therefore depends upon actual insight, not upon so many words wrapped around each other that a reader has to wonder if there's anything there or anyone home. Thankfully, in this book, something is there and somebody is home.
Whitehouse doesn't judge, and she never gives too much, but she always gives us something that sticks. Here is one poem in entirety:
The falcon floated above the treetops
On my birthday,
Hovered in equilibrium
Before it plunged
As if air
Again it rose,
And soared, and dived,
Braking its swift spiral
Inches before impact.
It took no prey
But flew away,
And I went home,
Hauling my shopping in the cart.
The gloom of the day
Split through the middle
By perilous flight
Became something rare.
"The Falcon" does not rise to the level of myth, the falcon does not astonish as only poets can be astonished, the falcon does not become so much metaphor that there is no longer a bird. While it is true that sight itself is a process of transforming data, and that poetry can transform our experience, it is also true that poetry transforms nothing at all when it is about nothing but its own vogue conventions. In "The Falcon," we believe there is a person as person who watches the flight. Granted, the person happens to be a poet, but the person is first and foremost captivated by the diving bird, simply seeing, not attempting to transform experience before anything is even witnessed; therefore the poem feels genuine, the reader believes implicitly that the gloom of someone's day was "Split through the middle / By perilous flight."
Experience unique and untransformed, arriving by surprise, a gift. That may be plenty for a poem to give. But we can also ask for more, for something that we call depth. But what is meant by that? Is Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" deep? "But I have miles to go before I sleep / and miles to go before I sleep." The image lasts a lifetime in the mind; however, it is "only" the simple, haunting, beautiful realization of mortality in the presence of nature's silence.
We might ask more; we might ask that a poem's depth expand the universe, lead us toward profound insights, new ways of seeing and feeling. Rilke's Duino Eligies then, certainly are deep. "We, though, even when intent on one thing wholly, / can feel the costs exacted by some other. / Enmity's our next of kin. Aren't lovers always / meeting boundaries, each in the other, / when the promise was of vastness, royal hunting, home?" Certainly there is enough there— questions, twists of thought, to think on for a long time.
Finally, consider a few lines of Gary Snyder. ( Susan Cavananugh, our poetry editor, senses Snyder-like rhythms in the poetry of Anne Whitehouse, and it would be interesting to ask Ms. Whitehouse if she is aware of any connection between her poetry and that of Snyder.) Here are the first lines of "The Sappa Creek," a poem from Riprap (1958) addressed to his ship in Snyder's merchant marine days: "Old rusty-belly thing will soon be gone / Scrap and busted while we're still on earth…" I don't know of another poet who portrays so clearly and with such feeling a life of work and love happening under stars which the poet can name: "The hiss and flashing lights of a jet / Pass near Jupiter in Virgo."
In her full-length collection Blessings and Curses (title attributed not to Jay-Z but to Moses) Anne Whitehouse gives us much to contemplate. The book's initial poem simply lays out the premise. "Through Moses, God speaks directly, / I call heaven and earth / to witness against you this day / that I have set before you life and death, / the blessing and the curse; / therefore choose life, that you may live, / you and your seed." Each poem in the book describes either a blessing or a curse drawn not from Biblical times, but from the contemporary life we recognize. Curse I, for example, is that of anxiety; the worry that the poet might "have offended someone / forgotten an obligation / missed a deadline, or slipped up / in one of seemingly endless ways." If this topic seems slight, consider the toll that our anxieties take on our lives.
There is the curse of tragedy that strikes out of nowhere, when ordinary life "is put on pause / and another life takes over."
There is the curse of aging, the curse of mindless cruelty, the curse of being easily intimidated, the curses of fear, injury, loss, jealousy, poverty, injustice, bigotry, and war.
Sometimes just the existence of something is a blessing. In "Blessing I," "To brush her palm / is to touch a flower petal; her fingertips are / tiny cushions." Sometimes the blessings are momentous, but still quietly told, as number XXVII describes integration coming to the University of Alabama: "…and the two students entered, unhurt and unhindered."
For those like myself so poetically schooled, it is difficult not to wish for the excessively elevated, for experience made by figurative skill into something fake, into the false phenomenology that dominates literary magazines— in other words, into those manufactured poems flashing over and over again with the words "light," "bone," and "blood," or vicariously dwelling in the "mud" that intellectuals love to imagine themselves up to their necks in, poems that work so hard to create the illusion of something, but leave nothing except the feeling of standing in quicksand with an angry taste in the mouth. The poems of Anne Whitehouse are the antidote to this angry taste. In reading her three books, I came upon lines that I wished to elevate, simple tellings where I would have preferred an image, but I would do nothing to these poems that would diminish the satisfaction of their honesty and feeling.
Outside all of this conjecture is her great poem "The Beyond," which appears in the chapbook Bear in Mind. Written from the point of view of a woman who has lost her husband in the Twin Towers inferno and collapse, here is a poem that succeeds in every way. The language is subtle and balanced and for two and a half pages sustains its precision and potency without ever being sentimental or excessive. The poem's images are indelible, and its meanings are many-leveled and powerful.
She sought out his tranquility
when her eyes confronted too much
graves in the air, a smudge in the sky,
and the dust grown finer and finer,
washed into the earth and sea,
or suspended in our atmosphere.
After the explosion died away,
she heard bells pealing faintly,
as if they had always been there,
but were only rarely heard,
when the other noises ceased.
Those "graves in the air" will be a lasting part of my vision of 911. As Whitehouse writes in "Fire Light Prayer" (One Sunday Morning) the poems have provided a "...kernel within / That sees with insight far away."