One Sunday Morning
by Anne Whitehouse
This review by Mary Kaiser appeared in the Alabama Writers Forum:
By Anne Whitehouse
Finishing Line Press , 2011
Reviewed by Mary Kaiser
In her latest chapbook, Anne Whitehouse’s clear-eyed poetic vision uncovers mysteries beneath the calm surfaces of modern life. “This is my life,” she affirms in “Rites of Spring,” “finding one thing in another.” Unclouded by assumptions, Whitehouse’s lyrical voice moves from one carefully observed, imagistic stanza to another, introducing concise narratives that accumulate metaphorical power by juxtaposition, like a chain of haiku. In “Rainy Day,” for example, the poem’s beam of attention moves from roadside wildflowers to a woman undergoing cancer treatment, to raindrops—“A little tap at the window”—to a photographer in New York who treasures rain’s “pearly and luminous” light, and then back to the garden in “the wettest June in living memory.” This series of scenes, connected by imagery and by the poised stance of the speaker, find a source of spiritual growth in illness and of splendor on a city’s streets.
Just out of sight, in the margins of her quiet domestic settings, Whitehouse glimpses passionate, even predatory instincts at work. In the title poem, “One Sunday Morning,” for example, a couple listens, horrified, to the “deep groan . . . like thunder” of a buck attacked by a coyote in the woods behind their suburban home. In “Consolations,” a World War II veteran cannot help scanning every landscape for “possible avenues / of enemy attack and ambush,” in “Les Fleurs du Mal” a child is “trapped in a car” with her quarrelling parents, “hurtling down familiar roads / with no way out” and in “The Story of My Life” a woman dreams she lived “in a house underwater / And a shark broke through.” For Whitehouse, the tame and the wild do not occupy separate territories but twist like twin strands through even the most regulated life.
Whitehouse’s poetry is attuned to seasonal life cycles of plants and animals, to shifts in weather, even to phases of the moon. Like the groans of the injured buck in “One Sunday Morning,” images from the natural world haunt the dreams and punctuate the routines of suburban living. A falcon hovers above a woman’s head, her mundane day of shopping “Split through the middle / By perilous flight.” On a quiet morning, the poet’s thoughts are interrupted by a phone call, and although her nascent poem is lost, “The brook went on flowing.” While mired in difficult memories, the speaker watches as a bee lights “on my lap” and then rises and flies away, signifying the lifting of her spiritual burden.
Whitehouse’s juxtapositions of imagery suggest the influence of Asian wisdom literature, such as Zen koans and the poetry of Li-Po. That influence can be seen in lines like these that conclude “Fertile Earth,” in which the speaker is working in her garden: “My body bent to my labors; my mind wandered free. / Make room! More room!” The sudden shift to the imperative voice, a command that relates equally to clearing a garden bed and freeing the mind, resonates like an injunction from scripture delivered with a sharp jolt of insight. Particularly in the poem that concludes the collection, “The Refrain,” Whitehouse’s tone has a gnomic power: “it was life-in-death.//I-am-what-I-am./ Amen. Amen.”
In addition to her personal lyrics, Whitehouse also includes two persona poems in this collection. “Van Gogh in Arles,” in the voice of the artist, recounts the emotional instability of Van Gogh’s last days, yet also conveys the spiritual balance that resonates throughout these poems: “In one canvas, a feeling of anxiety; / In the other, calm, a great peace.” A second persona poem, equally powerful, in the voice of a ninety-three-year-old woman, recounts a dream and the speaker’s rejection of an image she recognizes as a portent of death. Called “back to life / at the brink of ninety-four,” the speaker in “Rose’s Dream” conveys the clear-eyed realism of Whitehouse’s poetry, unafraid of reaching for the mystical, “finding one thing in another.”
Whitehouse in her poems carries out E.M. Forster’s injunction to “only connect.” In a time when we are increasingly isolated behind the screens we carry with us everywhere, these poems urge us to recover our links to the rich, mysterious life going on outside our real and virtual windows. May 2012 Mary Kaiser lives in Birmingham and teaches at Jefferson State Community College.
Rating: ***** [5 of 5 Stars!]
Anne Whitehouse’s newest chapbook, One Sunday Morning, brims with dissonance. A Rothko-esque block of watercolor forms its cover image, suggesting reticence and abstraction while the title, printed in white block letters, conjures images of the church, coffee and brunch. The poems, however, shatter all expectations, as Whitehouse explores everything from death to love to nightmares. Continuously drawing us in with their sharp images of place and time, the poems bring to life the sensations of the speaker and offer surprising glimpses of the seemingly familiar through an innovative eye.
The title piece sets the tone for the book, quickly and mercilessly undermining all associations with “Sunday morning.” No waking late to freshly brewed coffee here – instead, the speaker and her household are torn from sleep by a “deep groan . . . a cry of outrage.” In place of tranquility, fear punctuates their morning. They peer out their window to find the violence of nature on stage before them:
There in the stream was the stag,
And there, on the bank, the coyote
Worrying the stag’s brown-and-white tail
To and fro like a fish in its mouth.
With her impeccable attention to detail, Whitehouse transmits the raw details of the scene – the stag’s tail hangs from the coyote’s teeth. Its antlers are “fuzz-tipped and green,” its eyes, “liquid and brown.” As she watches the coyote flee, followed soon by the lame, dying stag, Whitehouse recasts Sunday morning; no longer a day of rest to celebrate the resurrection, it is now marked by death and violence, which albeit a part of nature, nevertheless shatter the speaker’s sense of safety as well as our expectations.
Other poems throughout the volume accomplish similar re-definitions, drawing us in with the familiar only to offer surprising new visions that entice us to read more. In “Age and Youth,” Whitehouse juxtaposes images of the old and young, depicting the elderly Horace who “plays with the candle flame,/ watching it wave and flicker.” As Horace teases the flame, reflective of his own life, Whitehouse’s line breaks grow shorter and quicker, mimicking the dying candlelight as it gasps for air:
poking it with the snuffer,
to see how faint
it will glow
without going out
Noting that “Old age was the terror/ most dreaded by the Romantics,” Whitehouse presents “Acer:/ aged 27” as a contrast. Acer is “Handsome and tattooed,/ With waist-length blond hair.” Thus, we expect him to become a symbol of strength and potency. Instead, though, Whitehouse transforms him into an image of waste and compulsion. We learn that:
he OD’ed one July night
in a hotel room made over
to one of his “hamster nests”
lined with shredded phone books
where he liked to party.
Peering furtively into this scene of self-destruction, we shift our pity and even disgust from Horace to Acer and leave the poem only with the disturbing image of this young man, dead amidst reckless indulgence.
Whitehouse’s most powerful poems are grounded in these sharp, startling images. Yet occasionally, she does deal in abstractions. At their worst, these moments can feel predictable and overwritten, such as in “The Past” where the speaker announces: “Memories reveal/ emotions that bind me . . .” At their best, Whitehouse’s abstractions are themselves fresh and surprising and are interwoven with crisp images to create poems that refuse easy classification as they stir our minds and senses. Presented in three parts, “Meditations in June” does just that, engaging in a constant shifting from thought to thought and image to image as Whitehouse reflects on love, time and death. The poem begins with a fight:
Too often we found ourselves
Rehearsing the same frustrating scene
Dead-ended in recrimination.
As the stanzas shift, so does Whitehouse’s lens, moving readers away from the blank description of the fight yet continuing to characterize it:
The identical weed sprouted everywhere.
Thousands of times I plucked it out
Easily its shallow roots let go of the earth.
Intensely tactile, this second stanza provides a stark contrast to the imageless “recrimination” of the first and is so expertly placed as to make both stanzas essential to the poem. In part three of “Meditations,” Whitehouse accomplishes a similar feat through her use of the line:
As I grow old, I am ever more certain
Here, the suspense, accomplished through enjambment alone, reflects largely upon Whitehouse’s treatment of the line overall. Whitehouse creates poems guided largely by units of breath with occasional shifts that pack a strong punch because of their rarity.
Balancing her personal, reflective speaker with her precise, luminous images, Whitehouse delivers a chapbook that is much more than a simple “Sunday Morning” read. Leaving us with her ruminations – “Love is a mirror reflecting unlikeness” – and her unadorned imagery – “the pink sunset fragmented in the watery eye” – Whitehouse startles as much as she satisfies and adds a strong volume to her growing body of work.
— Jill Neziri is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching fellow at Fordham University. She has published book reviews with Jacket. She is co-editor of the anthology, From the Heart of Brooklyn, and her poems appear there as well as in several literary magazines.
Rating: ***** [5 of 5 Stars!]