Thursday, March 16, 2017

Meteor Shower - Poems by Anne Whitehouse - a Review

Anne Whitehouse, Meteor Shower. 2016. Loveland, OH: Dos Madres Press. 86 pgs. $17.00. ISBN: 978-1-939929-60-0

Meteor Shower is a striking meditation on the passages of time and its connection with creativity. The book is broken down into six distinct sections, and each seems to entail an expansion or a broadening arc of concern and insight. In Section I, “A Girl Who Fell in Love with an Island,” the reader moves through moments trapped in time.  I was drawn in by two poems in particular here. “Fires of Youth” beautifully captures the essence of the section: “And when the raising of our children is over,/ and they set out on their own lives,/ we are aware of life passed as if in a dream--/our mortality, our lost vitality.” There is a longing to return to still life moments of the past, such as giving away dresses, filing away unreachable vacation scenes and seeing yourself as a ghost at age 27.  “One-Way Session” aptly captures a moment of transition.  It’s obvious there has been the death of a trusted marriage therapist in the opening stanza. The speaker senses: “From deep within/ I feel the release from/ that old way of being.” Whitehouse moves the reader into a bleaker journey at this point. We sense a break here coming, a movement into a difficult place of transition.

“The Eye That Cries” focuses on mourning.  It is a darker section of the collection, almost as if the poet is leading us downward, in order to move us upward as she proceeds. Poems here examine armed conflicts, suicides, and elegies. Some of the lines are beautiful and haunting. In “Mother of Suicides,” concerning mothers dealing with the deaths of children, the speaker seems to cry out:
            Worse than the dread were the discoveries.
            The nightmares have never gone away:

            What do you want from me?
            You were the one who left—
            Why won’t you let me go?
            Whatever I did that was wrong,
            I’m still paying for it.

The lines are painful, and like poems such as “LOL,” they seem consumed with dread.  The image of the lost marriage returns in “My Last Spring in My House and Garden.”  The speaker recollects a house she lived in for 35 years. The imagery is powerful and rooted. If she could, she “…would slip/ into the soil like a buried seed.” The poem plays on images of burial and uprooting. The speaker is blown far away from her home; her life is split by her broken marriage “…not cleanly,/ but with spikes and jagged edges.” It is poem of pain with the final image of the roots watered by tears, evoking the deep sadness of lost love.

In Section III “Moving,” the reader notices a subtle shift. Whitehouse seems to acknowledge loss, but there seems to be acceptance, a conscious step away from images of paralysis and drift. “Contraries” captures this well. It is a poem about recollecting a jellyfish’s sting. The speaker’s sister never ventures back into the ocean after the incident. The speaker insists on moving forward:
            Just imagine—not ever going under,
            always in air and not in water,
            never feeling the wonder
            of an alien element all around.

This captures a central idea in the grouping. There’s an acknowledgement of pain, but there’s a building on it, a movement forward. Two lines from “One Step Ahead” capture the sentiment as well: “…trying to dodge the traps ahead/ while fleeing the terrors behind.” The final poem of the section, “Delete, Delete,” portrays the everyday deletion of emails as a metaphor for the choices of things we cut and avoid, in order to live more fully in the present. 

In Sections IV and V, (The Mask and Grout Pond, respectively), I sense a shift into an almost-Zen appreciation of the present moment.  There seems to be more balance in these poems. They appear more whimsical and less occupied with the darkness of the past. For example, in “Less Impact,” we see this closing stanza:
            Relaxing my grip
            on the things
            of the world,
            I feel myself
            into the earth,
            into the air.

There is a clear echo of the imagery of Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and yet Whitehouse’s poem pushes readers into the air, into dissolution.  The poems of “Grout Pond” continue to evoke the present moment in shadows, dust motes, light and insects. They lead the reader carefully into the final section of the collection, “Life’s Continuous Chain.”

The sixth and final section of Meteor Shower contains some real gems, which aptly close the arc of the book. “Calligraphies” and “Meteor Shower” are two fine examples to note here. “Calligraphies” was awarded the 2016 Songs of Eretz poetry prize. It is a persona poem about the speaker’s father collecting calligraphy in Quanzhou. When revolution comes he buries and finally burns his collection. But he continues to write calligraphy in the puddles on the ground. The poem contains meditations on the infinite and the elusive power of language and art. Much of it can be lost or remain invisible to the world. “Some mysteries are meant to be discovered,/some are meant to remain heaven’s secrets.” The poem traces a historical moment of conflict, but it shows the transcendent power to achieve immortality. In “Meteor Shower,” Whitehouse closes the collection with creating a simple, yet beautiful image of connection. “We,” perhaps the speaker and reader together, stare up at the stars from a blanket. It’s a simple act, filled with wonder, for as we look up at the dark, starry unknown, we seem to better understand our selves and our purposes.
            At every instant we are
            what we have been and will be,
            our forebears who live on in us
            we remember, we resemble.

“Meteor Shower” closes with a unique insight into the art of writing itself. “The deed was minimal, the words exact,/ and I needed a lifetime to say them.” It’s a beautiful capturing of the poet’s mission to observe and record minutely from a particular space in time, with eyes ever upward on the infinite beyond our reach.

Meteor Shower is truly a stunning and moving collection of poetry. The shifts from section to section show a beautiful trajectory, down into memory and loss, back into engagement with the present, and finally a movement upward towards transcendence and infinity. The poems grapple, often intensely with loss and dislocation, and yet there is a sense of purpose to the pain. As one line in “Creativity” captures well about the collection as a whole: “An accident will lead you to creation.”  Yes, indeed, it does. 

- Ian S. Maloney is Professor of English at St. Francis College, where he directs the St. Francis College Literary Prize.  

Copyright©2017 by Ian S. Maloney