Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Anne Whitehouse poetry book Steady - Reviewed by Andrew Taylor-Troutman

Anne Whitehouse, Steady. 2023. Loveland, OH. Dos Madres Press. 206 pages. $22 U.S. paperback. 978-1-953232-83-8

Though the title poem in Anne Whitehouse’s collection is offered near the end of the book. I couldn’t help but turn to it first. “Steady” is an elegant, if simple poem of three stanzas with four lines in each. Lovely, I thought, then returned to the beginning of the book.
Whitehouse’s book has four sections, each titled for the first poem: “Morning Swim,” “Signs,” “An Art Story,” and “Blue.” Readers begin this journey with “Morning Swim,” a short poem that dives deeply into paradox: “What seems like silence / Is full of sound.” Other poems in this section often deal with water and death, perhaps another paradox (if one thinks of water as the necessity of life). The last line of “Morning Swim” references “endless waters,” which are suggestive of mystery and transcendence, that are simultaneously (paradoxically) “cold, healing, and bitter.”

Such complexity is further explored in the second section. This opening poem, “Signs,” suggests the COVID-19 pandemic (“The enemy is the invisible virus”) and other poems have temporal markers as well, suggesting the poet wants to ground us in the particular. In addition, I observe titles make direct reference to literary giants, Auden and Dante, and one epigraph cites Psalm 23. Though famous people and texts suggest grandiose topics, many of these poems center on quotidian subjects (a necktie, a book case) and everyday people. The idea seems to be that such ordinary people and things point (or signify) greater truths and realities: “a celebration of imaginary / over the mundane.”

The third section of Steady is longer than the previous two sections combined. These poems alternate between first- and third-person narratives of the lives of Ruth Asawa, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Iris Origo, Imogen Cunningham, and Frida Kahlo, whose picture is the book’s cover. Whitehouse writes a kind of historical poetry, obviously well-versed with the lives of her subjects. Yet in another “celebration of the imaginary,” she blends the artists’ own quotes with her own imaginative leaps about how they might have thought and felt.

I was struck that the lives of the artists highlighted in the third section of this book are anything but “steady”—they have health crises, accidents, infidelities, pain, and triumphs. I went back to the title poem, “Steady,” and its profundity became clear: “Another form of steadiness / is simply not to fall … change happens to us all.”

If the third section shows this kind of steadiness in the lives of famous people, then the fourth section reads as if Whitehouse has applied and played with lessons of perseverance and paradox in her own life. This short, final section is filled with simple delights, which remind me of poet Ross Gay. From Gay, I learned the insight that the prefix de- can entail an absence—“de-light” could mean the removal of light. This apophatic approach characterizes much of the poetry of this section. My absolute favorite, “Bridge Over the Nosterkill,” describes glimpsing a beloved person “out of the corner of my eye,” but instead of interrupting this person’s singing, “I listen without seeming to.”

After reading and re-reading the entirety of this elegant collection, I deeply appreciate the delight and power of Whitehouse’s poetry. Steady is rarely preachy or didactic. Profound, paradoxical truth about the “change (that) happens to us all” is communicated through subtle observation—the sidelong look and overhearing of “Bridge Over the Nosterkill” may be likened to the “slant truth” that Dickinson described.

The final poem, “Late Summer, Block Island,” includes a blessing that comes from the “beloved haunts of my essential solitude.” Whitehouse is clear-eyed about the difficulties of life, including suffering and grief, yet finds a reverence and awe worthy of sharing.

- Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the author of seven books, including Tigers, Mice & Strawberries: Poems.

Copyright©2023 by Andrew Taylor-Troutman. All Rights Reserved.