NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Glass Harvest by Amie Whittemore
(Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh, 2016)
Amie Whittemore is a poet and educator. An instructor at Middle Tennessee State University, she holds degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (B.A.), Lewis and Clark College (M.A.T.) and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (M.F.A.). As a Piedmont Virginia Community College English teacher, WriterHouse writing instructor and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series, a monthly event that presents poetry and prose readings for members of the community, she has helped many people to appreciate the richness of the written word.
Arresting titles are always a good start. Glass itself is a harvest of many parts: a fusion of one or more of the oxides of silicon, boron or phosphorous with certain basic oxides such as sodium, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Harvest conjures up autumn but it also, more broadly, reminds us of an end-product, the result of any labour or act. Whittemore’s harvest is one of words, a lexical kaleidoscope of mesmerising phrases taken from the natural world. It is also a harvest of memories and sometimes a harvest of dreams.
The photograph on the front cover is by the American photographer, Laura McPhee. It has an air of mystery about it. A woman in a white nightgown is standing alone in a golden field and raising an instrument to the expansive sky. The title, Judy Tracking Radio-Collared Wolves From Her Yard, Summer Range, H-Hook Ranch, Custer County, Idaho, 2004, dispels the mystery. Judy is a real person known to the photographer and this is one of her early morning rituals, to keep the family and animals safe from wolves, which have been controversially reintroduced into the area. There are no poems about wolves in this collection but there is a real connection between humans and animals, plants and the environment. Both photographer and poet seem to be wedded to the natural world. McPhee considers her lifework to be “to look at and understand the language of a place,” and Whittemore, with the same penetrating observation, draws us into the natural world and heightens our senses with her striking phrasing and imagery.
Whittemore dreams of raising canaries in a basement, she has the ability to extrapolate an entire imaginary alphabet from a single letter. At other times, she wakes up thinking of clarinets. There is music in her poems and it is often tinged with sadness and loveliness.
In this collection, human beings are very much a part of the natural world. “Yes, I’m talking about being a tree again” Whittemore writes in Autumn Thinking. This longing to be one with nature, to “wade into thigh-deep waves…to walk into kelp’s dark arms” (Inventing a Seashell) runs through the whole book and in some poems, most notably Switchgrass, the connection becomes unashamedly erotic. The poems blend into the landscape, into lush meadows full of spring flora and also into the animal kingdom. In Whittemore’s poems children are “deer-hooved” and “hawk-eyed” (First Kingdom), her world is a place where engages wholeheartedly with all living things – “sometimes I speak from the wounded bird” (Inept Koan), it is a land where even a five-year old’s insight is described in botanical terms.
In a recent interview with Elizabeth Derby in c-ville, Whittemore says Poetry reminds me of making a collage. You’re looking at feelings and impressions, a lot of different pieces and how they feel when they’re next to each other. You’re not necessarily fitting them together to make a realistic photograph...It’s a way to think about things. It’s not necessarily linear, doesn’t necessarily have to fall into a clear logic, yet it brings me clarity in how I’m trying to engage with an idea or feeling or moment in my life. I make no apology for quoting these lines in full because this, to me, is one of the keys that unlocks the door to an understanding of her work. It gives an insight into her method of composition. This is particularly the case in poems like Perpetual Meadow, Yard Catalog and Memory Palace. In the list poem, Yard Catalog, an exercise in word association, reading left to right, it is possible to discover the connections that have been made between one side and the other and to note the presence of the black dog which is repeated three times.
Whittemore charts the fragility of things with care and precision. The poem Crush says it all. The see-saw of emotion is aptly captured in the opening lines. Daylight is not only beautiful, it is pulchitrudinous – five syllables sound better than three when expressing the intensity of the moment.
My mind’s oatmeal again,
heart a trapeze, daylight
so pulchritudinous, I’d lie
in grass till sunset, pinned
to lips, torsos, tongues,
thighs (all yours and mine)...
As the title suggests, with its multiple meanings, there is also a sense that things could break up at any moment, and an equal astonishment that they haven’t, such is the intensity of this desire:
Upon marriage, I thought such seasons
of melt and flourish would vanish.
Yet it’s spring all the time,
peony-headed and prone to fall apart.
The stark contrast between this poem and Another Beach Poem shows that Whittemore is equally at ease writing about desire as she is about emptiness:
Ravish me, we say to our lovers.
How boring that grows.
As usual, I pretend something:
The dog gutting a deer,
my body a lightning whelk.
As usual, I envy all
that’s not human.
Whittemore on her dark side is also lyrical. The book opens with a set of aphorisms. The one in the centre of the poem reads as follows:
The tax you pay for loving is grief.
There is a lot of loving in this collection and not a little grief. The dichotomy of desire and its ramifications is summed up disturbingly in this one-liner from Perpetual Meadow:
when balance wobbles, climate shifts, or shade encroaches.
When things get out of kilter, everything becomes affected. Here we have the longed-for harvests that, for the present, only exist in the imagination. In Dream of the Ark, a woman speaks of the children she would like to one day have but then realises that she is faced with having to make a choice between the children and the fulfilment of another dream:
But what I mean is, I want to unbutton the future
and find a breathing lung, I mean, if we indulge in a dream
of new Hirams and Kathryns, new Edwins and Whitts,
if we kissed open their eyes, inhaled their birthy scent,
would the other dream, of keeping the farm, of replanting orchards,
of raising goats, vanish?
In Blackberry Season Whittemore explores the struggle of complex sexual relationships. The undercurrent of darkness is hinted at in the opening lines which then prepare us for what is to follow later on:
We toss blackberries at each other’s mouths
as if they are tiny grenades –
their stains swelling like bruises.
.....I can’t look at you,
strange man, without thinking of the woman I left,
those small pumpkins that were her breasts.
The poem, To My Future Granddaughter, covers difficult terrain. To use a musical analogy, it is Whittemore writing in a different key. The light-hearted, straight-talking language proves a very effective vehicle for putting across the subject of heartbreak and divorce. For me, it is one of the most powerful poems in the book.
Several poems make reference to Elizabeth Bishop who Whitemore clearly views as a kindred spirit. Inspired by Traci Brimhall’s project to read a poem by Emily Dickinson every day, Whittemore produces a series of meditations on Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, which she calls The Bishop Blogs whenever she has a moment to do so. Whittemore describes this project as a practice in gentle, intentional engagement... a thing to do when one doesn’t know what to write.
Whittemore’s is an original voice. She has an eye and an ear for a beautiful turn of phrase. This is an exciting debut collection that holds the reader’s attention with its striking phrasing, taut imagery and lush lines. Its dreamlike evocations, binding together a past, a present and a future and its exploration of our relationship to the natural world reaps its own harvest of plenty. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).