Monday, July 8, 2013

Review of A Glossary of Chickens

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A Glossary of Chickens.
Gary J. Whitehead. 

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, March 11, 2013. 72 pages, ISBN: 978-0691157467

The first thing to strike one about Whitehead’s poetry is the simple beauty of its language.  He clearly knows language as a tool to create art, to create beautiful objects.  Beyond the meaning of what is said, there is a profound pleasure in reading something like,

. . . . . . . . . . flecks of pepper atop the soap dish soup
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (“Drosophila Melanogaster”)

or, with a more delicate touch, something like
. . . . . . . . . . Autumn, with its globes, the gold and silver saved,
. . . . . . . . . . hanging here and there like something to reach for,
. . . . . . . . . . has become this time to walk through
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (“Warren”)

These are the kinds of linguistic graces that feed the more rarified elements in the sensibility, the depths that only a handful of prose writers ever reach, and even when they do, do so only as they approach the province of poetry.  
The second thing to strike a reader of Whitehead’s poetry is the simple pleasure of following his mind through its connections, both serious and humorous.  For instance, his latest collection (his third), A Glossary of Chickens, opens its first section with a poem called, “The Wimp.”  But this “chicken” is such, as the poem says, because “I lack wherewithal.”  And so, one of the primary thematic threads is established and probed, which is the question of purpose or intention and how it threads or thwarts true living.  This motif is introduced along with others in the opening proem of the collection, “Oyster.”  
The negative image of the oyster as “all abductor-muscled,” filtering the world, the “as-yet/with now instead/of then,” leads into questions of the past and present crisscrossing as they do with the attempt to understand life.  But the poem ends with advice to this tightly closed animal,
. . . . . . . . . . Better to be rent apart,
. . . . . . . . . . all jiggly and liberated,
. . . . . . . . . . than to fret an irk until it’s pearled.
And here we have the seed of thematic contention: how what appeared to be a needed vessel – like a shell – can come into conflict with inspired living.  Such vessels can be in many shapes, they could be people we once cherished or plans as simple as naming things that mislead us into thinking “that by naming we can understand,” or certain desires that are part of “the unrealizable certainty/of the way things should be.”  What often shocks us out of these ruts is death, or the threat of death, the various kinds of loss.  All the shapes of that threat wake us to living as it is meant to be, or to the simple pleasure of being alive.
. . . . . . . . . . Why overprioritize long-term plans
. . . . . . . . . . at the expense of our present enjoyment?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (“Drosophila Melanogaster”)

But it is not a simple insight to live by, about as easy as making a flower bloom by yelling at it to do so.  The root problem is “we are pinioned by whatever we are.”  The tragedy that often shocks us back into inspired living becomes nothing but a season to the quotidian, as the salt pile of “Lot’s Wife,” by the end of that poem, and after people have moved on from the tragedy of the city’s destruction, becomes nothing more than “salt with which//to season for a while their meat, their daily bread.”  
From beginning to end, the collection is a transformation of the idea of death, from a tragedy that we try to elude or which makes us cherish life, to a shedding in the form of all loss necessary to life as it moves forward.  The why of living gives way to the what as life is embraced in the moment.  Or, as it says in “Death Watches,” “Not why, then, but when to bite/and what like.”  This transformation is also reinforced by succeeding poems.  Thus, in the final section, the poem “Death Watches” is followed by “In the Butterfly Conservatory.”  Apart from the butterfly being a timeworn image of transformation and renewal, the poem concludes
. . . . . . . . . . There must be room for joy,
. . . . . . . . . . a door to the other side.

This transformation is mirrored in the full arc of the final section, which opens with a poem called “Slaveship” and ends with a poem called “Ararat” where Noah contemplates the remains of the ark years after it served its purpose.  The slaveship becomes that discarded ark that carried the needed cargo for the world to survive.  Now that its purpose is served, it is not needed.  Any plan that has served its purpose, if we continue to follow it, becomes a prison, a trap, a slaveship.  It would be as if Noah had kept his family and the animals on the ship after the waters receded.  Wisdom and this collection teach us to abandon the plans that have served their purpose, the various stratagems that enslave us, just as the poem “Ararat” concludes with the observation
. . . . . . . . . . Above the green plateau there is always grief,
. . . . . . . . . . which, inspired, becomes the breath of life.
Throughout, this collection is a pleasure to read.  Only one puzzle piece did not fit: its section breaks.  The coherence of the collection is so clear and the progression from one poem to the next so strong, even when crossing from section to section, the section breaks seemed rather forced to frame the thematic development unnecessarily.  Thankfully these section breaks don’t do any harm to the collection.  
A Glossary of Chickens is one of the more beautiful and subtle collections I’ve read in some time.  In fact I haven’t even touched on the nuanced distinction the collection makes between memory and the past or explored the significance of how the collection’s third poem is about Lot’s Wife and the concluding poem about Noah and the seeming bridge between them is Melville. But I will leave these for readers to search out themselves since there are simply too many connections to explore in a brief review.
Though it is never said, A Glossary of Chickens suggests that life is truly lived when it is lived like good jazz rather than as an agenda.  In fact, we need to break free of agendas, free of the plans that have served their purpose, in order to truly live.  This may be the reason for the underlying sea imagery throughout the collection.  Perhaps that connection to the sea suggests the importance of flowing, of letting go and moving on, like a river, like water.  The collection is a quiet carpe diem, not shouting it, as so many literary works do, as if seizing the day were only possible to the loudmouthed and frantic.  Instead, it seems to say that enjoying our daily bread with full awareness is the profoundest form of seizing the day.

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