In Lieu of a Letter
(Mount Olive College Press, 2000)
It's a pleasure to read a collection of poems that combines mastery of craft with psychological insights and emotional depth. The work of Karen Whitehill exhibits all of these qualities in her first book, In Lieu of a Letter, winner of the Lee Witte Poetry Contest. In these poems distance is something to be both protected and despaired of-a given, whether we're talking about art or nature, motherhood or marriage. "Distance is the origin of fear. / Distance is the origin of desire," says an inscription in "The Idols." It is the inevitable discord between sexes in "The Match": "Every couple is a mixed marriage, / lying under the covers, flesh against flesh." Distance is what a mother feels from her former self: "In the background, / a boat with sails full as breasts / drifts away-her old self / with its cargo of dreams?" ("Maternity"). And distance is what allows the speaker's mother to respond to her own father's death with "lungpower: / the flute she raised / to stiff lips, a numb beauty / defying the harsh Yankee air-" ("Coral"). Without distance however, without separateness, life would be static: "You give it your best: / your divided attention. / doesn't all growth begin / with dividing?" ("On Interstate 64").
One strength of Whitehill's work is its evocative use of metaphor. Her metaphors evoke the possibilities of relationships between people, and between the animate and inanimate, without reducing elements to simple allegory. Her metaphors are detailed and alive with many possible meanings. Is "Like a Chinese Painting" a poem about a work of art-or the life of the artist that created it? or artistic perfection in conflict with what's human? or the conflict between the stasis of a work of art and the inevitable change that is part of nature? The poet captures equally well both the power of the artwork and the feelings of uneasiness it evokes. Distance plays a part here is "many years" of solitude that resemble the "few quick brush strokes / sparingly applied, / then all this blank space." The white space in the art is "an absence making a point," and it allows the painting to capture what is ordinarily elusive: "the vast uncontainable background." In this art, human passions are an intrusion kept to a minimum; nature, however, will not be kept out:
If there are humans painted in below,
fishing or carrying wood,
we don't picture them dreaming of passion
or anyone's rebirth.
One can almost smell the ailanthus
choking the air, its ranks closing in.
It can't be uprooted fast enough.
Whitehill's work also contains briefer metaphors, equally satisfying. In "Blue Ridge Overlook," for example, a unexpected insight is compared to a moment when "[you] suddenly feel / a hand pulling you on like a glove."
Throughout the book, the poems also show an admirable variety of form: free verse and villanelle, pantoum, and even one, dedicated to Emily Dickinson, in Dickinson's own slant-rhymed ballad form. And the use of form in these poems is never merely an exercise. Whitehall's language is both economical and musical, and her poems are a pleasure to encounter for the first time and in subsequent rereadings, as they continue to yield insights and multiple possibilities.
Martha Carlson-Bradley is the author of Nest Full of Cries (Adastra Press, 2000) a poem sequence based on the Grimm Brothers' Hansel & Gretel. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Carolina Quarterly, Yankee, Calliope and the Marlboro Review (Issue 10). She is a recipient of a Saint Botodlph Foundation Grant awarded to emerging New England writers. She works on the staff of the New Hampsire Writer's Project and lives in New Hampshire with her husband and song.
Copyright ©2002 Martha Carlson-Bradley