Strange What Rises

Departing from the more whimsical tone of A Glossary of Chickens, Whitehead's last book, this new collection explores, among other subjects, childlessness in middle age, the general sense of despair in the age of Trump, the vicissitudes of divorce, the pain of parental aging, and the mystery of mortality. Laden with regret and misgiving, but illuminated by glimmers of hopefulness and joy, the poems flow organically and without sections, one building on the other with thematic or linguistic links, moving from silence to song, from a corrupted flower to "the force / of the crossing when the humming ceases."

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A Glossary of Chickens

With skillful rhetoric and tempered lyricism, the poems in A Glossary of Chickens explore, in part, the struggle to understand the world through the symbolism of words. Like the hens of the title poem, Gary J. Whitehead's lyrics root around in the earth searching for sustenance, cluck rather than crow, and possess a humble majesty.

 

Confronting subjects such as moral depravity, nature's indifference, aging, illness, death, the tenacity of spirit, and the possibility of joy, the poems in this collection are accessible and controlled, musical and meditative, imagistic and richly figurative. They are informed by history, literature, and a deep interest in the natural world, touching on a wide range of subjects, from the Civil War and whale ships, to animals and insects. Two poems present biblical narratives, the story of Lot's wife and an imagining of Noah in his old age. Other poems nod to favorite authors: one poem is in the voice of the character Babo, from Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, while another is a kind of prequel to Emily Dickinson's "She rose to His Requirement."

 

As inventive as they are observant, these memorable lyrics strive for revelation and provide their own revelations.

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Measuring Cubits
while the Thunder Claps

The bulk of the poems in this collection were written while Whitehead was in residence at a remote cabin in the wilderness of Oregon. During this residency, he lived off the electricity grid, two hours from the nearest town, his only companion his dog, Gus. Whitehead was going through a divorce and had sold his house in New York and moved all of his things into storage. With no newspapers and a radio he was loath to listen to, he was virtually cut off from news, and had no idea that in July terrorists had bombed London's transit system or that in August Hurricane Katrina had struck—until his ex-wife called on the radio phone and gave him the news. Hence, the title of the book. During the deluge, he was building poems, measure by measure, line by line, oblivious to the world’s tragedies. The poems in this collection deal with divorce, solitude, illness, death, terrorism, natural disaster and the guilt of inaction. But, arising out of a remote utopia, they deal, too, with nature’s beauty and with hope found in the small occurrences of domestic economy.

The Velocity of Dust

With sharp imagery, metaphor, and music, these poems sift through the natural world and human nature, finding their subjects in time, family, love, work, spirituality, redemption, and death. Using what X.J. Kennedy has called "a keen eye for unforgettable details, a masterly command of the language," Whitehead endeavours to find what lies beneath the surface, as in the title poem in which a young couple, refinishing a kitchen table to "remove the old layer of dark varnish," expose more than just the wood's grain. Perhaps just as important, this poet delights in the mystery of process as much as in the truth that is revealed.

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© 2019 by Gary J. Whitehead