Review of The Refrain by Anne Whitehouse

Dos Madres Press, 2012 By Nonnie Augustine

I read The Refrain knowing that I would be reviewing it for The Linnet’s Wings, so I decided to turn back the corners of pages when I found a poem I might like to quote or reference in my review. (I don’t approve of turning back corners of pages, but I was out of postÂÁit notes.) This method didn’t work, however, because I wanted to return to every poem I read, or quote it, or comment on it. I read the collection through again on another night, when I happened to be much grumpier, but again I liked every poem! So, there you have it. I think this is a splendid collection, written by a fine poet. I thought this during my first reading, when I was in relatively good physical, mental, and spiritual condition, and on rereading, when I was miserable with allergies, felt like a dolt, and had a lousy attitude.

Ms. Whitehouse came through for me because she connects, reveals, soothes, and amuses. She uses language masterfully and with subtlety in forms that serve the clear meanings in each verse. A Harvard graduate who did her MFA at Columbia with Charles Wright her thesis advisor, Anne Whitehouse writes with maturity, compassion and insight about the people, places, and experiences in her world and, it seemed to me, in mine. This translation from the author’s world to the reader’s is one of the magical traits of good poetry. When a poet has the skill to do this, their work enlightens and enriches us and this author has the magic touch.
“The Beyond," a poem about a woman who has lost a loved one to the monstrous events of September 11, 2001, is delicate. A less skillful poet might reach for drama, pound our senses, describe for us something we almost all eventually witnessed, at least second hand. Ms. Whitehouse reins her poem in so that we hear the sad, confused, small wonderings of one grieving woman. With a few strokes she brings us back to the scenes of death and destruction in lower Manhattan, but the most satisfying lines in the poem are, although metaphysical, familiar and therefore real to me.

What she’d like most is to partake
of this life-after-death experience
while still alive, so she would know.
But life’s condition is ignorance.

She thinks how she might think his thought. Those actual inklings of him, in her.
This is also her link, her claim to faith.

Yes! This happens when we grieve. We yearn for inklings of our loved one, in us. (And what excellent use of italics, don’t you think?)

“Fertile Earth," is an action poem. Two women, “one aging and one old,-- want to plant a rose bush in a certain spot, but they encounter a boulder. “I said, 'Let’s plant somewhere else.’/ ’No,’ she disagreed, 'we’ll find a way.’ And they do. Here’s the final strophe“:

All afternoon before the rain,
I clipped the dead hostas’ withered stems
and raked out piles of dead leaves from the beds.

Wet and chill, as if a cloud had sunk to earth,
in the strangely muffled air of November,
I listened to the chirp of a hawk circling overhead.

My body bent to my labors; my mind wandered free.
Make room! More room!

I like the author’s rule-breaking tendencies. If an adverb is wanted, as in “the strangely muffled air of November," we get an adverb. She does not torture her language to avoid the use of a gerund. The “hawk is circling overhead." She even ends the poem with an exclamation point! Two!

In the short poem, “Before Rosh Hashanah" In memory of William Soloman, the poet accomplishes a character study and a tender tribute without using any descriptives of the man she is writing about except to tell us he is a bachelor. The poem tells us only about one thing he does devotedly, and we know him.

I will unfold the corners of my copy of The Refrain, not just because I don’t like my books to be mistreated, but because I know if I flip open to any page I will find a good poem. This is a collection I will keep handy and enjoy again. I heartily recommend it to you.

Nonnie Augustine

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