Review: Finding One Thing in Another: Anne Whitehouse’s The Refrain
Having come to enjoy Anne Whitehouse’s poetry several years ago, I was immensely pleased to see her gather poems from three earlier chapbooks into The Refrain, a wonderfully varied selection of, as she says in “Rites of Spring,” “my life: finding one thing in another.”
But her poetry is so much more than that self-effacing phrase because it so often not just finds but holds one thing in another, as so often the best poetry does. As Wallace Stevens says in “Anecdote of the Jar,” I think one of the most succinct definitions of a poem, or any work of art, the piece is like putting a jar in the woods in Tennessee: “It made the slovenly wilderness/ Surround that hill/…no longer wild.” He adds that the jar was “a port in air,” as are Anne’s poems ports in air, windows bringing in and letting out, but ports as safe harbors, sanctuaries, that hold and organize parts of a terrifying and chaotic world.
In many of these poems, Anne looks out at what in “The Beyond” she calls “proof of the co-existence/ of beauty and ugliness,” but we are so frequently reminded that ugliness can be faced, even embraced, if we are not alone. Even when she speaks of separation, saying in one poem, “our hands fell away like leaves,/ So easily we came apart,” her words cause delicate pleasure in sadness.
When Anne Whitehouse speaks about a stag harried by a coyote in a stream outside the window one night, “the deep groan” waking her in bed, she peers out to see the coyote “Worrying the stag’s brown-and-white tail/ To and fro like a fish in its mouth,” eventually running off when it senses her at the window. The description is frightening but not maudlin or sentimentalized, even as she describes the stag’s “life helplessly slipping away.” Sad, of course, but not overdramatized, as we pick up the rhythm of the poem and realize that we and she are the same, and we are both the stag, too. We are Frederick in “After the Accident,” as he refuses to accept his diminished capacity, “with his hand/ bent like a claw/ scooping up a piece of fish/ to weigh it for a customer.” She reminds us that we become our worlds—and her worlds become ours. Just as in “Lightning Strike,” when she helps a lost bird that was trapped in her house find the way out, we become somehow both the one to show the way and the one to fly out.
The poems in The Refrain are such a rich selection of jars, holding moments, as when in “The Raccoon” she says “A space opened in my life,/ and the animal stepped in/ alien, mysterious, yet inexpressibly close,” but she has the uncanny ability to make me her in the poem and her poem that being that is alien, mysterious, yet inexpressibly close.
Read these poems—enjoy them as those fine expressions of when the “I” in the poetry invariably becomes me and you. We then join her at the close of this volume: