Review of Meteor Shower by Anne Whitehouse
Dos Madres Press, 2016
John Vanderslice

For several years now, through a series of thoughtful and quietly beautiful books, Anne Whitehouse has proven herself to be among the most astute and substantial poets working in the United States. It is difficult think of another writer who is able to combine delicate, pitch-perfect lyricism with such urgent personal material. Whitehouse’s talents and her gentle wisdom are on full display in her latest collection Meteor Shower, a book that may be her most personal yet—and her most affecting.

Looking backward has long been both a favorite habit and in-born disposition for poets; and it is fair to say that typically one’s older years—and the poetry of one’s older years—inevitably entails a great deal of sorting and reflecting, taking stock of one’s life and one’s pain, adjusting grudges—or completely letting them go—such as experience and greater wisdom suggest. This is certainly true of Meteor Shower, a book that finds Whitehouse, with an honesty so naked it astonishes, reviewing whole portions of her past, especially those that brought lingering pain or regret, pestering complication. In a few cases, the pain and the regret and the complication even continue into the present.

Throughout, Whitehouse proves herself to be that rare poet who is unafraid to be emotionally straightforward, who eschews the glitter of fashionable wordplay for something far richer, more necessary, and more lasting: a connection to herself and to the reader. It is as if, in her later years, Whitehouse does not feel she has time to resort to the kind of opaque gimmickry of which younger poets have long been fond. Her material is far too pressing for that. And she wants too badly to do justice to that material. Lest the reader misunderstand, by no means does this result in a poetry that does not sparkle on the page. Whitehouse’s poetry not only sparkles but it illuminates; and not only does it illuminate but it evokes wonder. It is difficult to count the number of lines in this book that will bring a reader to a dead, whispery stop, repeating the lines to himself or herself, relishing their emotional power and their brilliant turns of phrase.

The opening section of the book, “A Girl Who Fell in Love With an Island,” contains many sterling examples of Whitehouse’s wisdom—and her lyric ability. Throughout this section Whitehouse revisits herself at different younger periods in her life; demonstrating not so much wry skepticism as fascination and affection and profound acceptance. Indeed, often what she emphasizes is how much of the past is not even past—to paraphrase Faulkner—but eternal. In the title poem of the section she says, with appreciation and even awe,

I was a girl who fell in love with an island.
Each time I’ve left here,
something of that quiet, introspective girl
has lingered behind and never left.
On visits when I come across her
she has never gotten any older.

A few poems further in, she recalls her stay long ago in a quaint village in “Old England,” the details of which place remain engrained in her mind. But even more engrained is the sense of herself, back then, sitting at the center of timeless motions, the abiding rhythms of life:

That night I lay in bed in a brown room
and watched the moon come up
over my windowsill, and the next morning the sun
did the same stunt in the same place.

This slurring of past and present, the intrusion of past into present, is baldly obvious in a poem like “An Afternoon Nap,” which starts as a harmless rendition of the writer sliding into sleep while staying in a seaside location. Unexpectedly she hears a voice calling out “Mama,” directly to her, “through the green summer, / “across the long years.” Instantaneously of course she is thrown upon her life’s history as a mother, its struggles and its delights, with the poem finally resolving into an immovable satisfaction, a sense that, however fraught her experience as a mother might have been, she can move on now, content that she did her best. The last lines ring with unavoidable double meanings:

In contentment I lay, not wanting to rouse,
in delicious reverie, as if drunk from lovemaking,
languorous and mellow, ready for the fall.

In other sections of the book, Whitehouse reveals that her past does not always, or even usually, bring to mind sensations of sweetness and nostalgia. Indeed, she suggests a variety of extended traumas: the failure of her marriage; the frightfully charged atmosphere of her childhood home, one ruled by an embittered, isolated father; a sister haunted by a string of stinging resentments she tries to drown out with words. At the end of the poem “A Backward Glance,” in which the poet has been reviewing several old photographs of herself and her family, she admits that she finds the photographs not reassuring but troubling and frankly misleading:

In these captured moments
everyone is always smiling,
and yet I want to weep
for what will happen to us,
for what has happened already.

And yet, the clear project of the book for Whitehouse is the working through of exactly all that “has happened,” the admitting to it all, both good and bad, and in the process to relieve herself and us of the burden of that past, neutralizing its sting, and even, in some cases, saving and redeeming what is valuable there, what was always there, despite the accompanying pain. All of which amounts, of course, to not just setting her past in order but herself, both for the life she still has ahead and the life that is already spent. The poem “Delete, Delete,” by embracing the seemingly mundane metaphor of eliminating unwanted emails, could represent Whitehouse’s entire effort throughout the collection.

Delete the urge to suffer
that twisted me in knots,
delete the need to be right,
to have the last word,
to have my own way.
Knowing that I cannot choose
the way my life will end.

Indeed, the art of poetry for Whitehouse performs the same kind of work for her as a shaman does for the speaker of one of her persona poems, “Calligraphies.” Like the shaman does for that man, poetry for Whitehouse has “protected me / from the ghosts of dissatisfaction / that were haunting me, / freeing me to communicate / the invisible within the visible.” Readers will glad to know that Whitehouse’s collection ends with the most confident assertion possible that the struggles of her past have done her and the world and her poetry good. Similarly, it can only do a reader good to pick up this eloquent and profoundly nourishing book, to read it slowly, to appreciate its wisdom, and to linger over its eternally delicious lines.