It is rare to find a volume of poetry that stares so directly and honestly at life as does Anne Whitehouse’s new collection, Blessings and Curses. As the title suggests, Whitehouse intent is to encompass both the broadest and meanest aspects of human existence as they are revealed to her in the ordinary unfolding of her days. Whitehouse refuses to deny or glaze over her own insecurities, resentments, bad choices, and jealousies, while at the same time she remains open to numerous and sudden advents of grace, those moments that cast the physical and moral world in new relief. “The thing will reveal itself / only in its time” she writes in “Blessing XXXVI,” and indeed, the volume acts as kind of record book for all the minor discoveries and major miracles (or major discoveries and minor miracles) available to one who, like the poet, is patient enough to simply wait and pay attention. The meditative nature and purpose of the book asserts itself again and again as she describes moments of random, unexpected bliss: finding a rare seashell deposited, as if on purpose, at her feet; listening to the ticking of clocks painstakingly constructed by her uncle; watching “one of the last sunsets of the year, / red and purple” (“Blessing XX) behind her lawn; sharing a cup of “special recipe” hot chocolate with a stranger at a café; observing the seemingly magical emergence of seventeen year cicadas; realizing the baby soft hands of a cleaning woman who works without gloves.
All the poems exist within the circumference of Whitehouse’s own knowledge experience, but they do not only detail her own stories. Several poems, in fact, are told through the voices of other speakers, raising subjects as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, the Holocaust, September 11th, and the challenge of raising a mentally handicapped child. Whitehouse wisely resists the impulse to comment on these stories but instead stands back, allows the speakers their say, and then lets the reader draw his or her own conclusion. What becomes marvelously clear—both in these poems and the volume as a whole—is just how thin the line is between the blessing and the curse. Many of the curse poems come embedded with undeniable blessings and vice versa. The Jewish speaker of “Curse VII” remembers her devastation upon finding out that her parents were murdered during the war, but at the same time makes apparent the blessing her parents bestowed—unto her and to succeeding generations—in managing to ship her to England in 1938. The speaker of “Curse XI” describes the unprecedented horror of living through an atomic blast and yet explains that the long term result of the blast, and the war, was to bring her to upstate New York, where she taught Japanese at Vassar College. “I love it up there,” the speaker notes. This inherent duality of experience is perfectly reiterated in the last poem of the collection in which Whitehouse details her conversation with a Buddhist Monk working on a Mandala. With perfect equanimity, the monk informs her that the Mandala will be dropped in the Hudson, so that the materials can be “given back” to nature and the cycle of life continued. The poet does not accept the loss of the beautiful the Mandala nearly as easily as does the monk. “It mattered not to him that nothing lasted,” she writes, “and I counted it as a blessing and a curse” (“A Blessing and a Curse”).
Eschewing linguistic showmanship and the too familiar carpet bag of postmodern ironies, Whitehouse crafts quietly elegant poems in which the seemingly simple surfaces contain striking profundities and deeply felt experience. These poems literally glow from within. Of the pleasure of stepping in the “cold rushing waters” of a forest brook, the poet relates that “Later, dried and dressed, / my feet in socks and sneakers / hiking back on the trail, / I can still feel the cold / tingling in my soles” (“Blessing IX”). And nowhere is she more eloquent than when describing the intensely isolating challenge of rendering words, work that is at once unforgiving and divine, that can engender as much nostalgia for what has been lost as pride for what has been accomplished:
Tethered, words enter the mind
Through the eye or the ear
to make of themselves
the weightless structure
apprehended wholly or in part,
like a shape shifting in the mist,
reverberant as a song,
to be taken up or forgotten,
like spent desire, or sunlight
shining on water, a fading reflection. (“Blessing XVI”)
How fortunate for readers of contemporary poetry that Whitehouse has assembled such an accomplished and engaging meditation on life’s meanings and its accompanying troubles. “Her abiding wish / wish was to instruct by delight,” the poets writes of a pianist she once knew. The same can be said for this profound and delight-full collection.