A Glossary of Chickens by Gary J. Whitehead, is an offering from the re-launching of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Paul Muldoon is the series editor, and when I heard him speak recently, I felt his dismay when he spoke of gaps in his students’ knowledge. I suspect Muldoon has a kindred spirit in Whitehead, who teaches high school English.
Whitehead’s poems are learned without being fussy, masterfully observant and complete. He provides a seriously good time with words like “poltroon,” the sound of which (like so many words here) enhances its basic definition. He is attentive in ways that offer a digestible, quirky adhesiveness.
In “The Wimp,” in the first section, Whitehead creates a first person character, and whether it is autobiographical or not is irrelevant:
They called me The Wimp, and I was.
Not for any reason I can put my finger on
but because, in general, I lacked wherewithal.
I was a poltroon, and none of them
knew that word or any better than “wimp”
and probably still don’t. If one of them does,
I wouldn’t know so. These years before
and during and after high school
swirl in my memory now like squalls of snow,
like the time when, on a whim, in late December,
my friends and I told our folks we were going camping
in the wildlife refuge two towns over,
the flakes already falling, our gear pitiful
hand-me-downs, none of it insulated or waterproof,
rum bottles clinking in our knapsacks like muffled toasts
to the end of our young lives. Inches had fallen
by the time we bivouacked at the Caratunk cave.
Wet kindling whispered. Not even leaves would catch.
In five o’clock dark, we crawled into the tent
soaked and shivering and stoned, no one willing to state
the obvious –that we might die out there in what,
we all knew by then, was a blizzard unpredicted.
Who it was had the wherewithal to suggest
we pack it in, I don’t recall, but I remember humping,
drunk and exhausted, through two-foot drifts
in the hushed woods, my toes gone numb in thin boots,
our flashlight beams a mix up mystification
panning over moguls of snow-covered brush.
I wouldn’t have minded expiring there
under the laden arms of a spruce.
The past is a distance, and life has, at times,
been a stumbling through thick drifts, batteries dying.
They’d think of me still as The Wimp.
So there’s the future, like the lost pair of sneakers
we found in the spring, and growing between
their double-knotted laces a sapling.
Plan A was not to quote the whole poem, but like Tobias Wolff or other contemporaries in that league, Whitehead blurs with perfection the line between story-telling and poetry. As I began copying, I didn’t want to stop, much as I hope readers will want more at the end of this collection.
The sapling as a last word is tonally adolescent, as well chosen as every other in the piece. Riffing on this could go on and on, with nods to the way many kids need to prove themselves, the imaginative among them noting sweetly, not cloyingly, the laden arms of the spruce. If one were a particular kind of Catholic (and I have no idea what Whitehead’s religious views are) one could consider that living spruce, arms holding pure white snow, as a stand-in for the Virgin Mary. All this and more and we’re only on page five. Though snugly enclosed beneath that spruce, the voice embodies spaciousness.
The title poem is another beauty, rising inevitably at the end, to the ache of trying to communicate that unites every living creature, including those who don’t possess potential to accurately translate their own language:
There should be terms, too, for things
they do not do—like urinate or chew—
but perhaps there already are.
I’d want a word for the way they drink,
head thrown back, throat wriggling,
like an old woman swallowing
a pill; a word beginning with S,
coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”
And one for the sweetness of hens
but not roosters. We think
that by naming we can understand,
as if the tongue were more than muscle.
I spend a lot of time pondering what sight and sound demand and provide, and here and in almost every line in this book, I find wise, well-marked approaches to answers.
There’s a reliable steadiness that is never soporific , the energy unwavering even when tone and speed shift, as in “Letter Written in Pokeberry Ink.” Whitehead missed the trap of falling into flabby reverie, in part because he had the good sense to keep out the “I,” so that we have no certain knowledge of who is actually looking at, or imagining the object:
It would likely begin with the salutation
of “Dear” or “Dearest,” unless addressed
to a brother back home and so, less formal,
something like “Thomas,” or “Lem”;
and if a love letter penned before a march
toward some battle rumored to be fierce—
“To My Most Loving Wife.” Script , not print,
the writing a bit ragged, as though composed
while hungry or very scared. In spots
where the writer paused—round splotches
like drips of sweat or blood from a wound
to the head. The content what you might expect—
the rain in Richmond, Chattanooga’s
stifling heat, the boredom of the march,
valiant acts only hinted at, memories
of youth, a long untasted dish. In closing,
a compliment, most likely, or an affirmation
of devotion or intent – “Lovingly,” “Fondly,”
“Yours,” “God Bless.” And by the time
it were opened, the pokeberry ink, faded a little
but readable, like scars on skin.
Like every poem in this collection, the sounds of the details connect to context, here the Civil War and the slow tools of communication. The final four words affect intake of breath in welcome ways. I repeat. Masterfully observant and complete.