April 2nd, 2008
Review by Steven D. Schroeder
OUR CLASSICAL HERITAGE:
A HOMING DEVICE
by Caroline Noble Whitbeck
PO Box 478868
Chicago, IL 60647
73 pp., $14.00
Beginning with the title of Caroline Noble Whitbeck's first book of poetry, Our Classical Heritage: A Homing Device (Switchback Books, 2007), one of her primary concerns is clearly juxtaposition: of apparently unrelated concepts and objects, of classical and modern vocabularies, and of normally distinct syntactical units forced together. While the book's stylistic and formal ambitions at times exceed its reach, many of the poems succeed on a visceral level in conveying details of her characters, mainly young women with stark American lives.
Whitbeck's work resides somewhere inside the sphere of poems Stephen Burt terms "elliptical" (what Tony Hoagland calls "the skittery poem of our moment")--narrative coherence is fleeting and ghostly at most, but descriptive detail is energetic and precise on the phrasal level. Arielle Greenberg's introduction mentions one obvious forebear, C. D. Wright, who also provides an admiring blurb.
There are numerous other points of comparison: Lines such as "The living will cup their hands or wring them. Animal, vegetable, mineral, vessel, pick one. // The living will do this thing with water. To weather an arrest or a new name. . ." from Deathwatch are reminiscent, in both topic and nomenclature, of G. C. Waldrep's The Little Man in the Fire Hates Me:
There is not so much water here as pollen.
A lesson in obedience, in Victorian industry:
I am busy, busy therefore the child will live.
The syntax in Whitbeck's poems is frequently a deliberate car wreck, fragments spliced together mid-sentence and other sentences ending abruptly without reaching a grammatical destination, subject matter reinforcing the female and lost-in-America themes. In OK, she writes:
Greasestain on the chiffon from the pickup bed by the power plant bottleneck cough I'll show you a Big Dipper guffaw. Pass it will you wilting carnation. White ghost arc of the Wiffle ball socked between stuff of boys restless in rented-out. Girls older than their novelty IDs. All.
The cracked and rebuilt phrasing, especially when combined with neckbreaking changes in pace, diction, and cultural references from Latin to thoroughly contemporary, creates something American out of polyglot influences and causes audience reassessment of things taken for granted.
Our Classical Heritage occasionally becomes too fractured, extending itself beyond where a reader might reasonably be expected to go. One example is the collection of numbered poem fragments on pages throughout the book, complete with bracketed blank spaces and references to Greek mythology, sketching a story of a tree cut down and built into part of a ship, but in roughly reverse order. The gimmick brings back too many unpleasant memories of high school classes where poems were problems to be solved, and the poetry-as-archaeology theme is covered more succinctly and humorously in "Our Classical Heritage, an apparatus criticus":
Ed. Note: Codex Alpha was discovered
in an urn; Codex Beta in the mortar
of a barn; Codex Gamma plastered
to a mummy's instep.
Whitbeck's multi-tiered titles, such as "Epidemiology, entry: Metonymy" and "Noosphere, An Ars Poetica," may be overblown, but the language in the poems often defeats that potential obstacle by being both grounded and surprising, as in "Vacation, / do not exit. Tan less. // Diet to do so, / tin crew," from "Emergency Exit: evacuation instructions, evacuated." She also shifts to a simpler style of title with several taken from America Online and New York Times Web article headlines, including "Teenagers Star in the Story of Their Lives, Painful Details and All" and "What to Do if Your Kid Is a Bully."
Many poems in this collection share similar personas (if not truly a single identity or back-story) despite the overall communicative discontinuity. Some narrators contrast ordinary exteriors with not-so-innocent insides, as in the good-wishes-turned-curses of Chokecherry, the opening poem: "A molotov christening, a surfeit of shitfans. / Your savor spoiling in an airless car. // May your devil-may-care, tenterhooks." (And who wouldn't love the sonic and sensory effects of "a surfeit of shitfans"?)
These related characters outline an idea of America, perhaps John Berryman's Dream Song America, 50 years later and from a female perspective (though that comparison is merely shorthand). Whitbeck's writing often attains dreamlike and childlike qualities mixed with everyday banality, here in "As Always on Elm Street": "remember Daddy's army buddy a Yours Truly blade thin (the bluing poollight) as you batten down the basement footfalls (bass notes). . . ."
Given the intense poetry community discussion centered on the "Numbers Trouble" article by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young in Chicago Review, it seems unavoidable to mention that Our Classical Heritage: A Homing Device comes from a press dedicated to publishing poetry by women. However, since it's utterly inadequate to argue issues of statistics (the under-representation and marginalization of women, minorities, and lower income classes in contemporary poetry) using the anecdotal proof of a single specific book, the review must stick to the case at hand. Caroline Noble Whitbeck's inventive book deserves to be engaged by a larger community. Running in the Family concludes:
black bag with its hushlock: 'Love Is Strong As
Death.' As Death
what? (The copse keeping mum.) What now.
What now indeed. Tag, you're it.
Steven D. Schroeder’s writing is recently available or forthcoming from Verse, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics, The Laurel Review, Court Green, and Verse Daily. He edits the online poetry journal Anti-, works as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer, and splits his time between St. Louis and Colorado Springs.