(West Caldwell, NJ: Terrapin Books, 2019)
Some poets remind us what quietude can bring, that it is not synonymous with disengagement nor weakness. Rather, bringing the noise level that surrounds us down for a few moments (to read a poem), or better yet, hours (to read a collection), can provide a canvas for clarity. In Strange What Rises by Gary J. Whitehead, we experience pages that hum with effective white noise, such as “painted chambers” and a “blue-dawning day,” allowing, for example, the “strike-anywhere matches” and “glorious revolution” to sing with clarity and spectacular vibrato.
Some of the poems in Strange What Rises abide by formal poetic form. “Garden Shed in Winter,” for example, is a sonnet. This 14-line poem, with 10-syllable lines, demonstrates such gorgeous craftmanship that, on my first read, I did not even notice it was a sonnet until the closing lines: “Couldn’t I see there was nothing to do? / I took a last look and pulled the door to.” The phrase “pulled the door to” feels less colloquial than the lines preceding it. In the wrong instance, with imprecise placement, this line might have caused me to stumble in my reading, might have taken me out of the moment; however, this intriguing closure has a resonant effect. This final line is what nudged me to explore the structure of the poem, noticing it is a sonnet, and then more deeply contemplate the turn near the end, a familiar characteristic of the sonnet. In “Garden Shed in Winter,” the speaker of the poem looks closely at the contents of his shed, the “rolled packs of seeds,” the “twine hung from its peg,” and even “a pea-sized mummy rolled into a web,” which, for me, as a gentle shift from some lists of intimate objects to a living creature, is a reminder that this poem is not about the shed itself, which is “unfazed by cold,” but rather about the agency of the speaker. Therefore, I find comfort in the closing lines in a poem that might otherwise have left me a bit despondent. The shed is not coldly rejecting us during the winter, keeping us from the “tulip bulbs with their pom-pom / roots.” Rather, perhaps we can shift to a contentment of sort, look to be cozy in these winter months, without ever explicitly being told what to do or feel.
I was thrilled to find the finely crafted villanelle, “Because It Is Cold and Nightfall Comes,” within the pages of Strange What Rises. This poem is composed of nineteen lines, the first of which are tercets and the closing a quatrain, and it shines in what is, I believe, the most important facet of a villanelle, it’s crescendo in intensity and the parallel shift in understanding. We begin in the quiet of what feels like winter: “In the cave of the chest the wild heart drums / around a fire and clutches close a fur / because it is cold and nightfall comes.” However, when we reach the fourth of the six stanzas, an introductory clause, “The fire-lit walls,” adds a flicker of light on which the 12th, 13th, and 14th of the 19 lines build: “ In the cave of the chest the wild heart drums, // but the drums have never felt palms or thumbs / or fists, never throbbed in the open air.” The line break between “thumbs” and “or fists” superbly accentuates the “fists” and their throbbing. Because of this turn, I am then prepared for the more abstract concepts in the closing stanza, the “fear-sack” and “lonely hold,” and when we arrive at the closing two lines, which are the lines that repeat throughout the poem, as called for by the structure of the villanelle, I can feel the heat of the cold and of the nightfall, a brilliantly burning juxtaposition.
Many of the poems in the collection are not written according to formal forms, but the poet’s attention to craft in those pieces is no less astute, is just as stunning. In “Forgetfulness,” for example, we explore the loss of memory and, perhaps, even life: “I wander the rooms where I grew / soon to be someone else’s.” “Forgetfulness” is composed in couplets, and these pairings offer a gentleness to the reader, some white space to process, but never a stark, lonely, alienating line. This feels like a gesture of kindness from the poet during some of the more heartbreaking moments.
Gary J. Whitehead is a master in poetic structure. Strange What Rises offers us a platform on which we can safely be still so that we might contemplate, mourn, or even celebrate, for example. With the purity of Jack Gilbert and the perceptiveness of Jorie Graham, Whitehead’s poems in Strange What Rises demonstrate deliberate foundations, flourishing scaffolding, and breathtaking ornamentation.
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Heather Lang-Cassera, recently chosen as Clark County, Nevada’s Poet Laureate, holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation. In 2017 she was named Las Vegas’ Best Local Writer or Poet by the readers of KNPR’s Desert Companion, and her poems have been published by The Normal School, North American Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and many other literary journals. She serves as World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun, and Editor-in-Chief for Tolsun Books. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Creative Writing, World Literature, and more.