Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Philip White: THE CLEARING

Philip White’s collection of poems, The Clearing, could be regarded as a book of mourning and grieving containing works in which the poet mourns the deaths of his parents and grieves over the loss of his wife, whose death in her mid-thirties seems to be a central circumstance initiating many of the most emotional moments. This volume, winner of the Walt McDonald First Book Award presented by Texas Tech University Press, displays a dedication to those three individuals now missing, and missed by the poet, whose series of pieces might be seen almost as an elegiac sequence, especially if readers remember that an elegy frequently reveals and informs as much about the speaker as it does about the subject under discussion.

White nearly acknowledges such an effect in “The Roads,” a poem spoken about his father: “What I remember / is a photograph of his I found once, / a curving lane, arching yellow trees, / a house. I wanted to have seen that.” The speaker tries to recreate the scene in this old photograph using his father’s Leica; however, although the natural landscape remains much the same, the son cannot capture the imagery in the same way: “None of it came through. / My pictures seemed cramped, blurred, closed-in. / Not like his.” In this manner, White displays limitations in his own view and emphasizes the importance of individuality or personality, particularly in perspective and imagination. Still, though the father’s vision may not be the son’s, and though the roads appear physically the same, each individual travels his own road in life. Whereas the father’s images were captured by his camera eye, readers realize the speaker’s images exist in his exquisite and descriptive poetic language.

The issues of individual vision and personal perspective appear again in “At Dead Horse Point,” where the speaker remembers: “I came here as a child once, played / while my parents gazed. What they saw / I can’t say.” The poet mourns for his parents, and he mentions how his emotions may have been shaped somewhat by this loss; “in time their deaths, / grief on grief, were mine.” White continues to consider the impact of others’ deaths on the lives of the living left behind, and he wonders about the influence of the past on the present, as he calculates the cost of enduring loss: “I’ve lived / to see my past before me and ask / if the eye is ground dull or ground clean / that it can lean like this into vacancy, / gorging on laceration and light.”

Questions White poses earlier in “Cricket,” a prefatory poem to the collection, apply to many of the book’s poems: “Whose life is this? / And was it the dead who left it, or we?” When a person experiences loss of loved ones, that individual absorbs them in his or her memories. However, the poet also suggests the loss of someone close sometimes forces more independence and introspection, perhaps with the hope for each of us that we may be led to a better understanding of ourselves and our relations to the world we find around us, even if that self-knowledge or personal vision comes accompanied by great pain.

In the book’s title poem, “The Clearing,” White writes: “You, whose word then made me see, have vanished. / So long your absence has inhabited me / I hardly know where my own death begins. / And the green blazing in your eye that day? / A blank night builds in me now. It will have / the tree, its power to stand, to ramify.” Obviously, a “clearing” could refer to an open space among trees, perhaps emphasizing absence and irreparable damage, as in clear-cutting of natural habitats. However, sometimes clearing of land proves necessary for future cultivation, for further growth.

Also, a more abstract reading of the title might additionally refer to a clearing of the mind, to one’s seeing without old obstacles, and the clarifying needed in order to approach a respite, some relief from so much grieving. When one engages in the act of clearing, occasionally such an action precedes moving forward unhindered by past difficulties. One might even think of being in the clear, away from a threatening situation, or envision a sprinter clearing a hurdle to travel forward. Intentional or not, the various examples of ambiguous interpretations and the multiple connotations available to readers contribute to this title’s effectiveness in the poem that carries it and throughout the entire volume.

Deep within The Clearing, readers come across lines that might strike one as thematic for the whole of the collection: “Truth is the first casualty / of survival” (“Magnolia”). Of course, the statement takes its shape from an old saying about war, and the preceding lines of the poem indicate White’s equating the process of grieving with the conditions caused by combat, perhaps a bit of battle fatigue: “Even mind-changing sorrow dribbles away, / gets misplaced, shouldered out by some new thing / clamoring into presence. We grow used / to it, this being at war, meaning we get / neglectful.” When separated, a central line in this cluster seems to speak more forcefully as the breaks compel readers to bridge sentences so one comes away with an additional observation that could be written in isolation and suggest a meaning indicating the living become old and worn: “Clamoring into presence, we grow used.”

The most emotional section—the third of five parts—occurs in the center of this collection, and appropriately offers the central situation for investigation and introspection, one in which White relates the death of his wife. In the section’s moving initial piece, “East Lawn,” the speaker describes revisiting his wife’s grave: “I stood alone / where I had stood in the fall, months earlier, / with the families and children, flowers in hand / over the open grave.” He then recalls his reaction when flowers had been tossed down, followed by shoveled dirt, “smothering their flaming colors / like a cloudbank slowly blotting out stars.” The persona confides, “as the earth fell, my heart finally failed,” and readers are aware of the emotional death he experiences, as he will need to begin “to struggle into this life again.”

Later in this section, White opens the poem “They Rise” with a statement that seems to point toward the despair felt during bereavement: “All things die . . . all things but grief.” However, by the end of the section the speaker comments upon a man observing an archetypical image of mourning, a crow’s soaring movements in winged flight: “He feels it / in his arms, the strain, the oaring stride, / his chest a prow dividing the warm / morning air” (“Crow”). The warmth and the early time of day appear to evoke a bit of emotional recovery and introspection that initiates a growing sense of independence. Indeed, the poem closes with the man’s realization: “he understands. Nothing is given. / The man also must choose how to turn / his head, what to look at, where to land.”

The Clearing contains numerous references to time, usually indirectly through mentions of months or seasons, but often using the word “time” itself, as in “Family Prayer”: “We know more of damage now / and evil: lives shredded by time.” Readers perceive “time” as a culprit, eventually collecting all mortals. However, in “A Muffled Sound,” near the end of the central section, the speaker admits time allows opportunity for understanding lessons: “I learned, in time I learned. But for what? / I’m only half here.” Nevertheless, numbed by the absence of another, the speaker still feels half of himself is missing, the half that had belonged to the loved one and the half that holds emotions.

The collection fittingly closes with “Six O’Clock Flight to the Interment,” a compelling poem written around the event of another death: “I’m going to see my second mother lowered / in the ground, beside her daughter, my late wife.” In the poem’s first lines the speaker confides continuing discomfort: “Sometimes it seems that everything’s dislodged, / slipping, and all we really know is pain.” However, the passing of time seems to ease the speaker’s suffering somewhat. The poem records reflections upon the process of grieving. Arriving, the persona remarks: “I feel both freed and lost.” He explains how his feelings have been modified: “my pain was lost and what remained / was a mere place, the fields I walked in day / by day.”

The speaker confesses: “It’s ugly feeling nothing, but worse / to be unaware of it, or to call it moving on / or working through or healing.” Again in this final poem the poet references “time”: “Pain may be true, but in time the mind numbs / and wanders, and the dead don’t come.” In fact, the poem discloses a revelation when the speaker admits: “After all there’s room for joy here, too.” However, how does one reconcile continuing in life and feeling any joy when one has endured such losses? How does one characterize the lives of those who mattered so much and who helped form the person he or she has become? “Weren’t they themselves sometimes, / maybe from the start, a world for us, a field, / and so the dead are like a struck stage, a slate / wiped clean, a cloud moraine above or below / or within which everything takes place / and we will never find ourselves again?” We will no longer be the persons we once were when fulfilled by those now absent. Consequently, we must decide to start over.

Repeatedly in this volume Philip White speaks of grieving and offers images of bereavement, yet this collection of poems admirably maintains its balance and avoids falling into sentimentality or any excessive self-indulgence. The poems are persuasively personal, yet they never uncomfortably trespass upon the private. Instead, The Clearing chronicles the honest emotional responses experienced in traumatic circumstances.

Although the poems often explore depths of sadness and loss one might encounter during mourning, the book’s movement mirrors other emotional stages one enters as time shifts. Importantly, despite the focus on death and the absence left for the living to fill, as well as a sudden numbing of emotions when one has lost so much, The Clearing seems to encourage in all an appreciation for life and love, even if we necessarily become vulnerable once more. Thus, we must trust again and overcome our fear of loss: “news we don’t turn on or off, / that seeks us out, that interrupts the lunch. / An officer stands coughing at the door, / our name in hand” (“Loving Again”). As the poet advises with his earned wisdom in this poem: “What we learned once we’ll have to learn again. / Who could live as if every good-bye were the last?”

White, Philip. The Clearing. Texas Tech University Press, 2007.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this here. "The Clearing" is one of the best books of poetry I've read in years, and it deserves every bit of recognition it receives.

Why review it here though, and not in the Valparaiso Poetry Review? What criteria doesn't it meet?

Edward Byrne said...

Thank you for your comments, Mike.

This review appears here rather than in the main pages of VPR merely because of scheduling. Had I waited to include it in one of the journal's upcoming issues, the review would not appear until October 2008 at the earliest.

As you point out, the collection deserves recognition, and I felt it best to give THE CLEARING attention now instead of waiting more than a year. In fact, providing greater and quicker exposure for more noteworthy poetry books was a main purpose in creating the blog.

Thanks, again.


Sejal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sejal said...

THE CLEARING is a beautiful book. I appreciated your review and the chance to think about Philip White's poems again.

-Sejal Shah

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reviewing this. Dr. White is a professor of mine at Centre College and I had no idea of this...but now knowing, it explains the kind of profound sadness he exhibits that previously had no explanation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent review. Philip White was my classmate at Sewanee Writers Conference last summer. I met many writers there, but I bought only a few books. The Clearing was one of them.

At dinner one night White and I were discussing disappointment. I'm a survivor of an especially deadly form of cancer, and I was speculating that I may no longer be strong enough to roll with the normal punches of life.

"What if it's a myth that whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong?" I said. "What if it actually weakens you?"

White mentioned a recent disappointment of his, but also referred to something more profound. "It wasn't cancer," he said, looking off in the distance, "but there was...stuff."

Now I know.

When who you were and what you counted on is utterly shattered, how do you go on?

I thought I would not have to adjust to life after cancer because my abysmal survival statistics would take care of that problem. I was wrong.

In the seven years since diagnosis, I've looked hard for inspiration. I could not find it in the chest-thumping, propagandistic bravado of today's cancer-survivor culture, or in the casual shrug of the pious.

But I did find inspiration in the laws of nature. And I found it in the quiet, melancholy words of World War II veterans. And I found it in the graceful, measured heartache and truth in the poems of Philip White.