To See a World in a Grain of Sand: Jeffrey DeLotto on Anne Whitehouse’s Blessings and Curses


Blessings and Curses, Anne Whitehouse, Poetic Matrix Press, 2009

First encountering Anne’s poetry as poetry editor for AmarilloBay, an on-line journal that has been on the scene for a long time now, I looked over her submissions but was faced with a difficult choice: since the poems were all held together with a consonance of voice, somehow each integral with the rest, like reading some Wordsworth or Frost, I was dismayed with the idea of wrenching a couple out.  Her new collection, Blessings and Curses, helps make up for my butchery of selection, as here Anne Whitehouse has a powerful series that once again delivers not a jumble of poems someone happened to have but an album of mood and voice, to me reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, where each piece is Whitehouse as all of it is Whitehouse as well.

The elegance of simplicity that characterizes so many of these poems, too, reminds me of Blake and Frost, the apprehension rather than comprehension of the moment, the news story, the stray shell, that “Junonia” that the poet finds in “Blessing XXXVI, that she had been looking for for thirty years tells the poet’s eye, gives her the lesson so that she is always the awakened student, not the lecturer:

So it is, I think, with so much

that we seek:

the thing will reveal itself

only in its time.

As William Blake says in his Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a Grain of Sand,/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And Eternity in an hour”—that’s what Anne Whitehouse’s poems do, as in taking the mundane announcement of a death at the opening of “Curse X”: “Financier, 73, plunges/ nine stories to his death,/ an apparent suicide,” and assembling the story like some delicate Frankenstein into the terror of depression, concluding, “’He took his pain/ into his own hands, and it is over,’ mourned his brother.”  She discovers and reconstructs, extracts and adds the defining shapes to the beauty and terror of the everyday world.  And as with the good poets, she minds us often but exquisitely, without unnecessary brutality, that, like the renter she refers to in “Blessing XVI,” she realizes her own evanescence:

The Native Americans

made it a practice

to leave little trace of themselves

on the landscape.

Few of us can bear

to travel so lightly.

Yet this is our condition:

to occupy this life,

knowing we will

be parted from it,

but not when.

So the title is misleading, since the poems in the volume are all both blessings and curses, reminding us, as Wordsworth does, that we are all “fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”  The collection brings these two ideas together, though most of us already have, in her closing lines, referring to the temporary nature of a sand-composed Mandala and the young monk who helped construct it, “It mattered not to him that nothing lasted,/ and I counted it a blessing and a curse.”  We are reminded by these poems that there is something perhaps less ephemeral in our writing than there may be in ourselves.

Purchase Blessings and Curses

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