Andy Frazee

Review of Our Classical Heritage: A Homing Device by Caroline Noble Whitbeck
(Switchback Books, 2007)

The subtitle of Caroline Noble Whitbeck's Our Classical Heritage: A Homing Device tells us much about the concerns—both formal and thematic—of the book, selected by Arielle Greenberg as the winner of the 2006 Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books. Throughout the work, we are constantly forced to locate and re-locate ourselves, to find a home within the text as the poet constructs and disrupts the linguistic ground we stand on. In doing so, Whitbeck has given us a book that consistently subverts our expectations—not only of Our Classical Heritage itself, but of what “home” may be, and of what poetry, as a homing device, may do to help us find it.

Throughout Our Classical Heritage , Whitbeck challenges and engages us with an array of poems and procedures impressive in its scope—from poems taking their titles from webpage headlines (“Teenagers Star in the Story of Their Lives, Painful Details and All”), to “evacuated” flight evacuation instructions (“Emergency Exit”), to an all-too-brief closet drama which experiments with theatrical narration and soliloquy (“Inheritance”). But Whitbeck's most dynamic formal performance may best be described as a particular melding of textualist experimentation and the more traditional dramatic monologue. In the excellent prose piece “OK,” the poet takes the voice of a young woman looking to escape the limitations of her small-town home:

In Oklahoma I was the oven door your enamel the scattershot radio dial anything with a chrome handle. The manufacturer's initial. Waiting by the hotplate coil your lit wit in a hairnet. Here. Toing and froing the Airstream in your OTB absence. Waiting for my shift at the Superette the blip of the scanner. Okay.

The syntax of the sentences here is, as Greenberg notes in her introduction to the book, “hyper-extended”—though expansive, perhaps even vaguely Whitmanesque, they are also slightly askew, unsettled. Even as they entail an inclusiveness of subjectivity and world, they draw less on the ideal of Whitmanic democracy than to the reality of contemporary American consumerism, a democracy of oven doors, radio dials, and chrome handles:

Your mother in the Budweiser warmup peeling off bologna to the Antiques Roadshow . That's not worth it piece of junk I had a vase once. Picking through the racks for some new secondhand Rhoda has two school-aged so t-shirt with a dumptruck. I ring her up special. A cubic-zirconia also plus two baby birthstones heartshaped.

Beyond site-specific instances of syntactic disruption, Whitbeck extends this strategy of unsettling to the architecture of the book itself. The most obvious instance of this higher-order instability is that of the palimpsestic fragments that inconsistently recur throughout the book, generally sharing the page with another poem:

81 [ ___] thus
___a fish
___across the plate

8 the water [already]
___through the wood

___[___ ] its quick grain

Even as these fragments serve as an exoskeleton yoking Whitbeck's disparate lyrics and sequences together, they raise questions: how do the fragments relate to the poems with which they share a page? To what (unsupplied) index do the numbers refer? While at times we may be able to determine relationships between the fragments and the main poems, the fragments seem to be generally non-, or at least pseudo-, referential. This (a)referential condition leads us to further questions: are these fragments “our classical heritage,” and what then does it mean that our contemporary culture is built (as of course it is) on such tenuous relationships with such gaps? And is this the home we seek? Perhaps our relationship to culture, and to the past, is like that of the girl and her leash in “They're All Out of Storm Names”: “she brought a leash to school. / Because it was attached to nothing, like an accident.” Or maybe it's analogous to, in “Wings,” the “freak/purchase/of self, little melting/tether”:

That I am

__________________in. I am in.

______That I am my empty

While strategies of unsettlement may be tried-and-true in our post-Language writing environment, Whitbeck is able to lend her poems a level of sentiment often absent from much of the work of her contemporaries, and that sentiment, handled as well as it is, can be truly moving. Especially in the last third of the book, the poet becomes concerned with consolation—perhaps for what may be our essential homelessness among “the applause of the wash” and “the intercom's radar eye.” Still, she never lapses in her syntactical experimentation, as in this excerpt from the sequence “Noosphere, An Ars Poetica ”:

What was I looking for in that
book? All these years. I sing the same

with my eyes closed your
ellipsis. Anymore. The world is

in such things patient
as a window and as

generous. I want this for anyone else
is a form of love. Only the pronouns

change. Moving through the mind like others.
Keeping company.

Auden's comment to the contrary, it's refreshing when a poet implies—as I believe Whitbeck does with her subtitle—that poetry can do something, can make something happen, even something small. Behind this poet's disrupted syntax and extrapolated grammar is a very human voice which seeks, with uncommon generosity, to “keep company.” And this may be what, in the end, Our Classical Heritage does best: it finds a home within the kinetic dis-locations of language that typify early 21 st century poetics, and then embodies that place in the text, if only in fleeting glimpses:

___________________________A fetal thing

the world is nowadays, the rub. Greats and
ancients: you are in

your book. I am