Wednesday, July 08, 2009
Between Compassion and Self Preservation
poems by Kelley J. White, M.D.
article by Michael Todd Steffen
Poetry learns to read for this and that. Readers of poetry are keen and curious. On one hand we heed the literal register, the words used outright, and look for the presence of the poem, its urgency, its statements. Under this light the title of Kelley J. White’s Toxic Environment strike home to us here and now, in an age of unprecedented waste, of production and disposal of so much noxious chemical material, of landfilling and dumping in our resources including our vast atmospheric reserves of ocean and space.
If it is loud and in your face, the book’s title sounds familiar and resonant notes in the dissonance of late 20th and early 21st century life on planet earth.
The poem bearing the title demonstrates, moreover, a powerful poetic mind at work, as Dr. White compresses this environmental crisis with other pressing dilemmas of the day, hunger and violence. A child has been brought to the doctor, with a laceration on his neck from a thrown paint scraper.
“The kid has lead poisoning.
I was scraping the wall
to repaint and he walked in
and started eating from
the pile of scrapings
on the floor. I lost control…”
Here and throughout the book Kelley White adheres to a fidelity for harsh realistic subjects, depicted with everyday language, sensibly lined by breath and phrase. The eye is voracious, what is more, for the poverty of the inner city, its squalor and degradation, its grit, shortcomings, shame and suffering humanity. It is not reader-friendly, in this way, but neither is Dante’s Inferno, though White holds no didactic purpose in demonstrating this suffering. She is not out to explain to us why the people she meets are where she meets them. Her journey inclines toward compassion for others and preservation of herself. In that latter sense the title takes on a modulation. The environment White confronts is not only physically toxic but psychologically corrosive.
I have come back to violence, its work eternal,
“Seven Found Dead in Drug House,” already this winter,
a murder spree; bloody horror, screams the corner
tires crunching snow, purposefully moving,
steady, and I have to go to work, I must keep moving,
force myself to work against despair, to hope, eternal…
“Cadaverine” (p. 23) reels with such harsh mundane details that only after second and third readings do you realize that the same words are being repeated at the ends of the lines of the sextets, that this is a popular form-poem derived from the medieval Troubadors. Admirably White buries her cultural technical scaffolding in such unseemly garb as a drive to work on a cold winter morning with her mind racing over the bad news headlines and the riff-raff on the sidewalks.
White is sly in this way. I felt set up, having struggled through the poems at first, complaining that there was no rime or reason (except for the title page that shows the poems are arranged in alphabetical order, lest the world appear haphazard). But then I had to recant my grouse as consecutive readings unveiled more subtle work at form and suggested metaphor.
Look at the book’s title again. There’s an ox in Toxic, the burdened farm animal driving the plough. Am-scram “Environment,” the metal in that word, and you come up with “nerve” and “teen” and “norm,” etc… It’s a game the word puzzles in the daily paper teach us.
Here is the book’s first poem:
After Performing CPR
like skiing the white hills of sleep
following mountains all the bright chill
day the rhythm of falling in time with
a wind singing above the flight falling
yet never touching ground sweet sore
muscle learned and the child will breathe
will open her eyes this time will breathe
The imagery, almost ethereal, is birthed back through a technical act (necessary, “muscle learned”), CPR, a little theft from Avernus, or Mount Purgatory, that further realm so many of our greatest artists cite as the source of human inspiration, so modestly pulled off by White. On reading it, I thought this is going to be an amazing book. Yet this is it
as far as displaced or metaphorical or euphemistic imagery is going to get in White’s book. The rest is hard stuff under a harsh light in abrasive terms. Have we gotten truth instead of the graces of poetry? If so, it’s not that White doesn’t understand those graces as this first poem so deftly illustrates. Maybe the proportions between the truths she confronts and the grace she witnesses are honestly weighed out in this book.
Kelley White’s poetry has been widely published, and she has been selected to read from by Garrison Keilor on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac. Toxic Environment is a trying yet rewarding read, full servings for content, silent side-glances of know-how for the reader especially interested in poetry as an art and tradition. Hats off, thumbs up, shakes of the umbrella, bitten palm of envy for a fine book.
Toxic Environment by Kelley J. White, M.D.
is available for $13.95
from Boston Poet Publishing
19 Oakridge Drive
Londonderry, NH 03053