cover image A Glossary of Chickens

A Glossary of Chickens

Gary J. Whitehead. Princeton Univ, $29.92 (72p) ISBN 978-0-691-15745-0

Quietly witty, observant, and frequently sad, this third outing from Whitehead (The Velocity of Dust) sets itself apart through understatement, and through the connections it keeps making between contemporary midlife dilemmas and the 19th-century American literature—especially Herman Melville’s life and letters—that Whitehead (a New Jersey high school teacher) knows well. A poem called “Homeschooled” asks, “Aren’t we all, really, in the end?” It’s a book of scenes and memories from which the poet himself must remember to learn: a flashback to teenage shame concludes with “the future, like the lost pair of sneakers/ we found in the spring, and growing between/ their double-knotted laces a sapling.” Childlessness—and, apparently, divorce—flutter through Whitehead’s lines like the sad and comical chickens in the title poem, and in the heartbroken “The Coop.” The more contemporary poems, funny or otherwise, sustain a personal gravity that those set in the 19th century lack, and yet it all holds together as the record of a sensitive, careful, unfashionable, acoustically gifted soul, who like Whitehead’s “One-Legged Pigeon,” “needed no pity,/ but just a crumb,/ something to hop toward.” (Apr.)