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Amie Whittemore

 04-13-2017

 
Amie Whittemore
 
Aphorisms

If you can admit your own narrowness,
you're onto persimmon and cardamom.

If you dust off your brave pants, you'll manage
mudslides, samba, dodge and weave.

The smallest voice is the truest;
wear those ears that turn like planets.

If you give him a turnip,
and he turns to sand, begin again:

the tax you pay for loving is grief--
my therapist said so, and once you accept

a therapist's wisdom, you're halfway
somewhere. Goats are sympathy machines

unlike squirrels, toads, mirrors, livers,
harpoons. Doors--

they multiply every time you walk through one.
When you're doing something,

you're doing something. Lift a hand,
mouth, or heart. Draw the shades.


Dream of the Ark

My brothers will not name their sons Hiram, though I see them--
bird-chested boys with floppy ears and big noses climbing trees

and throwing rocks through windows of abandoned garages,
their shouts springing kernels from their cobs.

But when my brothers and I speak of our future
children, it's like children reconstructing the lives of dinosaurs.

We argue, and those shirtless barefoot rascal boys
are whisked back into their husks. I dream my womb

is an ark, filled not with children, not pairs of animals, but leaf blight,
broken spinning wheels, severed hands warped with arthritis.

~

Morning. Watching the half-frozen river collect geese,
I know I'm a fool for whatever's gone away.

I tell my husband my dream of the ark, another of raising canaries
in a basement, their bodies yellow ornaments in trees prospering

without sunlight, their rattled leaves sparking like aluminum.
And while I interpret these visions as signs we'll never grow

blueberries, gather eggs from hens, he looks at me
like I'm speaking Dutch. He says too often I extrapolate

an entire imaginary alphabet from a single letter.
In other words, relax. Outside, his shovel slings snowdrifts.

~

But I know my brothers will not name their sons Hiram,
and I will have no daughter named Kathryn,

though she often appears, smoking a joint on the beach,
her new skull tattoo laughing on her shoulder.

She hates when I call her lily-pad.
She flings curse words at the sky like empty beer cans.

Mile-long hair, voice like moss-coated stone, I imagine
her into more and more beauty, while also fashioning

her a weak heart. I warn her the future is a skinned animal
stalking us all. I tell her the swan's neck is a noose.

Winter trees braid the white sky; my husband shakes snow
from his boots and comes inside.

~

We drink tea. I remind him today is the shortest day.
But what I mean is, I want to unbutton the future

and find a breathing lung. I mean, if we indulge in a dream
of new Hirams and Kathryns, new Edwins and Whitts,

if we kissed open their eyes, inhaled their birthy scent,
would the other dream, of keeping the farm, of replanting orchards,

of raising goats, vanish? Neither dream is trustworthy.

My desire is like a child's wish for her toy doll
to mend its broken leg. My husband would argue you can't mend

what isn't broken. My brothers would suggest I'm in love
with an idea that doesn't exist. They're probably right.

But I hear the doll weep. I feel her broken leg like it is my own.

The Unknotting

Sour cherries splatter the burnt lawn;
a black dog wears its clover necklace.

Rabbit caught, a fluttering heart in my palms.
Wagons piling with gold beads of soybeans,

sweet pop of pods chaffing the yard.
My grandmother like a queen in all this, distant,

as if always on the swing hung from the oak.
Charmer--even the dog would hold her hand

in its mouth. Who wouldn't want to please her?
Woman who tucked her dresses into overalls

to haul corn with my grandfather,
who knew grosbeak, goldfinch, junco,

whose call pulled swans to her like water.
How to answer when she asked, standing

beside her old photograph, if she was beautiful?
Sunset-colored hair, eyes two pools singing

about the sky. I'd go back now and ask--
nothing. Whatever lies between fact

and invention is too slim to matter.
Just let me draw near them--small self

and Grandmother, braiding clover--a bee
fretting their hair, seeking blossom.

 
                     -from Glass Harvest
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As in Amie Whittemore's "The Unknotting," write a eulogy to a magical character from your past. This could be a family member, a friend, a favorite pet...hell, your subject could be a character still living who you haven't encountered in some time. Either way, we want this poem to praise some character from your past who is no longer part of your future. Include as many unique details as you can. The grandmother in "The Unknotting" was a charmer who seemed at one with the natural world in some nearly mythical ways: "My grandmother like a queen in all this, distant, // as if always on the swing hung from the oak. / Charmer--even the dog would hold her hand // in its mouth... who knew grosbeak, goldfinch, junco, // whose call pulled swans to her like water." Ask yourself, "What makes this character truly unique, singular?" Just for the challenge of it: include at least one flying animal and one fruit. Compose in couplets. No more than 20 lines. And, as always, enjoy.
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Amie Whittemore is a poet, educator, and the author of Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press). She is also co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series. An instructor at Middle Tennessee State University, she holds degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (B.A.), Lewis and Clark College (M.A.T.), and Southern Illinois University Carbondale (M.F.A.). Her poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sycamore Review, Rattle, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere.
 
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A Review of Amie Whittemore's Glass Harvest by Dorthy Chan, first published at Boxcar Poetry Review

Amie Whittemore's debut poetry collection, Glass Harvest, is filled with this essence of "deluge," from a literal deluge one thinks of when building a metaphorical ark in "Dream of the Ark" to a flood of passion one feels when leaning in for a lover's kiss in "Blackberry Season," "Charlottesville, 7 a.m.," and countless other poems. Whittemore's aesthetic is ecological—she looks into the relationships between people and the nature surrounding them. For instance, in her opening piece, "Aphorisms," she creates beautiful metaphors connecting growth in a person to natural gain: "If you can admit your own narrowness,/you're onto permission and cardamom./If you dust off your brave pants, you'll

manage/mudslides, samba, dodge and weave./The smallest voice is the truest;/wear those ears that turn like planets." I enjoy how Whittemore equates these metaphors to "aphorisms." By doing so, she is not only challenging her reader to seek out these truths, but also wants to change their mindsets to become more ecologically minded. Yet, besides this erotic-ecological backdrop, Whittemore's book is filled with other forms of passion and love: a woman who desires other women, a speaker who pays homage to her grandmother and who tries to continue this lineage with a letter to her future granddaughter, and above all, a voice that finds the erotic in the intellectual.

This "erotic in the intellectual" is inherent in "Blackberry Season," one of Whittemore's standout poems. Whittemore's playfulness in language is brilliant: "We toss blackberries at each other's mouths/as if they are tiny grenades—". This playfulness is also sensual: "The tilt of your chin/makes me think you mean red velvet cake/when your beer and berry breath leans/in for a kiss. Not once have you asked/to touch the eggs, though they are smooth/as the word yes, heavy as no." Here, the "intellectual" includes an analysis of language—while "yes" is smooth, "no" is heavy-and with this, Whittemore has gained another aphorism. This is then balanced with the visceral and even tragic: "Blackberry seeds/turn our tongues to sandpaper and my skirt/thrown across the floor looks like a lake/where a child has drowned." By including a poem about blackberries, Whittemore inserts herself into a "poets writing about blackberries" tradition that ranges from Sylvia Plath ("Blackberrying") to Robert Hass ("Meditation at Lagunitas").

The lines, "Your set to work,/turning our bodies into jam" in "Blackberry Season" is comparable to "My mind's oatmeal again" in "Crush." In "Crush," Whittemore utilizes the short lines to her benefit in order to create a tension and release of sensuality: "rose petals clamping my throat,/the end of this sentence not resulting/in your body pressed against me,/so I'll abandon it for—". The em dash after "so I'll abandon it for—" is brilliant—it allows for the moment of breathless hesitation after one body touches the other.

Whittemore's poems also play into female sexuality. For instance, in "Charlottesville, 7 a.m.," the speaker juxtaposes the image of her husband speaker with the synesthesia of a woman's lips: "The woman's lips—soft and tough as a fox's padded foot./It arrives now, bloodstain on a gray hood./It tests the earth like morning." These are the last three lines of the poem, making it both resonant and clear that the speaker is yearning for the female stranger rather than her husband. The way the speaker reminisces about the woman's lips is telling. Though the woman's lips are soft, their effect is like "bloodstain" which "tests the earth like morning" when the speaker is back with her husband. For this reason, the ending line becomes all the more haunting.

As much as Whittemore pervades her collection with sensuality, she also juggles with lineage and family history. I love Whittemore's wordplay of "widow" and "window" in "Two Windows." Above all, poems like "Two Widows," "First Visitation," and "Second Visitation" pay beautiful homage to her grandmother. The poet not only continues this lineage with "To My Future Granddaughter," but she also rewrites this lineage. She, the poet, takes control of this history: "You're afraid that's all./It's stupid we're built this way—". Colloquial asides such as this really ground the poet's point-of-view with the reader's. With this, Whittemore is telling both her granddaughter and the audience that we're all "afraid," but that's why we have each other to reveal our deepest secrets to. Whittemore has revealed some deep secrets, yet she still ends on a lighter note, which brings the reader in even more. "Switchgrass" balances this lightness with again, the intellectual: "Though it intimates intellectual laziness,/as well as, perhaps, perversion, I'm a little hot/for your Wikipedia entry." Whittemore has rolled intellect, eroticism, secrets, and even perversion into another bold statement, leaving us craving more of her secrets in this "glass harvest."
 
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An Interview with Amie Whittemore by Ruth Awad, first published as part of Awad's Pet Poetics
 
Ruth Awad: First of all, Amie, I'm happy to hear your cats Chicory and Sage are finally letting you get some sleep. Tell me about your decision to bring them into your life.

Amie Whittemore: About a year ago, my beloved cat of ten years Stevens (yep, she was cat Stevens) died. As the first pet of my adulthood, adopted the year two grandparents died and lost the year after I divorced, her death marked not only a grievous loss, but also an end to an era of my life. She felt like the last anchor holding me steady; once she was gone, I felt entirely unmoored.

As anyone who has felt unmoored knows, it is largely impossible to imagine feeling moored again. Yet, with time, fantasies of kittens began to frolic in my mind. Having spent a decade fretting that Stevens was excruciatingly lonely as a single cat, I decided to adopt two kittens this time around. I began haunting the SPCA, waiting for love at first sight.

I met Chicory on one of these visits. She mewed at me as I passed her cage. I picked her up; she purred immediately, completely at ease curling up in my lap. A four-year-old boy sat on the floor next to me and informed me this kitten's name was George and he was going to take her home when his dog died.

However, Chicory (whose middle name is George, in honor of her almost-owner) was there two days later when I decided I needed her in my life. That's when I found a calico companion for her in Sage. Where Chicory is confident, charming, sociable, and playful, Sage is timid, frenetic, and (strangely enough) aggressively affectionate. They are loving and standoffish with each other in turns. I find their personalities, and their relationship, intensely interesting.

RA: I know you lost your cat Stevens not long ago, and you reference her death in your poem "Year In Review." The line "Grew weepy in conversation about said dead cat / more often than is culturally appropriate" struck a chord with me. Did you feel pressure to meter how you wrote about her death because of the "culturally appropriate" expectation?

AW: The poem picks up on the pressure I felt to withhold the intensity of my grief when friends politely shared their sympathies with me. Even recalling that grief brings tears to my eyes. There is not a day I do not miss Stevens.

I also think my poems about Stevens address a larger issue regarding grief in American society. I do not think we know how to honor it well in each other. We rely on tropes like "time heals" and "you'll get over it," though I think, in all our hearts, we know there is no "getting over." And time may heal, but scars remain.

I think we could learn something from our pets about handling grief. They are such good caretakers of us in times of sorrow. They do not judge our weeping. They cuddle with us. They do not put time limits on feelings.

RA: How did writing about Stevens help you process the loss? I'm thinking specifically about your poem "Song for Stevens" where there's heartbreak in every line. I can hardly read this without tearing up: "If given seven slides of calico hides, / I'd know which side was hers. If blindfolded / and handed seven cats, I'd know her by shape."

AW: I can't read those lines without tearing up either. I wrote "Song for Stevens" while she was still alive. Writing that poem, and the poems that confront her death, helped me to honor the unique experience of adoring a pet. These poems give voice to the unbearable--and breathtaking--need to love something else unconditionally, passionately, and thoughtlessly. We have such a hard time doing this well with each other. With pets, we can learn to do this better--for their sakes and for the sakes of our relationships with our partners, families, friends, and all the creatures we with whom we share this earth.

RA: What's your writing process like, and do your pets ever figure into it?

AW: My cats are active writing partners! I usually write in the morning, which is one of their favorite times to play. My writing time is interspersed with crumbling up paper balls to toss at them while I work. Usually one decides to stroll across the keyboard to make some edits. One is usually perched in the window beside me or on a printed poem--drafts make great beds, apparently!

RA: Your debut poetry collection Glass Harvest will be out soon (and I can't wait to read it). Do you have some advice for poets who are trying to complete or publish their first book?

AW: Some of the most bolstering advice I received was from the poet Jane Hirshfield when I took a workshop with her at the Key West Literary Seminar. She said to treat every rejection as a gift of time--time to help the manuscript become its best self. I worked on this manuscript for eight years. It was not always easy to see rejection as a gift; however, when I recall its past selves, I'm incredibly glad they did not get published.

Poetry publishing is all long game. And it can feel even longer when you begin to compare your journey to Poet X or Poet Y. Try not to-or, indulge your envy, let it know you hear it, you understand its fiery pain, then move on. Try to remember comparison is the thief of joy. It is the thief of your very life.

RA: Fill in the blank: you're stuck on a poem, so you...?

AW: Ignore it. I'm always working on multiple poems at a time, so when one is being disagreeable, I focus on others and let my subconscious chew on the stuck poem awhile. Or, I "break" it, tackling the subject from a different angle, trading narrative for lyric, long for short. I try to notice where my attention drifts and cut those parts. If I'm bored or restless, no doubt a reader is, too.

RA: What is it about the animal world that most captures your attention as a poet?

AW:  love learning about animal societies. I'm working on a poem about albatrosses and discovered that they spend years crafting complex courtship dances. Once they mate, the mates abandon the dance and form a private language, discernible only to each other. This is amazing to me and seems profoundly similar to human partnership: every long-term couple I know also has its own private shorthand.

RA: Advice for poets who want to write meaningfully about the death of their pets but don't want to be dismissed as sentimental?

AW: The advice is the same as what I would give for writing about the grief of losing a beloved human: be concrete. Focus on the specific interactions you have with the pet, the specific expressions of its personality. Don't be afraid to be humorous. My favorite memory of Stevens is of her lying on my face and neck at 3 a.m., a ball of purring sweetness, while also drooling all over me. Include the drool with the purrs and you'll be in good shape.

RA: A simile for your cats?

AM: Oh lord, I'm such a poet; my cats' names are metaphors for themselves.

Chicory is an invasive weed in Illinois where I grew up--incredibly hardy, able to grow along roadsides and in pavement cracks. Chicory the cat is the same--hard to imagine her not thriving wherever she goes.

Sage is much like the spice--unique. Flavorful. And, as with the spice, which I rarely use but love the scent of, I don't quite know what to do with her most of the time.

 




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Amie Whittemore



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