Sunday, March 15, 2015

Anne Whitehouse--Loosening the Phylactery, But Keeping the Sanctity


Cooking berries with sugar,
I stand over a hot stove on a hot day.
Steam of summer’s sweet essence
curls up my nostrils.

I stir my jam,
and in the mind’s inner eye
I see a procession
of brightly-colored gliders
like human butterflies
climbing the thermals
over Brace Field,
soaring over Oblong Valley,

where the crickets deepen their song
as the morning advances,
and fields of corn and hay
are growing dark and ripening.
Vines tangle in the wetlands,
fireflies glimmer after twilight,
and the deer are watchful.

High in the Green Mountains,
surrounded by forest, open to the sky,
underground springs feed the crystal lake.
On the surface swims a loon.
We float on our backs,
gazing at the clouds and sky,
cradled by water caressing us like silk.

Here, where the forest keeps the secrets
of our younger selves.


I remember how Cora said fiercely,
concerned for her daughter,
“Well, her mother has cancer,”
as if it were her failing
instead of affliction.
The family tragedy,
her brother’s malady,
was turning her bones
to cottage cheese.
Her skeleton self-destructed,
but her spirit soared far away
to the Rockies and the Sierras,
to Florence, Paris, and Rome.
“Cora was fun, and I was along
for the ride,” said her husband
of the only non-lawyer
who’d bested him in argument.
She knew how to respond
to a challenge,
ruthlessly rallying her forces
with chemotherapy’s
destructive weapons.
But God had other plans.
And her daughter sat at the shiva 
with bent head bearing her grief,
her long legs twisted around each other,
her feet huddled for comfort
in fuzzy slippers.


After the storm passed,
and the rain stopped,
and the wind at last died down,
night fell, warm, velvety,
and moonless.
                        In the morning,
the sun gilded all it touched
in cleansed and glistening air,
and the plants of the earth
sprang back to life.
                        Lying about
were fallen trees and broken branches,
downed power lines and wrecked buildings.
The waters no longer raged,
the floods were receding.
We went about repairing the damage,
finding what was essential,
how to survive.


The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms, which gives that event its proper expression.
                                                                                    -Henri Cartier-Bresson

On a glorious June evening
after the retrospective exhibit
of Cartier-Bresson’s world-spanning art,
I strolled into Central Park,
and left the path to climb the rock.

Below me, a woman approached the arch under a bridge
trailing two leashes connected to twin beagles.
The heightened perspective, the swirls of motion
made a picture Henri might have taken.

Early summer light, bright but not blinding,
warm but not hot. It went through me,
tinting my mind like wine through water.

My vision created frames as I walked,
keeping violent emotions at bay,
where what seems threatening
can be studied from an inner distance,
like the way one walks around a sculpture
to view it from all angles.

No matter how tenuous I think are the ties
that bind me to the miserable past,
I am not deceived;
heartstrings can be played on,
and twist and tighten
at a moment’s notice,
like a devilish phylactery
strangling the life out of me.

Surprising the pain that endures
or perhaps not strange—
enmeshed in desperate, unequal trials
I had no chance of winning,
I buried my feelings so deep
I couldn’t find them
and turned my heart to stone,
that slowly is softening.

Anne Whitehouse is the author of five poetry collections—THE SURVEYOR’S HAND, BLESSINGS AND CURSES, BEAR IN MIND, ONE SUNDAY MORNING, and THE REFRAIN, as well as a novel, FALL LOVE. I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and live in New York City. My poetry, fiction, reviews, and articles are published widely. www.annewhitehouse.com

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