Note Left Like Silver On The Eyes Of The Dead reviewed by Phillip Schaefer
“If the body is an argument / it is ours / to lose” Jeff Whitney states in his new chapbook Note Left Like Silver On The Eyes Of The Dead (Slash Pine Press, 2013). And the poems within — from the quiet, opening letter to Charles Wright to the man behind the glass at the Greyhound Station — provide such an argument with each other.
As readers we are impossible voyeurs peering into his bathroom mirror, sampling his reflection with him. Whitney never lets you slip out of your body, his body, those ethereal bodies of “the three women you’ve loved float[ing] in the sky on separate chariots.” These thirteen poems range from four lines to four pages to fortnights “waiting for a foal to die.” And after those six words you are the foal.
Jeff Whitney’s relationship to love is almost interchangeable with his fascination toward death. They’re each a silver coin left on those closed eyelids. Yet his movement is never trite or hyperbolic. His approach toward human empathy rests always like “a child winding the corridors of a museum where the vastness of history is made clear.” It is curious in its crystalline ability to navigate the moments between the moments of clarity.
And this is what makes Whitney a master of the unexpected image, and ultimate emotional payoff. He isn’t afraid to lie down in one dark corner, for as long as it takes, in order to feel the weight of ants walking across his face. His body is a playground for the dead, even if the dead hang around on church days.
Jeff’s poems in this chapbook present a “quiet, terrible language for screaming” = calm and electric, grounded and polemic. In less than an hour you’ll be able to re-imagine your body’s body by reading these poems. But be warned, they will build slowly like “lightning in our throats and we must be careful.”
Jeff Whitney Interview with CutBank Editor Rachel Mindell
RM: How did this project emerge, as in these thirteen poems together via Slash Pine Press?
JW: These poems were all written over a period of a year or so—most in Montana, some in Korea. The piecing together happened in Korea, and I suppose being culturally and linguistically isolated had me wrestling with ideas of home and language and my own little nook in history’s pantry. The poems are presented as an apostrophe to the dead—something to take into the afterlife based on the ancient Greek tradition of placing coins over the eyes of the deceased. The result, like most of what I tend to write, is a dialogue between what is written and people who are separated—through time, geography, language, or otherwise.
What do you see as the major themes in your work, and this book in particular? What are your poetic obsessions?
I think a quick skim with a highlighter will expose all those little obsessions: home, culture, history, mortality, love, estrangement, and so on.
What do you make of Phil's observation about Jeff Whitney: "He isn’t afraid to lay down in one dark corner, for as long as it takes, in order to feel the weight of ants walking across his face."
I think it’s mighty flattering, and Phil’s a wonderful image maker. I would counter, though, by saying that the real me may possibly be afraid of laying down in that dark corner—that I have a tendency when I write to romanticize the difficult, and that the real me is not so brave.
One things readers should know about your book?
It would make me happy if you bought and read it and send me an email about it.
Who are you reading? Who will you always read?
I’m working my way through the newest issue of december, a magazine with a long history that just came back from hiatus.
Some collections that I’m reading or rereading: Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels, Ruth Stone’s In the Dark, Lisa Robertson’sThe Weather, Heather Christle’s What is Amazing, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum, Donald Revell’s Thief of Strings, Nikky Finney’sThe World is Round, and Kevin Young’s Most Way Home. I also went on a Zachary Schomburg kick a few months back and walked around with a different set of feelers.
I will always read: Charles Wright, Larry Levis, Linda Gregg, Jim Harrison, Lucille Clifton, Hikmet, Sexton, Hugo, Antonio Machado, Dickinson, Calvino, Rilke, Ahkmatova, Li Po, Tu Fu, Vallejo, Neruda, Whitman, Blanca Varela—all these great folks and more.
Can you discuss the post-Montana-MFA experience? Who is your community and how is your discipline?
From a writing perspective, life after the MFA has been wonderful: I have written prolifically, kept in touch with several friends from the program, and I have published this book along with a handful of other poems. One thing I was worried about was lacking motivation, and it has been difficult at times to get out of a rut or try something new. And while it’s true that when you are in an MFA you are hazarding a new way of writing damn near every single day (or, at least, you should be), I have found different approaches to the page while out here on my own along with different approaches as to where a poem might be taken. The result is thrilling, and rewarding. Motivation, I’m happy to say, is not an issue. The desire to write and read poems is as strong as ever. I’m a dumb kid in love and probably always will be.
Jeff Whitney is a co-founding editor of Peel Press and the author of one other chapbook, De Rerum Natura (Gendun Editions, 2011). A graduate of the University of Montana's MFA program, his poems have appeared in such places asburntdistrict, Devil's Lake, Salt Hill, Sugar House Review, and Verse Daily. He lives in Portland.
Philip Schafer's writing has swelled in Nashville rain, Chicago dumpsters, and Missoula rock gardens. It’s out or forthcoming in Fourteen Hills, RHINO, Toad,The Chariton Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Litconic, and elsewhere. His favorite place to drink coffee is on the thinking rock in his backyard, barefoot.
Rachel Mindell is an MFA candidate in poetry and an MA candidate in English Literature at the University of Montana. She grew up in Tucson and has also lived in Mayaguez, Boston, and Durango. Her writing has appeared in Horse Less Review, Delirious Hem, interrupture, Caliban, Barn Owl Review, and Pity Milk. Her dog and cat run the household.