With skillful rhetoric and tempered lyricism, the poems in A Glossary of Chickens explore, in part, the struggle to understand the world through the symbolism of words. Like the hens of the title poem, Gary J. Whitehead's lyrics root around in the earth searching for sustenance, cluck rather than crow, and possess a humble majesty.
Confronting subjects such as moral depravity, nature's indifference, aging, illness, death, the tenacity of spirit, and the possibility of joy, the poems in this collection are accessible and controlled, musical and meditative, imagistic and richly figurative. They are informed by history, literature, and a deep interest in the natural world, touching on a wide range of subjects, from the Civil War and whale ships, to animals and insects. Two poems present biblical narratives, the story of Lot's wife and an imagining of Noah in his old age. Other poems nod to favorite authors: one poem is in the voice of the character Babo, from Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, while another is a kind of prequel to Emily Dickinson's "She rose to His Requirement."
As inventive as they are observant, these memorable lyrics strive for revelation and provide their own revelations.
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.