Review of The House Began to Pitch by Kelly Whiddon
Mercer University Press
About Beth Gilstrap
Beth Gilstrap’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quiddity, Ambit, Superstition Review, and Kudzu Review, among others. The Minnesota Review, has nominated her story “Yard Show” for a Pushcart Prize. She earned her MFA in fiction from Chatham University.
Twitter of Reviewer: @BettySueBlue
Kelly Whiddon’s debut collection, The House Began to Pitch, winner of the 2012 Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry, whittles to the root of the importance of story itself. Many of the poems are framed in fairytales both modern and historic, an impressive range encompassing everyone from the Lollipop Guild to Ali Baba, Christopher Robin, and even Samantha Stephens of television’s Bewitched. Divided into four sections, the book reaches from the point of view of a man and a woman who come of age in the rural south of the fifties and sixties in the first two chapters. By chapter three, the book waxes broad and sweeping in that immortal place between the personal and the universal where all story echoes.
In the first and title poem, The House Began to Pitch, Whiddon enters the Land of Oz, but adjusts the gaze from Dorothy to the supporting characters. This poem is Oz after the departure of their savior. This is reality. It isn’t pretty. It’s the Oz we remember, but rotten. In the aftermath when the Lollipop and Lullaby Guilds are left to deal with the “shriveled corpse/ of a wicked witch” whose body they wrap and bury, we get the feeling they’re left wondering what it all means. The Land of Oz has lost its faith:
So the little men dig, sink the body
into a plot on the outskirts of town, build
a yellow brick monument, and as time passes,
for another day so vivid
a gray clapboard house
can twist into a rainbow,
A savior appears, kills the oppressor, and vanishes leaving them anchorless and unattached, an idea reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s adage that the past is a foreign country.
The poems in chapter one build on this existential dread through sustained imagery of bodies and homes as shells, as fiction, as delicate creatures, capable of inflicting pain and beauty. In “Swans and Mosquitoes,” the image of two sisters alone, sweaty, and stuck to the vinyl seats in their Mama’s pickup as she busses tables inside is itself an archetypal image of children raised by single parents. This image like so many in this book strikes at the meat of why and how we make art. It is out of necessity that mosquitoes “performed a Swan Lake on the dashboard, the winged invertebrates/ becoming the winged swans in my mind, trapped in these bodies/...”
By the end of the first chapter, you are hit with images of kids raising themselves, floods, bad marriages, the traps of femininity and the body, and the crushing sorrow of never being able to know anyone. In one of the most heartrending images of the collection, The Rogue Wave tells the story of a mother’s sudden second marriage. When told what the mother and her man “just done,” the narrator says, “But the language is the thief. It’s hard to not feel something stolen,/ in the words, the vowel and thrust of the verb, the static despair/ of the noun,...”
Dirty Glass stands out in chapter two as it compares a brother’s life cut short by suicide with the moment a bubble pops in a glass of tea. The third chapter stretches to explore the ultimate sense of lack in the human condition. In Inner Space, a woman is happier when her lover is gone: “And she knows the twin loves the lack,/ discovering the stretch of legs to sky,/...”
In the final poem, Open Sesame, Whiddon ends where so many fairytales begin. The aged woman has accumulated keys over the years, “like kittens/ and crow’s feet, like laundry/ and loose change.” I love the idea of long life ending with keys and possibility, with infinite doorways into fantastical worlds when so many folk and fairytales begin here, with youth at the windowsill or mirror into parts unknown.
In The House Began to Pitch, we enter a world post fairytale. After the myths are done, we look into worlds where the stories continue into the waking sadness of age, death, and disconnection, of dysfunction, but something of hope remains so long as we have story itself. Whiddon’s book reminds us to reach across the plains of fiction and truth and fairy to the bubbling middle of everything.
Author website: kellywhiddon.com
Twitter of the Press: @mupress