I’ve been waiting for years for Karen Whalley’s second collection to be published. These beautifully clear, meditative poems have it all; dexterously situated in daily experience, they meet with the difficulties of lived life, over and over with a deep, often heartbreakingly honest and humane insightfulness. Fluent, full of breakthroughs and surprises, these extraordinary poems never seem to falter; Whalley is an extraordinary poet, and this is a book in a thousand.
My Own Name Seems Strange to Me moves with fluid sureness from poem to poem, assessing our gains and our vulnerabilities. I love the arc of the book, how it goes from familiar to strange. How, though grounded in the real world, the poet’s astute observations reach deeply, easily, into philosophy and meaning. ‘Somewhere there is always light / To cast the world into shadows,’ she tells us in the moving poem, ‘Dusk.’ In ‘Honey,’ Whalley describes the surprise of learning that a bee creates only one teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime, but allows that this ‘is as much as most of us / Ever achieve.’ Nothing feels like a stretch, everything the poet points out to us, in her control. The reader gets to know and care about intricate family relationships; in ‘Sister,’ a sibling rivalry that has remained hidden: ‘How, like a child swimming the surface / Of a lake thinking nothing lies beneath the mirror on which she floats.’ Casual, brilliant associations, but there is no mistaking how deep the currents of feeling run, every poem so carefully turned like a beautiful piece on the potter’s wheel.
Reading Karen Whalley’s poems is like watching a magic show. They begin quietly in observations of the everyday, then suddenly explode into truth and revelation. This brilliance, of breaking open the familiar to reveal its depths, is the essential brilliance of metaphor. ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of ordinary life,’ said Picasso, and that’s exactly what these poems do. Beneath their lucid, meticulous surfaces, the wrenching beauties of human life emerge in all their wild complexity and vividness. Whatever sleight-of-hand brought these poems into being, their startling courage and honesty remain with me. This is a brave and memorable book.
In My Own Name Seems Strange to Me Karen Whalley has given us ‘sad and gorgeous songs’ about the work of being alive, having a needy, imperfect, aging body, about religion’s promises vs. the facts on the ground, about the need to weep, about the adored person changing or collapsing or betraying—and about who, after all this time, absolutely still deserves to be punished. Muriel Rukeyser’s favorite assignment was to ask students to write poems that complete the sentence ‘I could not tell….’ Whalley’s wonderful poems—tender, brave, ironic, angry and hopeful—rise fiercely to that challenge.