I have yet to learn how to hurricane the trees like him,
bend their necks down until the snap
into a migration hidden in all the wrong, wrong spaces.
I watched the boats unstrapped, one by none left on the back waters
like an unbeliever from a billy-goat stare
between his hand and the wild fever away. I saw him do it.
Some nights I try to hide the writhe,
even when striding fingers over ears, I can still hear him,
as a river does trying to keep a royal tone over rocks
but I can’t stop un-strapping the back waters in replay
while minding the owl who pushes through these rural parts
I’m learning to mind that cockerel head, I’m learning who twisted this man thin
as a kite strung high up up up the wrong, wrong bark.
Michelle Whittaker’s imagination is a force to be reckoned with, much as this poem reckons with the force of a hurricane. “The Floater” moves through its watery images to teach us that the subject, that unnamed “he,” floats on air—a lynched body, or a suicide—a victim of our “wrong, wrong spaces” but also a force of his own, haunting the speaker who “saw him do it” and tries unsuccessfully to “hide the writhe.” What I love about “The Floater,” like so many of Whittaker’s poems, is how it engages simultaneously with the image—in this case, quite a potentially overwhelming one—and with engagement itself. The poem’s in the first person, though it could easily be in the third. A lesser poet would perhaps have begun with a line like, “He hurricanes the trees.” Not Whittaker, who immediately puts the image into a relationship with a speaker, a witness, and thus introduces her great subject, justice.
Why would this speaker want to “learn how to hurricane the trees”? Why can’t the speaker “stop un-strapping the back waters in replay”? The move from a future state of knowledge in the first line’s “yet to learn” to a present, continuing state at the end (“I’m learning…I’m learning”) suggests that engagement with the other, no matter how shocking or foul, through contemplation is the first step toward forming the kind of humane judgments that can account for suffering and the capacity to inflict suffering. Do we doubt this poet’s capacity to contemplate suffering, to “mind that cockerel head”? Not for a minute. Armed with an inventive syntax where parts of speech slide into each other, a musician’s ear for the sound words make, and a taste for justice, Whittaker meets the extraordinary violence and outrage of our man-made landscape with violent beauty, much “as a river does trying to keep a royal tone over rocks.”
Julie Sheehan’s three poetry collections are Bar Book: Poems & Otherwise, Orient Point and Thaw. Her honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, NYFA Fellowship and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton.
Michelle Whittaker is a pianist, teacher, and Liberal Arts Chair for Patchogue Arts Council. Her poems have recently appeared and are forthcoming in The Southampton Review, Drunken Boat, Xanadu and Long Island Quarterly. She received the 2009 Jody Donohue Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize special mention. Currently, she is finishing her MFA at Stony Brook University.