I was going to review an old favorite of mine today, Vicki Feaver’s The Handless Maiden, but I was distracted by another book that first came to my attention about six months ago and left me a boneless puddle of pain (in the best possible way)for a week after my first reading. This time, I went in anticipating the beautiful intensity of the poetry and though the force was not lessened in any way, I found that I could brace myself and stand it. Still, I knew to read Whistle at home, wrapped in a blanket, rather than attempting to absorb it while stepping furiously at the gym.
If I have not made it clear enough already, Whistle is not for the faint hearted. It is a work that’s impeccably crafted, earned, each image and effect is planned, and incredibly successful. The book is titled for a five line poem three pages from the end that, over the course of 19 words (including the title) brings devastating life to a corpse in the hands of an undertaker.
19 words in the hands of this poet make the collection worth the price of admission. As a purveyor of compulsive narrative sprawl I envy the ability to generate that much power in such small area. It is like a pocket-sized nuclear bomb. But I am getting a little ahead of myself. This book centers round the murder of Figura’s mother. June was killed by her husband, Frank. He was also the author’s father. The experience is rather like witnessing a nuclear blast, the reader cannot look at the point of impact. We are never shown the murder itself, the strike is still too hot. Instead, we see the build-up, and the fall-out, the poisonous rain.
I will focus on five poems. The first, ‘Fire Place’ presents Frank as a servant of an Old-Testament God. Speaking of the hearth Frank built in the living room the narrator says:
In return for warmth it demanded fuel
so each night father took to his knees
and made offerings of sticks and coal.
Frank then transmutes, briefly, to god himself in the eyes of his son, ‘He became our Fire-God’, before settling back into the role of servant, specifically Samson, a judge. Frank, ‘sat there/ nursing the jawbone of an ass.’ This stanza intimates that his later atrocity will spring from a perverted sense of biblical justice.
After the murder the narrator is taken to live with his aunt and uncle, who treat him with the same bile they would give Frank, if they could get at him. The abuse the narrator suffers is spelled out in ‘Snowfall’, a poem which echoes the controlled violence of Roethke:
The taste of blood first,
then a fierce wave of pain from a tooth
through a lip. I am dangling like a puppet
Uncle Philip’s hand on the collar
of my navy blue mac.
The abuse is so terrible that the blessing Figura gives to his departing relations as they leave for Canada without telling him, in ‘Thank You’, is as sincerely meant as it is bitter:
Thank you Auntie Margaret
Uncle Philip- God bless
For avoiding any awkwardness
For leaving just like that
For sparing yourselves the upset.
The narrator is bitter at their selfishness, not at the fact of their leaving. They left that way for their own convenience, indicating that they never really saw Martin as anything but a simulacrum for vengeance, something to hit.
There are many poems in this collection which focus on the relationships between narrator, murder, and victim, but three were especially effective. In ‘Exile’ Frank is presented as homesick and a little lost:
Sometimes he comes home with Polish sausage
And a heart from another time and place
He serves it up with pickled cabbage
The narrator exhibits great compassion for this aspect of his father, while doing everything in his power to negate any resemblance between himself and the man who murdered his wife in a way that, in outline, could have sprung from a myth.
The reader is shown this desire to escape resemblance, and perhaps repetition of history, in ‘Nerve Ends’. The poet describes a tick his father had:
When he’s tired
he rubs his top lip
with his middle finger
in an obscene gesture.
The speaker then says:
When I feel the same itch
I think of smoothness
and find something to
with my hands.
I sympathized with this impulse, with much less reason. I wear my father’s face, made female. I borrow his expressions. It is difficult to create a sense of identity when one comes ready-made and incredibly powerful. This poem was a very touching, very relatable addition to the book.
The narrator cannot ever escape his father either, but he can translate that resemblance into something tender, something that connects the poet to the man who lived before the murder. In ‘Sausages’ Figura presents himself as someone who, like his father, is homesick and lost. Entering a Polish shop he finds that:
It has shelves of sauerkraut in jars
and strings of sausages in a cabinet.
Sometimes they don’t get home,
I dip them into the jar of mustard
as I drive, and eat them cold.
This is a work that would, in lesser hands, be bleak and bitter, Figura endows it with beauty and tremendous grace. I cannot praise this book enough.
Buy a copy HERE.