Karen Whalley

MY OWN NAME SEEMS STRANGE TO ME, Karen Whalley. Off the Grid Press, 2019, 65 pages, $16 paper,

I have known Karen Whalley for at least 30 years and consider her one of my dearest friends. All the more amazing, then, that her poems continue to surprise me, and make me swoon. But don’t take my word for it. To quote the late Tony Hoagland (himself, a national treasure) from the book’s cover:

These beautifully clear, meditative poems have it all; dexterously situated in daily experience, they meet with the difficulties of lived life, 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.

I had a terrible time trying to pick out just one poem to share. This is the first poem in the book:

Naming It

Before dawn, from the gully where the creek abides
A bird whose name I do not know practices
Its five-note song, and I am a girl again
Sitting at the piano repeating a simple scale.

The bird sings, the sun rises, as if there were a connection,
And my feet do not reach the pedals as my hands
Spread, like wings, across the keys. The wound

Is easier to name: the father did not love,
And after that it was the husband, but the bird and the piano
Remind me of that man who read the same book
For thirty years, memorizing each sentence

As a way to perfect his understanding
Of the book whose name I never learned.
I would see him each morning on the corner
Waiting for the bus, the book spread

Across his hands, like wings at rest, peering into the pages
With his glasses slipping farther down his nose
So he had to tilt his head back as he stood there–

Dissolved into his book, like the bird dissolving
Into morning, the way the piano dissolves into the box of memory.

Karen Whalley, “Family of Hard Workers”

So many poets, so little time. I barely dented my book collection, and left out so many other favorites. Next year, thirty more?

For the last day of National Poetry Month, I am pleased to recommend the poetry of my friend, Karen Whalley. I have loved Karen’s poems for nearly 30 years, ever since our mutual professor, Nelson Bentley, put us on a Castalia Reading program together. This poem, from her collection, The Rented Violin (Ausable Press, 2003), resides in the vast class of “poems I wish I had written.”

If I were giving assignments, this one might inspire us to write about what-happened, vs. what-didn’t-happen, and what that might have looked like.


I would like to forget
That I come from a family of hard workers:
Grandfather of axe handles carved
For the Georgia railroad, Grandmother
Of thirteen children flinging feed for the chickens
From a fifty-pound bag, forgive me,
I forget you. And if my father glorifies
What is, in actuality, a certain lack of choices
On the part of his relatives
Who rose at the cock’s crow
And made a day so similar to the one before it
That if someone asked what they’d done that day,
They would stand with their hands in their pockets
Then give you their one answer:
I whittled an axe handle. I fed the chickens. 
Then forgive me for not doing that, too.

Once, I kept a carved statue of a horse
On my window sill,
The right front leg crooked, like a little finger
Which made the horse seem always in motion.
It’s all I remember about the horse,
The arched leg ready to step
Into the green pastures of my imagination
And thrum with its hooves,
Churning up grass, unhaltered, unsaddled,
Its huge head rivening the wind.
Better if my family had said:
You come from a family
Where beauty matters.
Look at the horse, now,
Running for joy. 

–Karen Whalley

Finally, I can’t resist adding a link to Kathleen Flenniken’s The Far Field, with a poem by Professor Bentley: