A review of Good Housekeeping by Bruce E. Whitacre

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Good Housekeeping
by Bruce E. Whitacre
Poets Wear Prada
April 2024, $18.00, 54 pages, ISBN: 978-1-946116-27-7

Bruce E. Whitacre is a poet of the family. His previous collection, The Elk in the Glade, concerned itself with his great-grandmother and her descendants in Nebraska. As the title of his new collection suggests, his current domestic situation takes center stage, though the poems often have a larger psychological – and geographical – range.

Named for the iconic magazine whose subjects include recipes, home decor and kitchen appliance reviews, this collection offers cozy insights into the homey routines on which lives and families depend.  The eponymous poem begins, cleverly echoing Walt Whitman, “I sing the body domestic….”

But Whitacre offers a note of warning: “Housekeeping is why / Greed is the root of evil yet it keeps us alive.” The poem  concludes with the central paradox: “It can’t go on like this; this is all we have.” Our domestic situations are so fragile, almost by definition, the seeds of discontent implicit in their bliss.

Poems like “Dinner is Served,” about a dinner party with friends (“Fondant is as much fun to say as to eat”), “Hunting and Gathering,” an amusing perspective on keeping the household in stock (“today’s deal on frozen mastodon” is in the fridge), “The Foldout Couch,” “Mother’s Chair,” “Loading the Dishwasher,” and “Sorted” (“Here is for those that go there. / That is where you should put these. / Here is for things that don’t belong there….”) highlight home comforts and home-keeping; that precious, if often tedious, soothing sense of well-being. 

But an edge of warning is never far away. “More Berry than Brine,” whose subject is “holidays in marriage,” introduces the inevitable misunderstandings that often come with the tensions of special days, which can easily devolve into resentment. “Maybe you’re still speaking by lights-out.” Uh-oh! But “To do nothing is to surrender,” Whitacre observes, resigned, concluding the poem, “Maybe the effort is the success.” Domestic bliss is fragile, indeed!

By illustration, a troubling encounter with an old friend who seems to be succumbing to dementia is the subject of “Once More for Elizabeth.” The protagonist, retired now in London after a vivid life in “Kabul, Todi, Jakarta, New York, Khartoum, Aventino, / Palermo,” is vague and forgetful and ultimately upset by her apparent debility (“A roundelay of questions answered and answers lost…Again and again the same questions and answers.”). While the reunion ends awkwardly but amicably, still the narrator and his partner are troubled for their friend.

Who is watching over you and all the risks
such as strangers like us conning a meal?
Open letters from months ago sit on the counter
as aide-mémoire, a medicinal booklet.

When they part, they promise to keep in touch, but “love you as we do, / distance divides us.”   Who’s to say? Good housekeeping extends only so far.

Bruce Whitacre has been posting a daily Instagram haiku since 2013 (readers can follow him at @gbwhitacre), and half a dozen of the poems in Good Housekeeping are selections from this project, titled by the dates they were posted. “02/20/2022,” for instance, reads:

Matching all the sox
Folding, smoothing the wrinkles
Life is a laundry bag.

The good-natured humor reflects the overall theme of the collection, the quotidian routines that at once enslave and anchor us. Another haiku, “04/06/2022,” highlights the enduring centrality of family in our lives and memory.

A lover of birds
The day dad died how they flocked
Thirteen years ago.

The imagistic haiku form also clues the reader in to Whitacre’s style, which reflects a love of rhythm and clearly shows us the objects that are on his mind. “Nightingale on East 19th” is a wonderful example. The poet improbably encounters the bird at dusk, in New York City, singing, perhaps, from the gingko trees. His lyrical, descriptive verse is vivid and precise, creating a picture:  

Yellow-violet streetlights ignite
after-work smokers on stoops.
The corner bar casts a blue glow from
some game broadcast from somewhere.

Rapt, the poet listens, until “a heedless siren squelches the spell,” the sounds of the city overwhelming the romantic moment. 

Nowhere is Whitacre’s love of the rhythm of language and vivid image on display as they are in his poems set in Rome, “Witnessing Rome” and “Night Writer.” In the latter, he is awakened at night by the sound of a typewriter.

It is a sound soon to be silenced for all time,
that tap-tap-tap-ching of the twentieth century lyre.
It calls to my storyteller, my bard, my troubadour.
I listen and yearn to take a seat
to crank a slice of paper and carve with those keys

The “message” in these urgently tangible sensations – touch, sound, sight, smell – is conveyed in the titles of several of Whitacre’s concluding poems, “At the End of the Day,” Just Be,” and “Remember to Live.” It’s the same insistence Mary Oliver memorably emphasizes when she writes about this “one wild and precious life” that we live. 

And at the end of the day? It’s all a matter of good housekeeping, ordering and looking out for the things that matter. As Voltaire wrote in Candide, Il faut cultiver notre jardin: “we must cultivate our garden.” We should devote ourselves to tending our own livelihood and welfare in “this realm where loved ones circle and unwind.” Good Housekeeping, indeed!

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp, is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review, and author of Mortal Coil, A Magician Among the Spirits, and See What I Mean? published by Kelsay Books in 2023.