A review of The Elk in the Glade and Good Housekeeping by Bruce E. Whitacre

Reviewed by Michael T. Young

The Elk in the Glade: The World of Pioneer and Painter Jennie Hicks
by Bruce E. Whitacre.
Crown Rock Media
October 2022, Paperback, 80 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1946116253

Good Housekeeping
by Bruce E. Whitacre
Poets Wear Prada
April 2024, Paperback, 56 pages, ISBN: 978-1-946116-27-7

The stories we are told, whether of our family, our country, or our planet, set trajectories for our life and are the start of our own story. They are what we build on, the raw material of who we become. Such raw material is found in both of Bruce Whitacre’s collections: The Elk in the Glade and Good Housekeeping. 

In The Elk in the Glade story is central. It is a narrative collection, comprised of episodes and portraits of the times and lives of those around the main figure: Jennie Hicks, the great-grand mother of the poet himself. It is a collection of interlocking portraits and episodes that create not only a portrait of Jennie, a painter, but also about a certain place and time. We see technology move from kerosene lamps to electricity, from horse-drawn manure spreaders to tractor-pulled spreaders. One full chapter is dedicated to an unnamed local who dies alone in bed and based on the uniform he dressed himself in, it’s suggested he may have fought at Little Bighorn River. When Jennie first moves to southwest Nebraska with her parents, what they live in is a soddy, or a sod house. Although, the one the family moves into is a little higher end as it has “woodframe windows.” 

We follow the lives of Jennie and her family not merely through hard times but through hard living in a time and area that was only starting to be settled when they moved there. But that becomes the basis of the joys that shine through: a crate of oranges broken out for Christmas or a meal at Thanksgiving where “four generations gathered” and “it seems it will always be so.” It’s the distillation of these moments into art and story that make for a good life.  

What drives all the stories, whether of Jennie’s daughters—each of the 3 having their own chapters—or passing figures like the anonymous soldier, or Jennie herself, is not only the struggle to survive but to claim an identity in the midst of so much change and turmoil. Jennie is widowed before she’s sixty. The family farm is sold and she moves into “the White House,” which is more modern than she’s used to. It’s here she begins not only to paint but to be paid to paint. And in this context we are told, “This would do. She became herself” (“Coming to the White House” pg. 50). Or, as is said of her daughter Dorathy, who is both unable to have children and the only one of the three daughters who paints like her mother, 

She knew a picture was not a child.
But sometimes light and color can fill in, just a little.  (Dorathy in the Middle,”, 53)

Throughout the collection there are reproductions of Jennie’s paintings that correspond to those mentioned in the poems, including the title work, The Elk in the Glade. By this we gain not only an appreciation of the artist’s work but an appreciation of what sustained her in a hard life, for in such images, as any poet knows, we read the internal life of the artist. The poet himself does the same, the last poem of the collection, “Farnam Cemetery,” concluding: 

The good times buried here,
and the losses, the regrets, the blames,
anchor what I’ve been and where I’ve gone.
It is only a while yet
before I take my seat at the table
and pass on a tale. (63)

What he’s been and where he’s gone is the trajectory the poet himself followed, descended from a painter and, as the subtitle of the collection indicates, a pioneer, his own story and exploration extending and evolving from the history we follow in this wonderful narrative collection.

One of the things that interests me in narrative poetry is the balance a poet strikes between the storytelling and the music of language, which can distract from a story—a criticism Eliot leveled at Milton in Paradise Lost. At first, I didn’t hear the music in The Elk in the Glade. And this disappointed me. But I was mistaken in my initial response. The music is there, but subtle, and honestly masterful. While he employs alliteration and internal rhyme, Whitacre is more sparing with these, leaning more toward consonance, various forms of slant rhyme, and some more nuanced devices to create sonic effects, rhyming such things as convince/since, clipped/lit, popcorn/corners, lingered/fingernail, or pretended/tending. What I discovered in reading Whitacre’s second collection, Good Housekeeping, is that these musical effects are his usual strategy, and not peculiar to the narrative of The Elk in the Glade for which they served very well. 

Good Housekeeping is a collection of lyric poems like that we are more likely to see. In that respect, those musical devises are more abundant.  In my personal favorite poem of the collection, “Nightingale on East 19th” the music weaves a beautiful tapestry of sound, from the “ər” sound in purple/skirts/work/smokers to the embedded “an” sound in transmuting/chanting or the embedded rhyme of squelches/spell to the alliteration in the line “you flutter in the fan-leafed trees.” This poem also exemplifies the theme of the collection that is more than a mere celebration of the comforts of making and keeping a home. The nightingale in this poem is a counter to the noise and darkness in the world. 

A heedless siren squelches the spell, then
you flutter in the fan-leafed trees.
Again you ignite the air in sound.
sanctify this hectic honest hour.
(“Nightingale on East 19th”, 15)

Chaos is always at the door trying to gain entrance. Or as the question is posed in “More Berry than Brine”: Why do such treacherous shoals skirt such special days (8)

That is also the life portrayed in The Elk in the Glade, and it is really life as we all live it day to day, even on our best days: the special days are surrounded by “treacherous shoals.” The title poem of “Good Housekeeping,” which is the first poem in the collection, ends with a warning: 

Our polished windows gaze out unobscured
On the dwindling Anthropocene vista
The clear-cut wastes we’ve washed down the disposal
It can’t go on like this; this is all we have. (“Good Housekeeping”, 3)

Good housekeeping serves as a metaphor on a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale. On the one hand, we labor to keep things in order in our own homes, and on bad days, loading the dishwasher becomes a need to clean out one’s whole life: 

Those days are the days. . . 
You want to load your job, your mate, your boss, 
your bills, your kids, those walkers, that customer, 
the news, Washington Beijing Brussels Palm Beach
your mother, your body, your anger, your hunger
your fears for the future, locked and loaded —
Cancel/Drain. (“Loading the Dishwasher” pg 22)

On the other hand, we need to keep things in order on the global scale or our reckless living will destroy the one house we all share: 

We sucked oysters out of shells
until the reef was stone,
the remaining water murky.
Now we sit alone, 
each on our own pole. 
We dot the dirty bay,
plump mendicants pumping
our bivalves in the asphyxiating air
as the water recedes. (“Life on the Half Shell”, 35)

It’s a bleak prospect. But despite the underlying threats all around, Good Housekeeping, like The Elk in the Glade, affirm our ability to take part in this world, to survive the threats, to even find joy. 

My joy
fleeting but continuous 
like a bird’s song 
or the ship engine thrum
cruising the straits of Polynesia
ever present when I listen. 
Every foaming volcano promises wider beaches. (“Remember to Live”, 39)

The violence of the volcano is precisely what provides future beachgoers a larger area to enjoy by the sea. The violent and the comforting are often side by side. Just like that earlier quoted line, “Why do such treacherous shoals skirt such special days.” This is what necessitates “good housekeeping” as such. Our place between the dangers of our world is not secure. It takes our working with it to maintain our place, not plundering it or mistreating it, any more than we would mistreat our own house. Laundry and dishes and dusting and vacuuming and all other kinds of maintaining of order must be employed to keep a space livable and a place of comfort. Storytelling itself is also a kind of good housekeeping, an ordering of the random elements of life into story, to assert our place in the world. Whitacre is a storyteller, someone who sees the narrative threads that connect us, binding our lives not only to our immediate family, but our farthest neighbors and the planet we all have in common. Both these collections bask in those connections and in the subtleties of a good poetic ear. 

About the reviewer: Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals including American Book Review, Compulsive Reader, Pinyon, Talking River Review, and Vox Populi.