In her brief and poignant introduction to Our Classical Heritage: A Homing Device, Arielle Greenberg describes Caroline Noble Whitbeck's poems as "challenging," "pleasurable," and "witty," but most importantly as poems that sound unlike anyone else, which is the main reason she selected the book as winner of the 2006 Gatewood Prize.
Whitbeck, who earned her undergraduate degree in Classics (Latin) from Harvard, and her MFA from Brown University, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. "Current manias," she recently told me in an email, "include Greek, Latin, contemporary and ancient poetics, the fragment, the ruin. . ." Certainly, while reading Our Classical Heritage, many of Whitbeck's poems struck me as indeed manic, delivering an ambitious modernity and dreamily raw smorgasbord of language: titles such as "Epidemiology, entry: Metonymy" and "Noosphere, An Ars Poetica" and "Our Classical Heritage, an apparatus criticus" at first glance may suggest an ingratiating charm and come across as slightly self-indulgent, but one quickly discovers the brutal quest for real experience:
"What did I know? I'd learned to let another girl
tie my shoes for me, sure. What else is there, my parents asked.
At home, the bitch writhed as she
buried her hands in. I'll bet you're hungry, she said to the teeth."
Whitbeck has a powerful gift: an ability to crank up language and heighten it to great depths. Typically, many of these poems are interspersed with sentence fragments, an obscure image that is neither traditional nor decorative, but the strong command of wordplay is the real joy. In "Running in the Family," for example, she writes:
"Adolescens, adolescentis. (Note:
for girl see
also: guile, brittle, leak, and loom.)"
Or, in "Our Classical Heritage, an apparatus criticus":
"Homophones, such as scarcely, I lived,
Vetch, to the village, I conquered,
Change/interchange. Also: pyre and I ask."
Such an attention to Latin might be as precise and brisk as it is edgy and surreal, yet Whitbeck still manages to imbue us with questions of truth, death, and love -- and she does this playfully well. We must be thrust into an unfamiliar terrarium in order to develop awareness to her surreal surroundings and odd vocabulary. Despite the book's attention to hardcore wordplay, there still exists an astringent intensity, as in the illustrious, "What All the Boys Are Wearing on St. Mark's Place":
"Stepping out of my days, I slept in unwashed smoke,/ours. Chew the guitar-strings of his, hair and bracelets. The insect-view/of an armpit's forest. Mascara clotted under each. Alike."
The fragmented world here and in the other poems in this collection has its own form of aliveness that brilliantly reflects what we see and sometimes hide about our lives, our thoughts, and ourselves. Many of the poems in Our Classical Heritage: A Homing Device display an explicit urgency, a risk-taking. It is an ambitious proficiency of language. Whitbeck thankfully refuses to write poems tossed into a simulacrum of traditional prose or verse. She is a classicist with a style, as Greenberg puts it, unlike anyone else. And her style is breathless, never lapsing into self-consciousness or self-indulgence, but leaving the reader wanting more from this very impressive first book.