Review: ‘Curiosity’ by Patrick Whitfill

Curiosity, by Patrick Whitfill. Tucson: New Michigan Press, 2020. Print. US$9.  48 Pages. ISBN 978-1-934832-72-1

I had posted handwritten notes about this collection on Twitter.  What follows is a slightly modified transcription of same:

If mankind can’t agree on a simple greeting, as the multilingual hellos that begin most poems of the collection attest, the idea that we humans will ever get a meaningful response from any recipient is a wild card. We’ve gone off in search of other bioforms, sent probes to Mars to determine if it can support terrestrial life, but have gone off egotistically and with imperfect knowledge. With imperfect transmission devices.

Big questions this collection addresses include: who can we expect to care for us if we cannot care for each other?

Case in point comes from “Theory for Almost Everything: Electromagnetism”

“Lilly didn’t know that war with farmer’s kids meant either finding a place to hide…. or firing back…,” and because she neither hides nor fights, she is fired upon. A firework “caught in Lilly’s hair, in the tangles of her hair,” and she is injured, and embarrassed, and made the butt of jokes the speaker blithely allows.  This is a speaker who, in “Curiosity III,” “killed a sparrow that could have been a swallow” and “did not care.”

I think I am not the best reader for this text. The many pages of constraining quatrains divided by unbroken prose poem pages of text seemed at times like a lumberyard. Baffle-stacks of 17 x 4s,11 x 4s, 15 x 4s. To quote the text, it felt, “epistemologically speaking,” a “murderer’s life scheme.” :^)

Throughout, there are moments of greatness I enjoyed. Some favorite lines include:

“Curiosity IV”:  “I want the lie you’ll tell the insurance company / my heart employs,” and in the same poem featuring Lilly, the setting includes a lake with a dock which was “too shallow to call it a dock, more of a tongue of wood that couldn’t lick itself wet.”  The speaker also says in “Curiosity VI”, and this really joins the book as a member of the 2020 series, “I do know what it means to fall apart near/ a language I do not speak.”

As the speaker says in “Curiosity V,” “give it a name / and you give it a purpose.” My frustration, like the whole Curiosity rover scheme, is that all communications from this speaker are one-way, which is of course a flaw of our interstellar attempts to connect to other lives. This one-sided flaw of character is best revealed in “Curiosity VIII,” where the speaker mostly appreciates their own “disturbance, more.”

In sum, although I didn’t like how the text kept dropping its stylus into the same structural groove, I do appreciate how, like lumber, it does providing structural framework.  I would say when it comes to language and aliens, one can’t out-Chiang Ted Chiang.  I think as a reader of poetry, this collection has thrown elbows at me when I generally am in search of feeling, song, heart. Certainly that’s a shortcoming of my own aesthetic. We all get set in our ways.

★★★ = Much to Admire. Can be purchased directly from the publisher