Who Whispered Near Me

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Killarney Clary makes an audacious debut with Who Whispered Near Me, a volume which will be noted both for its accomplished style and for its distinctive form. Not many poets begin with a volume of prose poems, a form disdained by many poets and readers of poetry yet at the same time even more likely to be rejected by the general reader. Valued by its advocates for its lyricism, density, and capacity to absorb a wide range of impressions, the prose poem has a disputed genealogy. Some critics trace its origin to the mid-nineteenth century French poet Aloysius Bertrand; later, Bertrand’s countrymen Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarme all wrote prose poems of distinction. Contemporary American practitioners of the prose poem (to name but a few) include John Ashbery, Robert Bly, and the late James Wright; indeed, Ashbery praises Clary on the dust jacket, calling hers “a stunning new voice in American poetry.”

Arranged in five sections, the poems of Who Whispered Near Me all take their titles from the word or words that begin them. The opening poem, ’As you struggle with the boat,” illustrates Clary’s method. She often begins with a clear image (boat, bird, beetles) and then ruminates on this image or moves associatively to other images or thoughts. The first section of the book serves as an introduction—to Clary’s methods, to the California landscape she loves, and to the poet’s personal issues of home and family.

The book’s first poem is perhaps the best located of the poems in terms of time. The speaker is watching home movies of a person, perhaps a parent, very likely the speaker’s father—a figure notably absent later in the volume. The first paragraph describes this person on a boat that “drifts out and turns until I see only your back, and you grow smaller, lighter, bluer

In the poem’s second paragraph, the person is “in the snow; your skin is the color of roughed metal.” Clary uses the third paragraph to say that the speaker does not try to see a connection with this person: “I don’t try to imagine that I hear you or that you had anything to do with what I see This is purposely disingenuous, however, for the final paragraph shows the person and the speaker (as a child) interacting. The film described here dates to Christmas, 1956; Clary skillfully animates the scene: the speaker being lifted onto a tricycle by the relative. The poem’s close is both enigmatic and witty, offering a seemingly joyful union such as is rarely to be found in the volume as a whole: “I want to play with your teeth but you hand me more things—a book someone else will read to me, a horn that makes us both laugh.”

The first section’s poems illuminate Clary’s method, locate the poems (roughly) in space and time, and also raise several issues that later poems will touch on again. Some of these are loss, death, the problem of defining the self, and communication and its difficulties.

The book’s second poem, “Sacrificed so that I could be uncertain,” shows the poet’s youthful self-centeredness and self-involvement. Here is the first sentence in full: “Sacrificed so that I could be uncertain, the dead were not me.” The word “uncertain” sets a tone that will be pervasive throughout the book, along with restlessness and a certain psychic uprootedness. Another sentence in the second poem is “I think it’s good to want to go home.”

The section closes with “Clouds of birds.” Typical of Clary’s method, this poem opens with a brilliant description of birds in flight. The previous poem had included a snippet of prayer; here, too, the poet seems convinced of a God and an ultimate scheme of things: “Even the moon is skittish, up early and pale but whole as the sun. Old, and of a plan.”

The speaker seems caught between “boredom or urgency,” convinced that neither will dissolve with the oncoming rain. She closes: “The weather and moves we might have made nag like a child, ’Watch me. Watch me. Look at me,’ before another ordinary, spectacular dive into the country-club pool.”

The second and third sections of the book seem to be its emotional center. Both...

(The entire section is 1729 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, April 1, 1989, p. 1341.

Los Angeles Times Rook Review. August 5, 1989, p. 3.