Review: Karen Knight's 'Under the one granite roof: poems for Walt Whitman'
Pardalote Press, 2004
Under the one granite roof, poems for Walt Whitman, is ultimately a love-letter from Karen Knight to poet Walt Whitman written as a series of poems. Walt Whitman published his poetry collection Leaves of Grass, in 1855; but Knight's emphasis is on Whitman the man, living during the time of the American Civil War, rather than Whitman the poet.
To write these poems Knight has spent years in a Walt Whitman world, conversing with the dead. Knight dedicates the book to Jules her husband, and underneath the dedication is a quote from Walt Whitman, "One must die living and live dying, by loving" (Leaves of Grass); a quote which captures the essence of Walt Whitman, a man of boundless imagination and spirit, compassion and thoughtfulness.
When other sensitive souls turned away from the cruelty of war, Walt Whitman ‘…left home/ to find other brothers.’ (Those worrisome brothers) and ‘…kissed dying soldiers/ on the lips,/ a long, motherly kiss.’ (Sometimes, a long kiss); ‘It was left to Whitman/ the old boy-kisser/ to play the priest.’ (When the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter).
Walt Whitman said there would come a day when we would have to be our own priests. We live in an age where many turn for enlightenment or for a key to a way to live and be, to the poets and other word magicians such as philosophers, songwriters and the great storytellers. Whitman’s poetry is often quoted for its timeless truths, but Whitman didn't just write it, he lived it, and Knight shows us Whitman’s lived life as his greatest poem. Some of Knight's most moving poems are when she imagines still-lives of Whitman's private moments such as ‘For the love of paper’ and ‘Home’; there comes a point when all history is made up and that is when a person fully engages with not just the facts of the past but the living-truth of the past.Knight finds the excitement in what people dismiss as ordinary and captures the heart of an experience, such as in ‘Forgiveness’, where Whitman's father thrashed him ‘for filling the water pail/with lilac blossoms’ and ‘..said/ Keep good heart, the worst is to come’, but as his father is at his fevered end it is Whitman who carried him ‘up the narrow stairs/ and stayed with him.’ Whitman lived in a world where all men were named and he was loved ‘by the men you calmed by saying that life is like the weather,/ you have to take what comes// when you wrote each bed number in a notebook and/ every bed number had a name, a face and home address.’ (You were loved, Walt).
Whitman is frequently cited as the first American poet to write in free verse; he wrote almost all his work in long, unscannable end-stopped lines. He had the originality of genius and daring without being obscure. Knight's poems reflect Whitman's approach to poetry. I think Whitman would enjoy Knight's use of forms such as lists and catalogues such as ‘Uncle Sam's Souvenir Store’ and ‘Army surplus calendar -- 1865 for women only’ and the constant surfacing of Knight's humour such as in the one-liner, ‘Isn't he the guy who samples the chocolates?’ (In the heart of the Walt Whitman Mall). Whitman would enjoy Knight’s probing of his obsessions, such as the erotic poem ‘Calamus plant’ where ‘Whitman nibbled/the raw young stems/despite the bitter taste.’
Knight’s poems look deceptively simple, but on a third reading of the collection I was rewarded by the unfolding of subtleties such as the repetition of the colour blue; where ‘to hear his voice/his words/like electric streams/and oh, to fly into/the blue of his eyes.’ (Waltmania), and on Whitman's desk ‘resting on a bundle of faded wallpaper/patterned with blue flowers//butterfly bones.’ (For the love of paper), contrasts with:
Whenever you see anything blue shoot at it…
-General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
in her hair
ribbons on her dress
the sapphire stone
in her engagement ring
a Karma Blue butterfly
lapping the salt
from her upper lip
feathery leaves of
love in-a-mist curled
around a bugle plant
the blue murder screams
of slate turkeys
as we're ordered to fire.
I must disclose I have loved Karen's poetry for years, even before we met and became friends. We live in Tasmania, we all know each other, the publisher of Pardalote Press, Lyn Reeves, is also my friend through poetry. My aim is to give a disinterested review which allows the reader a way into the collection and an idea of whether they should seek it out. I think this is a stunning first collection. Whitman and Knight share a love of words and the ability to tell truth Emily Dickinson style, where you tell it slant; and so much more.