Saturday, September 25, 2010

Poet, Painter, Cruciverbalist

Every now and then you come upon a poet or a poem that strikes a chord somewhere in memory or experience. I have never picked pears from anywhere other than a market bin, have never stood high on a shaky ladder amidst fruit and branches, and so I think it must be the grandmother’s portrait that so warmly held my heart momentarily. Turning about one hundred and eighty degrees, the poet has me pondering a vocabulary of chicken verbs and laughing at the way his crossword art leaps over fences to create a charming ode to that most familiar of farmyard fowl.

Gary Whitehead is a poet with more than a few prizes, a painter of some renown, a teacher, and on top of all that, a cruciverbalist—a creator of crossword puzzles. In addition to three chapbooks, he has published two collections of poetry, The Velocity of Dust in 2004 and Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps in 2008. His crossword puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and USA Today. His oil paintings are in private as well as corporate collections in the US and Great Britain. He currently teaches English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in northern New Jersey.


I stand on the top rung and the step ladder
shakes; above me the winter pears just out
of reach, clean and strung heavy along limbs
and swaying like my grandmother’s aprons
hung on the line to dry. I drop one into
the bag she holds open below me. She grins,
and I’m drawn into the embrace of her gaze—
down into handfuls of earth, seasons, the empty
cup of a lost daughter, a lost breast.
I’m stitched into miles of quilts, curtains,
tablecloths, hems of pants, skirts.
I’m held to her like a button on a shirt pocket,
and I smell soap, tomatoes, chicken soup,
Portuguese sweet bread, goat cheese, pears…
and I lower myself out and around the gnarl
of branch, down the ladder to take the full
bag of the fruit I love, warm from
the sun and spotted like her hands.

“Picking Pears” was featured on The Writer’s Almanac yesterday, and is from The Velocity of Dust.


There should be a word for the way

they look with just one eye, neck bent,

for beetle or worm or strewn grain.

“Gleaning,” maybe, between “gizzard”

and “grit.” And for the way they run

toward someone they trust, their skirts

hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:

“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted

after “blowout” and before “bloom.”

There should be terms, too, for things

they do not do—like urinate or chew—

but perhaps there already are.

I’d want a word for the way they drink,

head thrown back, throat wriggling,

like an old woman swallowing

a pill; a word beginning with “S,”

coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”

And one for the sweetness of hens

but not roosters. We think

that by naming we can understand,

as if the tongue were more than muscle.

“A Glossary of Chickens” was published in The New Yorker magazine on May 24 of this year.

The attached paintings

The top canvas is called Still Life with Fish, and is oil on canvas board; the second painting, A Pair of Mackerel, is oil on canvas.


  1. I would run off with Garrison Keillor just to hear that voice reading me poetry every day but thankfully, I don't have to. He's on my radio.
    Thanks for those poems.
    Hmmm. Hubble-bubble. I've never heard that one but it's in my journal now.

  2. The kind of poetry I love: straight-forward and so evocative. Reminds me a bit of of the poetry of the daughter of Seabiscuit's jockey. Name of Pollard, I believe.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America