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Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers' Favorite
Poetry is music. From the Psalms of Solomon and before up to the present day, words have expressed a rhythmic quality that transcends the emotions and sentiments of music. Poetry projects a distinctive musical quality, a musical voice, one that deepens the feelings of what it means to truly be alive. “Given the appropriate container,/ a whole lifetime can be preserved.” Add a few musical terms to the poem's title, like “overture” (a musical introduction) and “sostenuto” (a prolonged, sustained musical note or tone), or even to the content itself, like “bass clef, treble clef” (referring to musical notation and the placement of notes on the stave), and you have a truly musical experience being expressed. Now, here’s a real tongue twister: “hemidemisemiquaver” (perhaps conceivably the fastest possible note, a sixty-fourth note). But the poet, James R. Whitley, sums this up quite eloquently; “there is no proper key for longing.”
James R. Whitley’s collection of poetry, Songs for Solo Voice, is appropriately titled to indicate that his poetry is music, more specifically, songs. There are no lyrics, but one doesn’t really need lyrics for the lyricism of poetry to shine through. This poet has a powerful command of language, and I particularly love his references to music and his clever use of similes and metaphors: “Overhead, the blasé moon hangs/ like a luminous wrecking ball,/ a thirsty razor-sharp pendulum.” And more on stars “like cold unblinking eyes.” This the poet then compares metaphorically to “my emptied home,/ radiant with ruin.” Powerful, insightful words, all transformed into music, songs to be sung solo. There is a lot to appreciate in these poems and it’ll take several readings to appreciate the full breadth of the poet’s nuances.