Jennifer Whitaker

University of Wisconsin Press, 2016

The blue hour—the time after the sun has dropped behind the horizon but before dark, when the longer, blue end of the wave spectrum is the only light that reaches us—is coveted by photographers and plein-air painters for its high contrast and air of enchantment. In Jennifer Whitaker’s collection of that name, the blue hour operates as a structural device, a figure through which the raw trauma of sexual abuse that animates these poems is transfigured. Hiding under her parents’ house where “old newspapers bloat / in their plastic skins,” the speaker’s childhood self “crouch[es] in the bright six o’clock dark / like a cave cricket, in its fear / and ricochet frenzy blind / and springing toward that which frightens.” If by the end the speaker-protagonist is not healed, she—and the reader—are soothed, if shaken.

The magical light of fable suffuses this collection. An endnote alludes to Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, a 17th-century fairy tale collection that influenced the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. As in folktales, the poems are largely told from the perspective of a wise, detached retrospective narrator, depicting a world where the innocence of childhood is more often threatened than protected by adults. Many of the poems revise fairy tales to frame a father-daughter relationship fraught with sexual abuse. “Rapunzel” opens with a scene of routine abuse—“each night in her doorless room / his hand tangles / in her hair”—and dissolves into a fantasy in which the speaker “thinks she’ll chop it off, her hair / and his snarled hand” and throws down an escape ladder made of light “to exactly no one waiting.”

Staked on the detached, highly allegorical narrative style of tales, this collection counters impersonality by leaving a crumb trail of intimate addresses from the speaker to other characters, beginning with the opening poem, whose ironic title—“Last Poem About My Father”—hints at the war between closure and compulsion at the heart of the stories we tell about our traumas. “It was his body carried over the threshold on our wedding day,” the speaker tells her husband; “I am sorry for bringing him in, / for making him ours.” If the reader is left to wonder what closure, if any, has been achieved, there can be no doubting the necessity of telling, and re-telling, the tale.