by David Whyte
31 poems, 26 essays and 11 B/W photos, 120 pages
Publisher: Many Rivers Press
To Order: www.davidwhyte.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
David Whyte’s superb new collection opens with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno,
“In the middle of the road of our life, I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was
wholly lost.” As your reviewer is writing (May, 2020) Dante’s words seem prophetic.
America, and indeed the world, finds itself under the hammer and anvil of what has come
to be known as Covid-19 or the Coronavirus. It is as if our collective consciousness is
wandering in a dark wood, searching for a way forward. Enter Whyte’s wise volume.
Essentials is a compendium of poems and essays. As Whyte avers in his introduction, the
act of writing is concerned with “the disturbing crossroads where aloneness and intimacy
meet.” The poems have been selected from over 30 years of writing, lecturing and travel.
They truly are “essential” to the way we live our lives, make decisions, esteem ourselves
and others, and navigate a faith-path toward a fulfilled life. The essays (there are 26 of
them) are nicely tucked in after the poems to which they refer. They present interesting
background, context and clarity. 10 black and white photos salt and pepper the volume
giving readers visual stimulation in relation to themes embedded in the poems and essays.
Many people, perhaps yourselves, or those you know and love find themselves living
through times of loss; living through the necessity of starting over. I felt a particular
poignancy in Whyte’s lead poem, Start Close In. Here is an excerpt
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
Quite often we want to cut to the chase quickly, skipping important steps along the way.
What I like about this poem is its gentle admonition NOT to follow someone else’s lead,
but rather, to listen to your own inner voice first, then move forward.
Whyte’s writing is conversational and wise. You want to be in his company, you want to
listen, you want to grow, and in the process imbibe deep draughts of life.
Whyte does not “tell” his readers what to do. His writings do not “condescend.” There is
no pretention of possessing all the answers to hard questions. In fact, the poet himself is
on the journey too. In The Journey, Above the mountains / the geese turn into / the light
again //. Throughout the work, there is this sense of turning, of changing one’s
perspective, of gaining a renewed sense of personhood. That’s important, anytime, but
especially so in these times. Light is important to this poet; conversely darkness is
Something that makes Essentials stand out to me is Whyte’s insistence that darkness is a
good thing. Conventional thinking portrays darkness as the enemy; not so here. Of this
darkness, the poet writes
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The ending of Sweet Darkness may surprise you. This is not a poem to skip over.
It has been observed that listening is a lost art. Without a doubt the ability to listen well,
that is, to really “hear” ourselves and others is an underrated skill. The Winter of
Listening showcases the high level of importance Whyte places on listening as
fundamental to emotional and spiritual health
No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.
All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
round every living thing.
The poem continues drawing powerful analogies between the visible natural world of
winter and the invisible inner spiritual landscape of men and women. In reading Whyte, it
is important to grant the poet his premises, to allow his poems to “take you” from winter
to spring; from dark to dawn.
If you have ever fought with your failings and flaws or felt the weight of things undone
as I have, you will appreciate The Faces at Braga. Set in a monastery on the remote
slopes of the Himalayas, Whyte uses contrasting images of darkness and light to view the
serene faces, hundreds of them, carved from solid wood taken from trees on nearby hills.
Viewing these faces through “smoke and darkness,” reveals a transforming effect. The
way Whyte dovetails the work of the carver’s chisel to “bring the deep grain of love to
the surface,” how the flaws in the wood become guides to bringing out the beauty in the
wood—well, suffice to say, that The Faces at Braga, has been transforming for me in
terms of my self-concept.
Many poems in Essentials ask readers to do what is not easy to do: be still and be quiet.
We pride ourselves in our busyness, in our achievements. This isn’t bad in itself.
However, my takeaway from Whyte’s work is to start “close in.” This comes first. The
poem A Seeming Stillness, brings step one clearly into focus
We love the movement in a seeming stillness,
the breath in the body of the loved one sleeping,
the highest leaves in the silent wood …
And this breath, in this body, able,
Just for a moment to give and to take,
to ask and be told, to find and be found,
to bless and be blessed, to hold and be held.
What is essential to a fulfilled life? What boundaries and dimensions define the
differences between “just” living and “truly” being alive? As for this reviewer, my
pocket-size copy of David Whyte’s Essentials is always within easy reach.