LCCN #: 2011041025
|Things to Pray to in Vermont, Tony Whedon's first collection of poems, is a book of contrasts -- metropolitan and rural, narrative and lyrical, sensual and spiritual. Its keystone poem, "Concentricities," published in Harpers Magazine, maps the poet's growth through a bohemian and Unitarian childhood to a seminal experience teaching in China during the student protests of 1989. The poem's title reflects the onion-like structure of the poem which addresses the disillusionment of Shanghai students after the failure of their Revolution and Whedon's coming to terms with his own idealism. Other poems set in China and Cuba continue this theme: his dark meditation on the Classical Chinese poet Li Po while Whedon sobers up in a Shanghai hospital; a drawing room scene at the home of a Chinese scholar and his wife who spent much of their lives in penal work camps; a long narrative poem about Havana during a period of severe austerity after the Soviets departed the island; and a vivid description of the home of a wealthy Cuban poet who has betrayed the spirit of the Cuban Revolution. Much of what takes place abroad and during Whedon's childhood is thought on at his home in backwoods Vermont. The Vermont poems are more lyrical, more transcendental, in spirit. But there's a hardness, a jadedness, found in the 12-step meetings the poet attends and bittersweet reflections on the deaths of those who've struggled before him. The book's final benediction -- the title poem -- moves from a lyrically expressed sadness to a mature realization of the poet's place amid the rawness of nature and his wife's sensual beauty.
"I love the richness of vision and sound, the laughter along with loss, the 'tough underskin of the absolute' in Tony Whedon's Things to Pray to in Vermont. Attention to the world, rapid evocations of cities as well as birds, masterful verbal music -- all of this, in these poems, is more than ornamental. It works to create the tempering, spiritual energy of Li Po's statement as quoted in Whedon's poem 'River': that poetry is 'controlled heartbreak.'" -- Robert Pinsky
"If you didn't already know that Tony Whedon is an accomplished jazz musician, you will learn it from this book (see 'The Art of the Trombone,' one of the longest poems here and one of the most original poems you will ever read), and in any case you might have guessed it from the energy with which these poems swing, pulse, and riff their way through time and space, weaving a lyrical thread that links the Vermont woods to China and Cuba and Paris, to the New Orleans and Long Island of the poet's youth, to the distant worlds of Darwin, Galileo, and Pliny. The poems spirit us off on intriguing, unsettling, unforgettable journeys and introduce us along the way to a rogue's gallery of characters, washed up here and there around the globe, the most roguish of whom may be the poet himself, given to 'rashness, irascibility, a passion for sweeping judgments.' But the wanderings recounted here with such painterly and reportorial vividness are not only the poet's far-flung travels but his emotional and epistemological adventures -- plunging, veering excursions that leave us amazed at how far we have gone, how deeply we have seen, how much we have discovered. Amazed and appalled. In 'The Guitar Lesson,' where the poet as a small boy has to break up a brawl between his father and a neighbor, the adult poet, looking back on the unforgivable chaos, declares himself 'amazed that the history of jazz led to here.' That line shows Whedon at his best: understated, oblique, and devastating, brushing away a tear without losing his wide-eyed, disenchanted focus. 'Poetry is controlled heartbreak' writes Li Po, one of Whedon's chief reference points, and 'controlled heartbreak' could describe the method and the dominant tone of this book. Yes, there is exuberance here, a tough exaltation that pushes through despite everything and aspires to joy, but there are no illusions, and that is precisely why this book is so powerful, so gorgeously gloomy, so deeply moving and compellingly readable." -- Robert Hahn
"I love Tony Whedon's poems for their abundance and intelligence, their images of the natural world that are both breathtaking and intimate, their great musical assurance and range. Whether set in China, Cuba, or in northern Vermont, the poems give us a life richly lived and examined. Irony and devotion, plenty and depletion, complexity and grace -- it's all here, in a voice that is soulful and engagingly honest. Things to Pray to in Vermont gives us a mind and voice to be treasured." -- Betsy Sholl