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Meme (Kuhl House Poets)
Meme (Kuhl House Poets)
Susan Wheeler
University Of Iowa Press, 2012
87 pp., 18.00

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Michael Robbins

Informal Colloquies

The crumpled tissues and loose change of the vernacular.

Contemporary American poetry has a crush on the crumpled tissues and loose change of the vernacular—idiom, platitude, cliché. Consider some recent book titles: Quick Question (John Ashbery); Nice Weather (Frederick Seidel); Just Saying (Rae Armantrout). These are examples of what the linguist Roman Jakobson called the phatic function of language—interjections, small talk—designed to check if the channel of communication is working. The Romantic-modernist revolution that opened poetry to "the language of real men" (Wordsworth) and words that people "actually say" (Pound) culminates in poems with lines like "Thanks, Ray, this is just what the doctor ordered" and "Don't come in here all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."

These last are from Susan Wheeler's "Maud Poems," the first of three elegiac sequences that make up her fifth collection, Meme—not that they're elegies in a traditional sense. "The Maud Poems," for instance, combine stock expressions favored by Wheeler's mother, distillations of a lifetime's worth of penny wisdom borrowed from other mouths, with lyric effusions of starkly different register: "she's already spilled the beans" is set against "an owl, recalcitrant / in its non-hooting state."

There is no condescension here—who among us, reduced to our most hackneyed formulae, would come off better? By highlighting precisely what was least individual, most communal, about her mother, Wheeler reminds us that it is our initiation into language that makes us human. Maud's idioms mark her as a person of a certain age, a particular temperament—"Well, they went bloody blue blazes through their last dollar before you could say boo"—while her daughter's idiom appropriates them for art. There is something of the impulse of Language poetry here ("Attest—ament, filament, adamant, keen"; its closest relative might be Lyn Hejinian's My Life).

The book's title refers to a pseudo-concept popularized by intellectual featherweight Richard Dawkins. A meme is supposedly the cultural analogue of a gene, transmitting cultural information, responsible for the spread of songs and catchphrases and jeggings. In Wheeler's lexicon, it represents the idea that language is a virus, and the wasting away of generations is how it transmits. It's not perfect; its basic reproduction rate varies. As David Shields puts it in How Literature Saved My Life, "Language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn't, not quite."

And Wheeler's got it bad: in Meme, I'm pleased to report, she's even bringing the limerick back:

I picked up a gal in a bar.
She said she'd ignore my cigar.
But when I was done
Relieving my gun
She said I was not up to par.

Wheeler has always been bouncier than most of her like-minded frenetic post-Language peers. Alert to what the toxic glow of Fruity Pebbles tells us about capitalism, she loves a good bubblegum jingle. In certain moods she's closer to Frederick Seidel than Susan Howe, penning cracked power ballads her parents might have danced to on a boardwalk in an alternate universe:

If I had a way to make you live with me again
—Even as a rabbit, or a wren (if all that's true)—
I wouldn't see at all that girl against the wall.
You've a right to cause me trouble now, I know.

What's troubling about these poems is their implication that language is a function of mourning, rather than the other way around—that, as Nietzsche said, "What we find words for is something already dead in our hearts." Or as Wheeler's Emersonian sensibility has it: "Want to go watch a kibitzer crumble / In the puke-green pour of the moon?" Her grief gets physical, and while it might evade adequate expression, it remains indexed to the motion of words:

I am tired. Today
I moved a book from its shelf
to the bed. The span
of its moving was vast.

A lifespan—a kind of book—is vast; it is a brief movement across a room.

Like Ashbery, an obvious influence, Wheeler kibitzes and chats while her informal colloquies crumble and deliquesce. And like Ashbery in recent years, Wheeler occasionally dips into a melancholy and pseudo-archaic register:

When will you go away,
oh piercing, piercing wind?
When will at rest I be again?
Oh sleep that will not rain on me,
oh sleep that nothing brings.
Oh, when will a face appear
that cancels full th'other?
Or will there be no more for me
of anodyne palaver?

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow, the small raine down can raine. This kind of ventriloquism, not quite leached of irony but still evocative of less relentless pleasures, is voguish at the moment. Tom Pickard is, in my view, the master. In "Hawthorn," from Ballad of Jamie Allan, he writes:

there is a hawthorn on a hill
there is a hawthorn growing
it set its roots against the wind
the worrying wind that's blowing
its berries are red its blossom so white
I thought that it was snowing

It would be lovely to have more poems from Wheeler in this mode, or at least more that exploit her winning facility for rhyme, and perhaps fewer that till the exhausted soil of "experimental" fields:

  1. Anabaptists
    1. field field to
    2. lip on a / in a daisy
    3. pond muck
  2. Curtailing assumptions such that
    1. frog muck
    2. panopticon the hazards
    3. signage escalator mutant tut

After such escalator mutant tut, what forgiveness? I know it's bad form to say so, but fifty years after The Tennis Court Oath, this sort of thing is just possibly beginning to seem a bit rote. Certainly someone as lyrically capable—and as capable of lyrical subversion—as Wheeler needn't clutch so at the au courant. "It was the winter of the Z-pack" is startling in its sabotage of romantic anticipation. The lyric speaker of these poems gets "smashed by a Prius on a wild goose / chase" and still manages to affirm the sight of a "halo against the light."

But her openness to the possibilities of poetry regardless of tribal affiliation is one of Wheeler's virtues. "Such is the state of our poetry caught in my throat on its way / to my mouth, why not do everything," she writes toward the end of the book, before concluding: "but of course we do nothing." When third-hand experimentation is the norm, in life as in poetry, everything can look an awful lot like nothing. In these spring-loaded poems, Wheeler honors the less than everything that gets done in a life by infusing elegy with verve, anachronism with new-minted coin. "Let's make like we're not through," she writes, and it's all any of us can do—go on making things, making likenesses, as if we were not already finished, not already broken up, not already out the other side, like so many people we knew, like all the things they said.

Michael Robbins is the author of Alien vs. Predator (Penguin).

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