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.

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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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