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Friday, February 12, 2010
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009
Hardcover: 143 pp, $25
reviewed by Greg Weiss
Susan Wheeler’s Assorted Poems is noteworthy for its excellence and stylistic trajectory, and the symbiotic relationship between the two. It contains selections from Wheeler’s four volumes of poetry—Bag ‘o’ Diamonds, Smokes, Source Codes, and Ledger—and charts a course from Ashbery-esque serious winking through, to quote Wheeler’s own allusion, “fractured fairy-tales,” before arriving, as of Ledger, at linguistically sparse but visually and thematically expansive poems that place Wheeler’s self and contemporary American capitalism/consumerism in a relationship not unlike that of C.P. Cavafy to Greek history. In a blurb for X.J Kennedy’s In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007, Donald Hall asserts that “many of Kennedy’s poems are wit itself. His wit is his way of understanding.” I agree with Hall, and would also spell out the implied mirror-image: “And understanding is his [Kennedy’s] way of wit.” Cavafy and Wheeler enjoy the same reciprocal relationship as Kennedy to “wit” in their treatments of “Greek history” and “money in contemporary America,” respectively.
To be perfectly honest, although the structure, language and punctuation in the poems from Bag ‘o’ Diamonds is standard, I often could not comprehend them effectively. (Or if I did comprehend them effectively, they didn’t affect me.) As is often the case with the poems in first books, the poems from Bag ‘o’ Diamonds are harder to comprehend and not as strong as the poems in the following volumes, which, although it sounds like a criticism (and is), is what I mean by the symbiotic relationship between the evolution of Wheeler’s style and her excellence. “Peanut Agglutinin,” like many of the poems in Bag ‘o’ Diamonds, features an intentionally difficult to decipher narrative which an appreciation of the poem depends on that does not seem to attempt to deliver a payoff which would justify its difficulty:
ffffffffffThe gore being chili sauce and rice didn’t mitigate
ffffffffffthe way she died. Done in,
ffffffffffcurtain furled at sunset then, the cat arced
ffffffffffand sped off behind the Donut Hut and we
ffffffffffsee against the tar curbside one lone foot splayed.
ffffffffffAnd what a plan it was, though most missed the boat—
ffffffffffthis way to the sawmill, inspector!
ffffffffffNell too fell victim to his terrible design.
ffffffffffOut in the ever woods where the tree trunks stood
ffffffffffthe blood seeped from plastic bags
ffffffffffand the crew had to make another ketchup run.
ffffffffffLissa was tired of peeling grapes for eyeballs,
ffffffffffand Buck of scooping mayonnaise into insulated gloves.
ffffffffffYeah, well here’s what she liked: hair, and lots of it,
ffffffffffpeanut brittle—when suddenly, a frost of cicadas,
ffffffffffrising like Lucifer, hums up the clouds—an
ffffffffffevening beside you: Do-right, do right again.
The poems from Smokes are more intellectually realized and less ostentatious, and represent a clear step forward. The narratives are less talky, more cryptic, and often bring to mind folksongs and nursery rhymes. For instance, “Meeting Again, After Heine”:
ffffffffffThe moon rose like a blooming flower.
ffffffffffThe tin in the hand clattered its charge.
ffffffffffWe walked by in the wavering hour,
ffffffffffI looking away, you chattering hard.
ffffffffffMet by luck, with like destinations,
ffffffffffWe startled again at what ended in pique.
ffffffffffStrollers out, seeing, had no notion;
ffffffffffA car alarm cycled its querulous shriek;
ffffffffffEighth Street sank in the crack of its nightfall;
ffffffffffYou pressed your satisfactions on me.
ffffffffffYou in your urgency remarked after all
ffffffffffKindling your passions was enmity;
ffffffffffPassions had finally erased your calm,
ffffffffffMade composure a prop of the past.
ffffffffffI mugged that street noise, din, bedlam
ffffffffffPrevented my hearing your story at last.
ffffffffffAs I walked home the strollers were thinning,
ffffffffffThe moon bobbed above roofs like a ball,
ffffffffffThe shade at the bus stop waved to me, beckoning.
ffffffffffAnd I nodded fast in the fast nightfall.
With poems featuring running into an old boss, clock-radios, and furniture warehouses, and “Ezra’s Lament” with its initial refrain of “I owe, I owe, I owe,” money and its family tree are in Smokes’s DNA. And while some of the almost uniformly excellent poems from Source Codes could have been written by Charles Bukowski, Frederick Seidel, Arthur Vogelsang, or Mark Levine, a few treat commerce, or trade, and its relationship to the world uniquely. My favorite lines in Assorted Poems open the final stanza of “Quincy in Lagos”: “How did we know what we see, we saw through the mind? / What citizen without cummerbund could Columbo yet find?” Whereas the poems from Bag ‘o’ Diamonds are very serious about being offhand, these lines are offhandedly serious—Wheeler gets at how severely limited our individual knowledge and experience is, and the effect that those limitations have on us as individuals and collectively, through a pitch-perfect analysis of Columbo (and I say this as a big fan of the show). And in “Rite Two: Two,” Wheeler understands an impending death in commercial language:
ffffffffffIt is my work that waits, not yours.
ffffffffffIt is my clock that ticks, not hers.
ffffffffffI have reason to undertake an expiry report.
ffffffffffThe dead will die, nonetheless.
It is Wheeler’s suffusion, in this stanza/poem and others primarily in Source Codes and Ledger, of American and global commerce, the personal and the more universal—“The dead will die, nonetheless”—that brings Cavafy to mind. Death, the personal and the more universal are similarly intermingled in the opening stanzas of “The Funeral of Sarpedon”:
ffffffffffZeus mourns deeply:
ffffffffffPatroklos has killed Sarpedon.
ffffffffffNow Patroklos and the Achaians rush on
ffffffffffto snatch up the body, to dishonour it.
ffffffffffBut Zeus doesn’t tolerate that at all.
ffffffffffThough he let his favorite child be killed—
ffffffffffthis the Law required—
ffffffffffhe’ll at least honour him after death.
ffffffffffSo he now sends Apollo down to the plain
ffffffffffwith instructions about how the body should be tended.
Both Wheeler and Cavafy begin their account of the death of an acquaintance by emphasizing the personal nature of the loss. Wheeler makes the emotional connection in the contrast between “my” and “yours” and “hers,” and Cavafy in his straightforward assessment of the depth of Zeus’ mourning, as well as Zeus’ level of tolerance. Wheeler and Cavafy’s tones imply that the emotional nature of impending and recent death precludes ornamentation. And as Cavafy places that emotion in embattled history (“Now Patroklos and the Achaians rush on / to snatch up the body, to dishonour it”), Wheeler does in the humdrum of commerce: “I have reason to fill out an expiry report.” And then both conclude, at least momentarily, in a combination of pragmatism and fatalism: “The dead will die, nonetheless…So he now sends Apollo down to the plain / with instructions about how the body should be tended.”
There are poems in Ledger that could have possibly appeared in the previous three, but there are also poems that are notably different in regards to their scope, length, and appearance on the page. Ledger brings Tom Sleigh to mind in the same way that Bag ‘o’ Diamonds invokes Ashbery. In both instances, Wheeler adopts a distinctive aspect of an influence’s poetry—Ashbery’s whimsical half-narratives and Sleigh’s sense of time and space on the page—and adapts it to her own needs. The result is poetry that advertises a lineage to which it is tangential. For instance, while Sleigh often presents, within a single poem, disparate snapshots that have the effect of identifying with both those captured moments and the vast scope of time and space that they belong to, Wheeler is concerned with presenting that belonging, the relationship between those moments and the vast scope of time and space. The manner in which narrative, thematic, and linguistic coherence and moral, emotional, and intellectual scope suffuse each other in the poems from Ledger is difficult to capture in excerpt, but the first three stanzas of “Short Shrift” provide at least some idea:
ffffffffffffffffffffI was at and about everything, nodding through the mall lot,
ffffffffffffffffffffffffcutting through the yard with quick, light steps.
ffffffffffWhen the rains came,
ffffffffffthey left the hillside
ffffffffffand moved to the high ground
ffffffffffwhere a quilt scrap sustained them
ffffffffffin late, dark readings from
ffffffffffregard the objectivity of the market as a disguise for an abdication of
ffffffffffffffffffffvalues and of intellectual dependence” WM PFAFF, 1981
The poems from Ledger seem, to me, those of a poet who has “found her voice.” I put “found her voice” in quotes to acknowledge the banality of the sentiment and phrase, but also to indicate that I don’t believe Wheeler’s voice to necessarily be wed to consumerism. It is tempting to view the confluence of new, or newly explicit, subject matter and one’s appreciation of a poet as a causality, but it is just as nearsighted to conceive of Wheeler as a “poet of consumerism” as it is to conceive of Cavafy as a “poet of Greek history.” What strikes me about both Wheeler and Cavafy, at their best, is their apparently effortless enactment of the oft-attempted but rarely successful combination of the personal and epic. Susan Wheeler’s Assorted Poems is excellent, gets better as it goes along, and is the rare volume that exhibits ambition while exuding quality.
Greg Weiss’s criticism and poems have previously appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, The Humanities Review, Cricket Online Review, Blue Fifth Review, Now Culture, The Columbia Review, The South Carolina Review, The Oklahoma Review, The Margie Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology: Mississippi, and others. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi.