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Susan Wheeler

Four Way Books, $12.95 (paper)

by Stephen Burt

This smart, frustrating, entertaining second collection includes a few exceptional, musical poems no one else could have written. But most of its virtues and faults are those of a school: let's call it Ellipticism. Elliptical poets try to manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-"postmodern": they have read (most of them) Stein's heirs, and the "language writers," and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively "poetic") diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning "I am an X, I am a Y." Ellipticism's favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.1

I want to praise, with reservations, Smokes by calling it a gallery of the Ellipticals' favorite devices. Wheeler (like other Ellipticals) is good at describing information overload: "The eye becomes inured to gaud. The bellicose kids fort up / The grand screen." Her hubris manifests itself as urgency: "Look at that / speckly mustard there! Flex and point!" a semi-sonnet enthuses; "Desiderata house on fire." There are "I am X, I am Y" poems better, and stranger, than Wheeler's "Ezra's Lament," but there aren't many. It begins

    I owed the baker three dollies with heads.
    I owed the singer a way to recoup.
    I owed the bookmaker my mother's own sauce.
    I owed the outfielder plenty, plenty.

    I owed the swimmer a new way of speech.
    Lucky I was that the view of the villa
    Prevented my pitching the book overboard.
    I owed the industrialist pinafore threads.

Wheeler's childhood here overshadows her adult life, sabotages its thrift, and dictates its obsessions: her singsong quatrains seem just right for the childish self-importance, the imperial-preteen quality, prized and punished by poets as different from Wheeler as Rimbaud and Geoffrey Hill.

Another Elliptical trick involves the creation of protagonists who know they're only symbols in poems: the swains in "Fractured Fairy Tale" "rest their rakes at their crotches and begin to talk. / They are having an ur-argument." Wheeler imagines her alter ego on stage, too nervous to stay "in character," as in the end of "Rehearsal for The Breaks":

    the hapless stand-in scripter, she,
    a mistrust of loquacity, a finger
    flecked with 'raser threads, an
    impedimented personality.
    That was my plan for him, hubristically.
    A reclamation of sorts, after sodden reprieve.

This racy reclamation of old forms takes place at the sign of the racing eraser; its priest-poet-sibyl will display both her elevated station (pediment places her on a Greek temple) and the speech "impediments" she deploys. These include a manic shuffling of dictions, a compulsion to wind all description to its highest pitch, and a kind of stutter, as in part IV of the same poem:

    They've had it with the hamstrung one. It's at a tricky point, where
    traditionally six glass marbles sweep the board and end up in
    Welsh Rarebit sauce. (She prefers ketchup on Saltines, but
    heat it. The marbles crack from hot to ice.)
    The wiggly crowd near the wisteria inhales and holds its breath.
    The shooters are cued for the poof-in, to
    begin pummeling like rain.

Older ideas about competition among poets (Romantic anxiety, Celtic flytings) become a serious game of marbles.

Wheeler prefers theme-and-variations, verse-chorus-verse forms, or progressive repeated distortions of one situation, to dramatic development or argument. Plots and percepts encompass her, outrageously, faster than she can understand them, as in "The Homewrecker (in 7/4)":

    The interloper wears an apron to the movies
    and uses the comrade handshake. My mouth
    is open, I know. The cavities in my mouth
    play harmonics, they do it without me.

Here as elsewhere Wheeler hints at metrical, syllabic, or stanzaic patterns the poem doesn't seem to follow: her interest in sounding artificial makes some lines read as if revised to fit a metre she then discarded. Her technical interests can lead her astray, especially in the use of dialect, which is to her just a range of diction: her Br'er Rabbit talk ("All the night, up the tree'f the pickling shed / Ise drinking from it elixir") does no psychological, or ethnographic, work. (In real dialect poets, like MacDiarmid and Dunbar, the speech forms drive poems that could not have existed in standard English.)

Robert Hass's perceptive Afterword highlights Wheeler's peculiar virtues: her ear; her song-like forms, when she uses them; and her appropriations of old poems and old subgenres-palinode, obsequy, aubade. He zeroes in on her opening poem, "He or She That's Got the Limb, That Holds Me Out On It":

    The girls wave and throw their garters
    from their pig iron boat. Why is this charming?
    Where they were nailed on their knees
    the garters all rip. You were expected.

These sharply, winningly arrogant invocations dredge up not only Frost (as Hass shows) but also the epic boat, "bark," or "galley" of Renaissance poets. The girls now steer the lyric boat (at the end, "the youngest starts the song"); on the other hand, the whole enterprise of lyric may be about to sink (the boat is made of pig iron).

What I hope many readers will treasure first is not Wheeler's allusiveness but her attitude, her mix of defiant, flip confidence and near-paranoia. Her most effective tone is exasperated, as in "Chosen":

    He yells at me in Norse. Over and again
    the instructional stews
    confounded me. And see the brethren's back.

She concludes this, the last poem in her book, with a really audacious version of the traditional poetic task of making elegy:

    Above the blue light a stippled moon creaks into place
    and, in the dark,
    the macro cuts a three-span wheel for a ten- palm cart,

    the button bar masticulates, the wavy mind
    waves off in space.
    Born collating-now that's a job.

Wheeler is called to her vocation by the moon-which wants her to use both a word processor and a handmade wooden cart. Unsure whether to renovate or reject the past (source of memory, and of carts), Wheeler seeks styles that might do both.

Wheeler is best when the form or subject she's chosen means she has to mean it-in song-charms, in cracked-up laments, in her poems on the urgencies of childhood. (A poem written because the poet felt like writing can be a disjunctive doodle, but a poem written to console a dead infant's parents had better be more substantial.) My favorite of Wheeler's poems is her incantatory blare "Shanked on the Red Bed": here are two of its six virtuosic stanzas:

    The century was breaking and the blame was on default,
    The smallest mammal redolent of what was in the vault,
    The screeches shrill, the ink-lines full of interbred regret--
    When I walked out to look for you the toad had left his net.

    The discourse flamed, the jurors sang, the lapdog strained its leash-
    When I went forth to have you found the tenured took the beach
    With dolloped hair and jangled nerves,
    without a jacking clue,
    While all around the clacking sound of
    polished woodblocks blew.

This is (despite Hass's comment) no more nonsense verse than were its antecedents-MacNeice's "Bagpipe Music," Auden's poems in pop-song forms. It is a desperate, desperately weird, entertaining, serious love-lost-and-sought poem for a news-drenched world. And it would be wrong-in that poem as in others-to separate Wheeler's edgy frivolity from her more serious speech-acts: all of Smokes insists on their interdependence. "White Exiles," a sequence of quatrains named for American cities, veers from Berrymanesque high plangency ("Wilton": "What sanguine heads the tufts adorn"), to unfathomable or untranslated randomness ("Rochester": "Uwanga, uwangalayma, / uwanga"), to the syncopated chimes of "New York":

    So? Whine and be pissy. The abrupt
    bud in the Hawaiian grove, the cheap chisler
    in the monkey suit, the filaments beneath the sill:
    What made me, what I will.

In her reliance on defiance, on "will," Wheeler is, finally (like her Elliptical peers) very much a city poet, even a New Yorker (not a "New Yorker poet"). "I'm like nice," she sighs, "but not very." Her urban edginess pervades even a would-be suburban pastoral, "Landscaping for Privacy":

    I've filed a grievance of the nuisance brand
    on the new neighbor who provided a violate view:
    what once dressed eaves in honeysuckle decor
    now, a dish, satellite, with camouflage crochet.
    The pressings book per gingerbread's good for more.
    Decorate the bluefish and the visitors stay.

Wheeler imagines readers who have to be won over, with games and codes, and hints and tricks, when they visit the private, satellite-dish-threatened, media-savvy house of her psyche. I wonder what it's like after the guests have gone home?

1 Some groundbreaking and definitively Elliptical books are Liam Rector's The Sorrow of Architecture (1984), Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters (1995), Mark Ford's Landlocked (1992), and Mark Levine's debut, Debt (1993).

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review

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