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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Robert Mueller reviews

by Susan Wheeler

82pp. University of Iowa Press. 2005. ISBN 0-87745-927-4 paperback

This review is about 3 printed pages long.

Multiple clarities

This poet’s task is monumental in its wagering. In her latest book of poems, ‘Ledger,’ Susan Wheeler extends a promise to be of her time and to engage her time, to enter bravely, clearheadedly, steadily into the make and break. Thoroughly a high-stakes negotiation, with intimate flair and a willful verbal crispness bordering on hardened self-consistency, her writing makes few concessions and asks none. It also tests few conclusions. Still, value, image and trade-off are key. If marks perplex, if focus splays to off-key, nevertheless confidence stays strong, edge at all-time high.

The poetry of ‘Ledger’ is thus a poetry of negotiation and action. In her pursuit of the accounting principle, Wheeler scores a staccato of situations twisting in the wind like souls on sticks, a relentless cramming of need and capacity. Whether it be the economic roundtable of ‘Good Goods’ and its cleverly anointed contestants, or the puffy child’s play of ‘can I have’ in ‘The Green Stamp Book,’ the gives and gets are snared and pounced on. Whether it be the deficits of ‘Money and God’ or the excesses of the ‘Surfeit’ poems, every charge is a conceit, every tracking sumptuous and sure, every accounting a judgment meted.

Yet while material dislocation makes for stunning individual frames, it is the project, the epos of forms and quantities, that sustains. Paradoxically in this regard, ‘Ledger’ offers less a system of straight lines and columns than an archeography. Its demand of the practical becomes flux, becomes the circles, and the circles within the circles, and the bulges within the bulges, those of ringing purses and the other kind, of the empty, clinging purses. Every kind of tower and turnabout figures in these calculations, and every kind of horizon where the best is yet to come, where the upbeat of patience is strange virtue in a tough numbers game.

Make your way, then, to the long poem that closes the book, ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror,’ and take its measure. You will have a pleasurable cross to bear. You will have the pleasures of close dealings that will come to haunt because of the personalities they entrap. You will even be privy to a moral cost analysis, ending in a lesson in what is seen and what is unreal. And there to greet you, at the last, will be the chimerical price-fix, the line on ‘Ledger’: ‘The paper suffices for sugar and salt.’

Such counters as these are the many satisfying sides of ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror,’ and one is led to suppose that it is only from a knuckle-down determining that this mirror can be primed to reflect. One suspects a trope of multiple clarities. Outside it can be grimly bountiful; inside the terms remain in full play. From still deeper inside, the prize-tracking catches onto so firm a practical life that the prognostications sting, and almost stiffen, in their poly-angling of the common self into debtors, lienors, fretters, betweeners, into artists and canvassers, finishers and schemers:

Adept at outline, Friedländer meant. Ready angle of the
couple’s arms, echo of the angle in the glass. Her limpid
face lit sole. Debtor’s histrionics, a painter’s joke
shallow as they go.

Loneliness can but fill this echoed ‘soul,’ or it can if you are dreaming. If not, Wheeler may suggest more loneliness, and may add pictorial hints of globalization coming by way of historical banter and by the splash of leaping panels. Thus, after a personal anecdote whose significance pops back, Wheeler cuts for one last burst to her main topic, the economics of artful trade, the suspect pleasures of adaptations just about emptied of value: ‘Wheeled overland // from Venice / the Venetian goods ― and cotton, from Levant ― / are writ up / (in the noon sun and portside) // and certified lading. / The paper suffices for sugar and salt.’ These lines, on different sides of the page, serve to scatter the book home, but it is a home and not a projection that is reached. Playing on the poet’s name highlights the picture of a self winding home in a globalizing circle. Her scrip, her ‘paper,’ has value but approaches a limit of no value. Her bounty, ‘sugar and salt,’ has the look of substantial gain but also suggests a limit, as of substance reducing to style.

The leaps of image and matter remind us of Pound, and others, making connection, or the roll of time, as much an element of writing money as the fracture of time. As always, even with exchange values (and sexual politics) as her subject, Wheeler attracts the reader of the itchy fingers, the reader with interests to explore, the reader dedicated to the whole of the tradition even while clutching her cashbox.

Wheeler’s reader is thus Eliot’s reader into the bargain; and where Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ enters with Chaucer’s glorious ‘sweet April’ prologue, Wheeler’s choice of entry (after the ingenious dedication ‘Loss Lieder’) is from a lesser-known poem by Chaucer, a poem in several fetching stanzas in which the poet likens his coin-purse to a tyrannical mistress.

A quotation from the Chaucer furnishes Wheeler with her title, ‘That Been to Me My Lives Light and Saviour,’ and the poem starts out with a further quotation, featuring the alleged purse, followed by the first in a run of other absorbing topics. It looks like a touching encounter. It looks like a secret formula, the archaics are so bold and beautiful:

Purse be full again, or else must I die. This is the wish
the trees in hell’s seventh circle lacked, bark ripped by monstrous dogs,
bleeding from each wound. We see them languid there,
the lightened purse a demon drug. Less, less.

Chaucer and Eliot are thus joined with fanfare by Dante the hero of the ‘Cantos’ and the universally beloved, and there will be no intention of quitting this nexus of themes until plentiful variations have passed. Literary referencing is inseparable from the business of accounting, which is inseparable from the take of experiencing. Here the references flash, and then they swoop. Suddenly it is all about a queer, dark personal story that by dint of Wheeler’s inimitable crackle sharpens into phrases of unholy spectral want, as in the line, ‘Let there be no raiment for someone skint.’, or later, ‘Sum as heuristic apoplex ―’. Suddenly it is all coming together.

Just as so much of the ‘Inferno’ is carrying weight, Wheeler’s poem feels every weight and burden of tradition. It bears every contentiousness of negotiation as well, every quelling of the ravenous circumstance or squirreling harsh survival. The poem’s pugnacious speaker is a daughter who has been spooked to sufficiency, but who rises to prevail. She is the spokesperson for unbaffled reckoning, empowered as much by chippy stylistics as by inspirited collusion:

Then: blaze, blare of sun
after years uncounted, and synesthesia of it and sound,
the junco’s chirp and then the jay’s torn caw, arc
of trucks on the distant interstate, your what the fuck
and then her call. Beside me, pinned to a green leaf,
in plastic and neat hand, a full account. I had indeed still
lived, and been woke for more. So, weeping then, I rose.

These may be the best lines in the book, evolving to transcend tradition’s game. In two previous volumes, ‘Smokes’ and ‘Source Codes,’ Wheeler has given ample scope to the consideration of foundations and sources, and their why and wherefore. Thus it is not surprising that ‘Ledger’ should have many more sources than this review, and Wheeler, will trouble to note. And also not surprisingly, the noting is affordable, the mechanics even friendly in their precision. Just consider literary borrowing as appropriation, or as a ‘late-capitalist’ age’s indebtedness to past culture. Then consider the metaphor of the poet robbing her sources as but one thread or fissure lining the text. Some more obvious sources, pans of gainfully-employed individuals named ‘Wheeler,’ for example, resonate on firmest ground. Yet to grasp fully the metaphor can be tentative and tricky. The personal too has many sides, many forms of what you are worth.

Nor is the poet guilty of forcing the issue with her reliance on economic treatises and social history, a practice that queries her procedures because she is so eager to acknowledge it. A difficulty may lie in perceiving the shape of the book, as some of Wheeler’s departures may seem to retard the book’s trajectory, elegant and searched though they may be. They invite urgent attention, however, and for the most part fulfill the promise of historical seriousness.

But the poem in ‘Ledger’ that outshines the rest is ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror,’ and the source that out-sources all the other sources is John Ashbery. This is the long poem discussed above with its dashing moments and strange specularities. It might take years adequately to introduce this poem. Who are these people? What is this selection? What sort of distortion as this can we count on our fingers? In what reserves did the poet discover this reverential spirit of prolonged crisis? Or should we say this persistent meanness?

Easier to compare is the form. Once again, as with ‘That Been to Me My Lives Light and Saviour,’ there is something like mis-sortment, and it lies partly in the quatrain formulaic that also began the earlier poem and serves as a kind of base return for the ‘Ledger’ style. The quatrain is familiar from many another text, including Ashbery’s book ‘Shadow Train,’ but not from the source poem, which is of course Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.’ Yet from within the stanza form the crucial Ashbery style and prudent self-direction are exactly reprised. The prosaic frames, with their slightly awkward stretching of thought, furnish the confidence and ease of an earned but not managed or mannered awareness. That is to say, the Ashbery way is observed, and splendidly; but only for starters, until lineation begins to break and until couplets burst the scene and begin to constrict their assertions. Pages of tercets follow, what seem like pages. Skittering lines, here and there, follow, and more broken phrases, a hint of quatrain, sections that close but do not close, all with tug to bare fact. Sometimes the ease comes back, but it goes again; and sometimes what is in danger of being misplaced is no longer discernible.

One virtue of a poem in motion like this is that it can be approached without too much trepidation. Many variations are offered, and many pauses of strict thought. Through it all, ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror’ is a masterpiece of exploding while in the act of tensile holding, exceeding the norm even for Wheeler’s assured command. The proof lies in the spirit the poem produces, a play of emotions tending toward restraint and not always easily felt. That they keep coming, however, is the last and best positive sign. Enter more stanzas, enter more and more resolves, and enter more line-breakages. But maintain the voice, dispassionate, analytical, cool, or exceptionally cool or simmering as it goes. Maintain the voice that will not falter and is in trouble.

Susan Wheeler’s ‘Ledger’ is at once more achingly important and less succumbingly delightful than her audience may have thought possible. Equally less and more, the poems in their sequential progress counterbalance major and minor. ‘Romanticism’ may be a minor masterpiece; ‘Short Shrift’ may be another, a curious other. ‘Port in the Airport’ shows great achievement, given the glorious language and blend of dual modalities. And then, consuming all other faults, come ‘The Debtor in a Convex Mirror’ and the stage-life of burdens whose questions may not add up any time soon.

Robert Mueller

Robert Mueller

Robert Mueller writes poetry and critical and scholarly essays while fashioning a precarious independence in his chosen home of New York City. In his essays he has focused on the writings of Barbara Guest and John Ashbery, interests that developed during his completion of a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Brown University. Among the poets of a younger generation who are a joy to read, Susan Wheeler complements these interests especially well, and Mr. Mueller is preparing a study on her book Source Codes, as well as further considerations of Barbara Guest and others in the now and from the past.