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143 pp. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Hardback. $25.00. 9780374258610 hardcover
In The Dyer’s Hand W.H. Auden asseverates that a young poet has a greater chance of success if she simply revels in the sheer delight of words and wordplay than if she starts out with any “important” message to convey. Nonetheless, half a lifetime of sifting through the shifty junk-drawer of language later, one may expect a poet to have turned up at least a half dozen real gems — that is, poems with some urgency and import — amid the gaudy oversized fake pearls and the linguistic equivalent of rhinestone-studded Bakelite.
But what if the most important message a poet uncovers is that the Bakelite and fake pearls are as genuine and valuable as anything going; that, in fact, the glitter is often better than the gold? After all, to extend the metaphor, bedizening one’s self in makeshift play-jewelry to a red carpet gala may imply a radical transvaluation, which sends-up the difference between the artificial scarcity of blood diamonds and the true sparkle of zirconium, thus rooting-out a new relationship between artifice and reality itself.
Gold was originally valued for its glitter, and even fool’s gold activates a childlike fascination for the shiny and shimmering in most of us. In other words, what if wordplay-for-it’s-own-sake remains a poet’s ultimate message, especially in a time when even the most ludic qualities of language have been co-opted for utilitarian purposes by corporate advertisers and tweeters alike in our garrulous marketplace?
Susan Wheeler’s poems have all the glimmer of glamour, consistently enchanting with their brash abracadabra. But even for someone who has come under their spell, I wonder if these poems promise any greater magic than their mere incantation. Wheeler is capable of using language at its most dazzling, employing a dizzyingly broad array of traditional and postmodern poetic devices — but to what end? At many times her poems seem all sensibility and little substance, favoring the loud and clamorous surfaces of style to the quieter claims of deeper sentiment.
The poems, despite their obvious overtures to narrative, often reveal themselves upon rereading as a slapdash hodgepodge of splashy discourses, the very apotheosis of post-Ashbery heteroglossia, chockablock with upchuck from our contemporary materialistic culture, a bricolage of bric-a-brac transumed by a savvy interpolater of forms and interloper of demotic registers. Her poems are all rhetorical code-switching, catchy lines sutured together catch-as-catch-can with outmoded forms and a-la-mode free verse lyric. Yet, even when I can’t make heads or tails of a poem’s gestalt, I frequently enjoy flipping individual lines over and over, and contemplating these mythopoetic mash-ups.
Long stretches of local color often enthrall. Take this stanza, for instance, midway into the poem ‘The Promise of Steuben,’ which teases us with quasi-narrative details about a boy named Hoppy, whose relationship to the first-person voice remains as vague as one’s memory of a traumatic childhood sexual encounter:
I lied about D.C. I lied about stores. It’s a
waiting room missing its untoward fores, it’s a
dog’s shaking off after a dip in the lake, it’s the
mad, mad come fly that makes the schlong stiff, it’s
Doodlebug and Pickles and Fireplug’s riff.
From the flower the zoom out to outerspace speeds.
Rod intros honeymooners and a jukebox
a-fritz. Late Dorsey. With Ed.
The manic range of references in this litany threatens to spin apart at every turn, especially with the bizarre realization that — even in the context of the rest of the poem — these lines could reference nearly anything, and therefore reference almost nothing despite their maximalist impetus. What does the pronoun “it” refer to, for example? Who are these characters Dorsey and Ed? And, for that matter, are Doodlebug and Pickles and Rod streetwise nicknames, fairy-tale Vivian Girls, or even characters’ monikers at all?
Indeed, the poem’s “zoom out” from one exemplum to another blurs the imagery from cohering. It’s as if all we are left with are snatches of distorted song on a broken jukebox. This typical freewheeling stanza has the giddy verve of language spun in a cyclotron, throwing off new, short-lived, unstable semantic particulates.
The same process, however, begins to spin the day-to-day laws of macro-level sense-making out-of-control, caroming everything back into an undifferentiated cosmic alphabet soup. The whole is held tenuously together by the thread of sonic association, the bumptious almost-meter and the loopy half-rhymes structuring its happy-go-lucky semblance of story along with the obsessive repetition at the end of the line. It has gusto aplenty. —But what the hell does it mean?
Line by line, or stanza by stanza, a Wheeler poem may seem to make sense. Her poems tend to lose coherence, however, when one steps back to the expected focal distance, the opposite of an impressionist painting in which swatches of pure color suddenly transform into a scene of water-lilies or a shimmering view of the Thames.
In most Wheeler poems, on the contrary, the reader is continually called on to fill-in the gaps in order to form any integrated picture: what once appeared clear on first glance becomes fuzzier and fuzzier in the long view. When one realizes, for example, in the passage just quoted above, that the narrator has confessed to lying, one sees how double-talk is a means of calling the poem’s own bluff so that nothing remains reliable, and the poem becomes a Rorschach blot of the reader’s negative capability. Indeed, hers is an intuitionist’s atonal tone poem played on Schrödinger’s cat-gut.
Perhaps we should be content letting the poem beg its own questions rather than ask the poem too earnestly to explain itself. New Critical bromides about a poem’s organic unity feel utterly beside the point here: this composition of polyvalent, multivocal mix tracks works by techniques of elision and displacement, disharmonics and improvisatory feedback effects, wah-pedals and wammy bars, jump-cuts and cut-ups. The driving motive behind these poems is neither to communicate nor to display the self, but rather to play upon the various semblances and personas locked into our language, opening them up to inspire what might be called a “will-to-be-reinterpreted.”
The poems are constantly breaking down in order to allow the reader to build them back up. Wheeler’s poetics is neither deliberately opaque or vacuous in the vein of, say, much second-rate LANGUAGE poetry nor insistently accessible in the way of a Philip Levine; her most interesting poems, in fact, foreground the ambiguity that inheres about just what counts as opaque and what counts as accessible, showing how notions of sense and nonsense are themselves cultural — and hence, poetic — constructs. It isn’t that her poems urge us to stop making sense, but rather that she plunges us into the vertigo that “sense” itself is ever re-interpretable, precarious, denaturalized, and relative. In short, sense is made.
Wheeler’s strategy is to exploit the oft-unacknowledged interference patterns inextricably embedded in and between the discourses we use like masks in our everyday life: the slippages where these masks mold with the skin or the folds where they meld into other masks, as the cover art on the book depicts. When the right tonal frequencies of these different discourses converge, it’s as if two waves swelled in superposition, and a zany, larger-than-life quality ensues. The poems’ operant principle of syncretic denaturing, superimposing disparate conventions and discourses to highlight the thoroughgoing artificiality of each, is best put to use in vignettes wherein the poem’s ostensible subject is situated in a moment of a culture’s ideological transition.
A poem such as ‘Roanoke and Wampumpeag’ from her last collection Ledger, for example, juxtaposes the fabricated nature of schlock at a Western trading post with the overwrought claims of the merchandise purporting to be “AUTHENTIQUE.” The poem ends with the image of a family’s “car on gravel moving out, trunk / To traders and the totem pole, behind the ghastly grinning cow.” Even the cow, which might be the most “natural” item in the landscape, has become a grotesque figure: perhaps it is only a roadside sign of a cow in a permanently happy mood, narcotized by its endless plea for more consumption. Getting and spending, to quote Wordsworth, lays waste to human powers, along with the implicit slaughtering and colonizing of the scene; but, at the same time, this overriding economic imperialism also acts as the precondition upon which the myth of the West — and perhaps myth more generally — has been formed and metaphorized, changed and exchanged. The ghastliness is also the ghostliness of a past that haunts the scene, even though that past may be only a figment or poetic fantasy.
Another poem that captures this concern with cultures in ideological transition is her longest, ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror.’ The poem splices an ekphrasis of Quentin Massys’s overcrowded canvas of a moneychanger and his hypocritical wife thumbing a Bible with a narrative voice recounting a present “here in Manhattan, / a delirium of sorts swabbing its streets.”
Intercutting the two scenes, they begin to overlap and comment on each other obliquely. The aim, which is not quite achieved in this ambitious critical poem, is a stereo-optical view of how capitalism, in its early and late manifestations, has informed the contours of modern consciousness in so far as the reticulation of transnational trade channels both a society’s micro-level desires as well as the means used to personally conceal and reveal those desires in one’s overlooked, daily interactions. The over-obvious allusion to Ashbery’s famous long poem is simply a gesture or a jumping-off point, a model for the kind of meditative ekphrasis she attempts, which inevitably swims out only to return to its reflection on the numinous, the too-numerous self.
Nonetheless, just as often as Wheeler tries to induce a parallax by contrasting disparate events, she just as frequently flattens her subject into exaggerated cartoons at other times: for example, in her retelling of her father’s morality tale, ‘Benny the Beaver,’ or her Barthelme-esque ‘Fractured Fairy Tale’ in which the characters debate their own “ur-argument” in a Chinese Room, or ‘Fivers,’ wherein she recounts a metapoetic bar joke. In these cases, the depth of the poem results not from the characters themselves but the way they are knowingly situated in a narrative framework that bends around on itself like a Klein bottle, adding an extra dimension that’s not really there. One of her most rambunctious cartoon-like protagonists may be found in ‘Beavis’ Day Off,’ which begins:
He’d been doing a lot of cull-twanging,
he thought, walking back and forth on the deck
of his battleship—whoa! correction: loft.
Small fires burned on the outskirts of Soho;
Fanelli’s lit up under a stickered sky:
cirrus pitched to the top of its firmament.
Wheeler appropriates cartoons as a way to bleed diagetical levels into one another: here the first stanza clearly partakes of the animated Beavis and Butthead world while the second seems to be more mimetic, mentioning a real locality down to a specific café. Yet, as the poem continues, the levels of these two representations become harder to discern apart, which may be the point: the crass histrionics of two-dimensional adolescents mingles with, as well as eventually mangles, the unflinchingly placid savoir faire of the hoi-polloi. A fire at the “outskirts” of the posh artsy neighborhood transforms — through a deft pun — into the “infernal / truism” of brimful lust inside a woman’s skirt by the poem’s end: “The sparks O they crested the floor then they floated/ and she lay down on fine braids and she cried.”
Cartoons can stretch and bend, flex and flux, in ways normally dismissed as surreal, and yet they mirror our world through a funhouse looking-glass, reminding us that our world contains plenty of funhouse looking-glasses. Similarly, Wheeler sometimes incorporates movie sets into her poems, as if using the trick in many an Almodovar film in which the camera pans back to reveal that the scene one just saw had actually been acted rather than real — though the joke is, of course, that everything in the film has been acted; likewise, everything in a poem is constructed and therefore game for being equally deconstructed.
Despite the fact that many of Wheeler’s more fragmentary and discursive works can read like auto-deconstructive poetic versions of ‘Homage to New York,’ Jean Tinguey’s self-destroying sculpture that ravaged its own robotic viscera until it bursts into spectacular flames, some of my favorite poems in this collection are ad hoc lists that accumulate textures and resonances, rather than the ones that tear-out their own narrative entrails. Perhaps her most delicious poem is ‘Shanked on the Red Bed,’ which uses a nursery-rhyme meter and strict couplets to describe horrific though oh-so-commonplace events:
The mayors queued for mug shots while the banners rolled in wind
That beat at bolted windows and bore down upon the thin,
And everywhere warped deliverers got bellicose and brave,
When I walked out to find you in the reconstructed rave.
The envelopes were in the slot and the paperweights were flung.
When I came down to seek you out the torrents had begun
To rip the pan from handle and horizons from their shore,
To rip around your heady heart looking there for more.
In this example, self-laceration is the subject rather than the technique. The nonchalance of the verse puts the utter violence depicted into relief, giving the poem a kind of sadistic black (-and-blue) humor: the metric beat is so strong it nearly obscures the more literal beating taking place in the poem. The urbanity of the city collapses upon itself, a metonymy for the subject’s own too furious wants imploding in upon her.
Another poem that uses lists to capture the chaos and cacophony of a cosmopolis is ‘A Filial Republic,’ which is a redaction of Alvin Feinman’s wonderful poem ‘November Sunday Morning.’ After a cavalcade of the various personages to be seen in the city — including everyone from Mick Jagger to the dishwasher to “the man so sodden with sex he reeled”—we get to the children:
Exclaiming together, as one hut to another,
South, on the horizon, bursts into fire.
Rise up, from where you are seated, smoking,
At a wooden desk. There has been a terrible dream
In the apartment above you, and the tenant is pacing.
Again, the fire at the margins of the city strikes home, this time in the form of a light at the end of a cigarette. The insomniac in the apartment above — harkening back to Feinman’s poem — could burn down the whole caboodle if he happened to go back to his terrible sleep, as if the fire of reality were the dream he had awoke from, and the work of writing it down at the wooden desk required flammable materials. Often something is threatening spontaneous combustion in a Wheeler poem, and the message itself is written in smoke-signals.
Wheeler was once a student of Feinman, a wonderful if neglected poet, who warned against the dangers of “fluency über alles,” or being eloquent simply because one can rather than because the poem demands its own necessity. A great many poems in this rather thin selection fail such an exacting standard: Wheeler’s oeuvre embraces drift and detritus, spare parts, jazzy riffs, stand-up routines with bathetic rim-shots, noodling around, and needless rambles. Her poems require some elbow-room; they want to cough and kibitz and tell naughty jokes and doze on the park bench awhile.
Yet, too much glut and glitter can quickly become tedious, and one longs for a spare, exacting severity. These Assorted Poems appear designed to tickle the fancy of sophisticated faculty husbands and the urbane it-kids over in Brooklyn; they are not poems of such imaginative splendor that one is compelled to read them in order to stay alive. Her poetics is too confectionary, her poems too content with being suave or glib if they can get away with it.
Stephen Burt coined the term “Elliptical poetry” in his review of Wheeler’s second collection, Smokes, writing, “most of its virtues and faults are those of a school,” in which he includes Liam Rector, C.D. Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido, Mark Ford, and Mark Levine, and to which I would add such poets as Mary Jo Bang, Cal Bedient, Joshua Clover, Forrest Gander, Ben Lerner, and James Galvin. One might say it is the dominant “school” of poetry on the American scene — certainly, in the American academy — today (though Burt himself, an inveterate trendsetter and coiner-of-phrases, has baptized the next new thing as “The New Thing” poets).
Nonetheless, Wheeler’s most enduring work — the work that might just become worthy to be the next old thing one still bothers to read — has many virtues and faults quite different than those of her peers, and can’t singlehandedly be blamed for the ubiquitous theory-lyric-fragment (with complimentary sprinkles of slangy, lowbrow references) rolled out from workshop assembly lines. Her most striking virtues, shared in such measure by few other poets around, remain her unfettered wackiness, her lush appreciation of forms, her blend of little nuggets of ironic truthiness with truly nugatory trash, and her sonic as well as intellectual adventurousness.
Her most glaring fault, however, may have been foreshadowed in her early poem ‘Ruinous Disbelief’ in which she states:
I could use a stand-in but even this,
which seems to refer, makes a figure.
Despair does not well take representation.
Her poems have a knee-jerk tendency to become self-reflexive, which I suspect is a tactic to avoid dredging up grief, despair, and all the darker contextures that ground the soul as well as grind it down. Many of her intricate evasions, stripped away of their spunky downtown sensibility, are all figuration, one more scribbled scrap to add to rhetoric. There is an emotional aridity to many poems so that one experiences the law of diminishing returns when one goes back to figure them out: it can be an intellectual exercise driven on more by humor than heart. Many of these poems are, at heart, metaphysical verse of wit and figuration — ironically the kind prized and prized apart by, say, T.S. Eliot — though they may offer little but high Romantic gleams of half-extinguished thought.
But even here, Wheeler may be her best critic when she writes, “The imagined wit, you think, is never worth the bargaining.” The elusive ambiguity in this statement is whether the wit is of the imagination or whether the wit is merely projected and never really exists. It’s the insistent openness of this question, though, that compels attention to her work, which asks us to discern the avid rhetoric from the overwrought aridity, the deft art from the artificially daff, as the poems interrogate both themselves and ourselves about notions of how to distinguish the razzle-dazzle from the real deal.
Will Cordeiro is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Cornell University where he is also the Artist-in-Residence at Risley Hall.