by Athena Kildegaard
Lesley Wheeler was in New Zealand in 2011 when the second deadliest earthquake in that nation’s history struck. “Cataclysms turn all metaphors seismic,” writes Wheeler. That earthquake is only one cataclysm Wheeler explores in her new book of poetry, Radioland, Wheeler’s fifth.
Wheeler was 40 when her first book, the chapbook Scholarship Girl, was published. As a teenager, Wheeler wrote poetry; but school and then the demands of a Ph.D. and then the requirements for tenure meant she turned her attention to scholarly work. Once she was awarded tenure and her children grew out of toddler-hood, Wheeler again turned to writing poetry. Scholarship Girl grew into the full-length prize-winning Heterotopia (Barrow Street Press). Her books also include Heathen, a collection that explores identity and belief, and The Receptionist and Other Tales, a fantasy narrative poetry collection set in academia.
Balancing life in the academy and its requirements—teaching and scholarship—with the creative life of a poet is not easy. During the school year Wheeler drafts poems whenever she has a few spare minutes. These flashes of creative endeavor are what help her, as she says, “feel healthy and sane.” In the summer Wheeler can devote herself to the sustaining attention required to write her scholarship and to focus on shaping a group of poems into a publishable collection. Wheeler teaches at Washington and Lee University, a liberal arts college in Virginia. Though teaching requires time and energy, it has its advantages to the scholar and poet. Wheeler argues that she must “speak plainly” to her students about what she’s thinking and about her stylistic choices—and this is “ultimately a benefit to everything I write,” she says.
A Fulbright scholarship, her first, took Wheeler to New Zealand for a year. Her purpose was to study the relatively new creative writing programs that had been founded in New Zealand “far away from US models.” That project evolved into “a hybrid of criticism and memoir” that she has just completed. At the same time, Wheeler wrote poems that became Radioland.
It might seem strange to begin a consideration of a book of poems by looking at the last word in the book, but in the case of Radioland, that last word, parley, matters. Parley has several inter-related meanings that inform the book: “A meeting between opposing sides in a dispute; A truce in certain (esp. children’s) games; The sound of a drum, trumpet, etc., that signals the desire for a parley” (Oxford English Dictionary). Perhaps all poetry is a drum sounding, a signal for parley. Jane Hirshfield described poetry as a “bell that calls us to this world.” Wheeler’s poetry parleys with the world, and in Radioland she’s seeking a sort of truce with that world.
A parley requires communication, and it is communication and its failures that also inform Radioland. Wheeler uses the language of radios, sound waves, and transmission of sound as a way of describing her parley with the world.
The book is divided into five sections that form a loose argument. The first section, “Breaking News,” contemplates the break-up of her parents’ marriage while Wheeler was in New Zealand. The immense distance breaks up the flow of information and makes emotional engagement challenging. In the fourth of a crown of sonnets, “Damages, 2011,” Wheeler describes her mother snooping and discovering her father’s infidelity. Wheeler writes, “Nine thousand miles from the dig, I / can only watch a screen. Reporters stand by; // rescue teams show passionate industry. / Then the shift from rescue to recovery.” Just as rescuers are busy in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake, family members, as if on a television screen, are busy recovering from the break-up of the marriage. The last sonnet in the crown ends in a kind of truce: “I choose to share data as if / a visible fault were somehow almost safe.”
The title of the second section, “Classic Rock,” reminds us of a radio station today, but the first poem puts those of us who are pre-digital into a different era. “Concentric Grooves, 1983” announces this section’s concerns: the teen years and coming of age. Here Wheeler tells of staying up late to listen to the Rolling Stones. Another poem uses David Bowie’s song “Drive-In Radio” to reflect on a teenager shaping her identity by painting Bowie’s portrait: “Meanwhile she fixes Bowie’s sheen in oils / learning his rouged mouth’s quirks . . . Yes she claws / up fishnets / finds her cobalt ankle-boots / An ink-and-mustard mini / some Dippity-do / Ground Control could learn a thing or two.”
From her own teen years, Wheeler moves to her daughter’s coming of age, and to the truces required in a mother-daughter relationship. Here is the sonnet “Adolescence Is a Disorder of the Mouth,” a key poem in this section:
Your necklines are too low, she says, and scowls
at the cloud-tops of my cleavage, as she does now
all through every dinner. Her dad inhales
the minestrone through his nose, blushes
in its steam. Like a tourist straining through veils
of haze, I gawk as her breasts erupt beneath
a succession of clingy tees—today in B cups
but bursting through the alphabet. It’s sweet,
maybe, how we stare, but the air becomes hypoxic
when she pronounces on my lipstick, the key
of my lullabies, the trash I watch. I agree.
I am lowbrow. My pitch is catastrophic.
But it’s better when I say so. She is too
perfect. A voice from a peak. No fear. No rue.
In the third section, “Deep Fade,” Wheeler moves to a more cataclysmic event: the death of her father and the difficulty of communicating from a distance. “There are technologies for final whispers / across the date line,” Wheeler writes in the first poem of the section, and then later in the poem she admits: “There’s no way even to type Hello without / hope, without stepping into slapping range / Who knows how he’ll hurt me.” How to parley with the dying if you do not love them wholly? Perhaps distance helps, Wheeler suggests.
In the last poem of the third section, “Earshot,” Wheeler comes to a sort of truce with her father’s death and she does so by using the language of “radioland.” In the third and last stanza of the poem she imagines her father speaking to her:
This spirit-talk isn’t much of a change in our, what,
relationship. I tune. His fury, sometimes love,
beams out in long pulses. Hey you out there in radioland,
are you listening? It’s your old man swinging the airwaves.
. . . Ambivalent daughters sleepwalk there, . . .
yet once you notice where you stand, ear
loses out to eye. Look around. This
isn’t a country people even think of anymore.
We can see much farther than we can hear and the voices of the dead fade, Wheeler reminds us. That “country,” radioland, from whence the dead speak, has faded in our collective imaginations; it’s perhaps superstitious, certainly irrational.
And yet, the fourth section of Radioland reminds us, the dead, in the form of poets who have come before, still speak to us. This section, “Transceiver,” plays with transmitting and receiving “the news.” In the poem “Signal to Noise,” Wheeler writes of listening to the radio, “This listening is like choosing, retrofitting / noise into counsel that the world might hiss / to a heedful woman, if the world were so / inclined.” Wheeler incorporates lines from Keats and Bishop, images from Dickinson and Whitman. In “Dead Poet in the Passenger Seat,” Wheeler imagines riding with Emily Dickinson. “An apparition flickers beside me, / sepia projection / in too few frames per second,” the poem begins. But communication falters. The poem ends “Her dash protracts—each inky line / sizzles like a telephone wire. / Connected the old way. Alone.” Still, though you are alone, communication of a sort happens. In the last poem of this section Wheeler writes, “Don’t think of communication / as transmission, a spatial relay of messages, / but as ritual, a ceremony uniting / the twilight congregation.” In this section, then, Wheeler parleys with communication’s failures and finds a way out of that failure: ritual.
Traditionally, in the church, the ritual ends with a benediction, and that’s just what happens in the fifth and final section of Radioland. In “Belief,” a poem in the middle of the section, she writes, “The gods don’t give dictation . . . That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen / and watch. Reception’s a religion when / everything whispers. Your hand to mine. / Starlings to branch. Signal and noise, ensnarled.” To be ensnarled is a sort of perfect truce—signal and noise find one another and mix it up, just as starlings and branches mix it up, one grasping the other, the other providing foundation. The starling blesses the branch, the branch the starling.
In the last poem of the book, Wheeler has left New Zealand and is in transit back to her home, making a stop on the French coast, as if that coast were a transceiver between home and the Fulbright year, looking both directions, transmitting and receiving. At the end of the poem Wheeler writes: “Gods and fathers rarely signal, / but rock vibrates / sympathetically. What else / could it say? Echo / a kind of love, of / parley.”
Like a parley, Wheeler’s poems are at once serious and playful. As noted, here are sonnets, and here are ghosts in poems modeled on Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” and another on William Carlos Williams’ poem “To Elsie.” One poem is an epistrophe, a poem with a repeating word at the end of (almost) every line (25 total), and that word, which should come as no surprise, is talk. Wheeler plays with the shape of poems and the use of white space, and her love of words and wit makes every poem in this marvelous collection sing. And that, too, is a sort of parley—“the sound of a drum, trumpet, etc.”—a sound that signals us, readers, to Wheeler’s parley.
Athena Kildegaard is Bloom’s Poetry Features Editor. She is the author of three books of poetry, Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, a Minnesota Book Award finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). Her fourth collection is forthcoming. She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.
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