2012 National Book Award finalist in Poetry: Susan Wheeler, Meme

October 31st, 2012 § 0 comments

I learned how to make ring tum ditty when your father and I didn’t have two cents to rub together.

Well, these saltines are a little stale. (p. 6, from “Splitting Hairs”)

Lace our shut eyes shut.

Don’t you ping my machine. Young lady. (p. 20, from “Judas Priest”)

Susan Wheeler’s National Book Award-nominated poetry collection, Meme, is difficult to sum up in a few pithy paragraphs. Divided into three parts, the first of which, “The Maud Poems,” being based on Wheeler’s mother, Meme explores several themes, among them the trials and travails of motherhood, the dangers and joys of childhood, the temptations of life, and cruel humorous ironies of life through protean verses that shift in register, tone, and form to fit the characters contained within.

Take for instance the two citations provided above, both taken from “The Maud Poems.” Here we hear one half of a conversation, or perhaps “Maud” is caught in a soliloquy over her past poverty before interrupting herself to respond to her children’s needs. This alternation between reminisce and response catches the reader reacting on two levels, the recalled past and the immediate present. Wheeler’s lines are deceptively simple. Vivid images are created through the use of alliterations, such as this combination found within “The Devil – or – The Introjects”:

She’s got your hand moving out for a dish, for a drink, for a doughnut. (p. 30)

Wheeler is more than a one-trick poetess. Further on in “The Devil – or – The Introjects,” she creates memorable descriptions through twisting, turning, moving, mutable descriptors:

She’s driven you out here with her taunting, pushed you out to the

extremities of town where the dust coils in the wind and your own

parched throat rasps. Go on, missy, jump, but the land’s straight and flat,

and the prefab arsenal by the side of the road bears unbankable walls.

Jump. (p. 35)

But it is in the third part, “The Split,” where Wheeler’s talent for imagery and expression shine fullest:

Spangled like showgirls in the gleam of our fears,

shiny Christians in chain mail, with our faux-lizard shingling,

whores limping to West Street from the Bank Street piers, (p. 39)

There are few duds in Meme. Even the relatively weaker segments contain a warmth of characters and a vividness in metaphor and image that makes reading and re-reading the poems a delight. Wheeler’s expert use of language creates poems that even in simple actions, something profound is being expressed:

I am tired. Today

I moved a book from its shelf

to the bed. The span

of its moving was vast. (p. 83)

Out of the four poetry finalists that I have read to date, Meme perhaps will be the one that lingers longest for me. This is not to say the others, yet to be reviewed, are not good or excellent in their own right, but Meme is the work that connects closest with the wild, weird vastness of human life and emotions and Wheeler’s ability to stretch metaphor to cover this broad emotional expanse is impressive.

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