Review | Heathen, by Lesley Wheeler
C&R Press, 2009
A peculiar quality of naiveté sets the heathen apart from other, similar transgressors. The blasphemer, tongue loosened by one spirit or another, lets slip His name. The heretic forges His signature. The heathen, though, is the one who reads this and asks, Who is He and why are you capitalizing His name? At times generous, at times skeptical, Lesley Wheeler’s Heathen presents a selection of encounters with the author’s “polis of selves.” And yet from the roiling of many tones—tender, indignant, brash, insecure, and playful are just a few—a coherent voice emerges. Consistently and insistently originating from the heath of imagination, the voice shuttles between the present and a deeper, more primitive time. If the present intrudes too forcefully, breaking the spell, the “knock-off charm” of “Foamhenge,” Wheeler’s poems provide the consolation of testimony. As often as not, this modest ambition redeems itself by affording glimpses into a supernatural logic that applies as much to a “flimsy non-biodegradable sideshow” as any Neolithic pile of rubble.
In his study of Early Netherlandish painting, Erwin Panofsky articulated the eye’s ability to function as both telescope and microscope. A similar effect operates in many of Wheeler’s poems, the scope of time alternating between the microscopic (close, now) and telescopic (distant, archetypal). “Neanderthal Love Song” is one such swirling anachronism. It derives humor from the absurd juxtaposition of contemporary tone and prehistoric content: “Cro-Magnon guys rattled like soup-bones, / all skinny and bare with a ragged tuft / of gristle at the top. My best girlfriend / used to chase them around” (see also The Flintstones, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live, GEICO, etc.). But this soon gives way to earnest courtship gifts, “an ivory / bowl, sleek furs,” followed by the stripped-down pathos of the speaker acknowledging her family’s reaction: “He was ugly / and my people laughed when I led him home, / but they were full of kindly pity and let him be.” The tragedy of “[singing] our first baby out of the world” provides the hinge that turns the poem back to the “billboards in your painted caves” and the “trains [that] lift the hairs on your arms,” making the address, in effect, a love song to the present.
Not all of Wheeler’s poems, however, display the same degree of confidence in notions of spiritual communion. “Foamhenge” is emblematic:
Dispossessed women gather
by moonlight, chant a knock-off charm or two
about expensive rituals and throttled power,
cells shining but cut off from the signal,
shaking with lightweight plastic angry wonder.
The ambiguity in the final two lines encapsulates and redistributes the tension of the entire poem in several different directions. The poetic and prosaic possibilities of “cells” and “signal” seem unstable within this group. As the terza rimabreaks down in the two final stanzas, one is left to wonder who is getting the text and who is getting the message.
Wheeler’s wit, expressed in deft formal maneuvers (as above), clever titles (see the sonnet “Lucky Thirteen”), and a subtle network of self-referential puns, provides a playful counterpoint to the macabre humor of many of the poems. Within the unrhymed couplets of “Zombie,” one finds yet another subject with broad popular appeal and profound historical resonance. The poem begins with “Since my heart stopped,” a refrain that comes to represent, contrary to its own logic, the heartbeat of the poem, the ticking of its metronome. And while the rhythm is irregular, sometimes even unexpectedly spondaic in the first eight couplets, the conclusion moves into regular iambic pentameter to underscore, with mechanized rhythm, the speaker’s realization that “the fire in me could cool and still a walking, / talking engine would conduct the business // of my will.”
Zooming out from the formal structure of individual poems to the structure of the entire book, the reader will begin to apprehend the dialogues that develop between various poems. An invitation to one such conversation appears in the opening stanza of the title poem, “Heathen,” as we see speaker and son, ear to ear, “so that the god in your head can talk / to the god in mine.” The mystic intimacy of the scene, however, is far more menacing than the first lines suggest. Breaking the proscenium to address the audience, the speaker confesses:
Me, I’m afraid. The god in my head
is a bear and not the talking kind
He rears up, slavering, unsheathes
his nails, famished for sacrifice.
His prison is a vast cold heath.
It is not until “The End of Winter,” when “No god is watching” that the growling beast of “Heathen” is pacified:
You roll over and say, I love the way
the branches look against the sky,
and he answers, As if it’s cracking apart.
Some kind of spring flowing through.
Wheeler’s attention to form amplifies the resonance between these poems even as it reinforces the sense that each piece is spoken by a different resident of the poet’s Heathen-opolis. Whereas the stair-stepped quatrains of “The End of Winter” conclude with an evocation of motion—of “spring flowing through”—the left-justified lines of “Heathen” express the attitude of one more resigned to the fact that “Gods / abhor quiet, the skull-bone closing. / Walls that mount clod by clod.”
It is satisfying to recognize and inspect the linguistic lenses we call “speakers.” The desire to identify (or sometimes construct) coherence compels us to search out a lens of our own, a prism through which a few rays of language can be made to reveal the broader spectrum of their meaning. In the case of poetry reviews, this often means leaving out poems that do not cohere, poems that, well, you would rather not direct at your carefully arranged prism. “American Flowers” is one of these. Linda Bierds calls them “rogue poems” and, in a reversal typical of Wheeler’s work, the “rogue” (or heathen) of her selection is also its most world-wise and cynical figure. A smoker’s cadence inspires the clipped lines that scan briefly over the quaint still life of a farmer’s market before taking aim at a spoiled young girl “whose thick soft hair / slips like outrage / from its bindings.” The demurely mocking tone narrows, mimicking the complaints “that piano practice is hard / that someone won’t be her friend / that the sun is growing hot,” as if taunting her into a game of “stop copying me / stop copying me.” Set against the many modern heathens of this collection, the speaker in “American Flowers” stands out in the black jeans and leather jacket of an updated prodigal. And in the brief span of this poem, Wheeler channels the rebellious daughter, the incorrigible old friend, or the wild sister who has returned to the heath. Because doesn’t every town need a voice like this? Someone to take this coddled brat aside and “to shout / at her and to feed her / more piano, more flowers.”