(University of Iowa Press, 2012) 
Meme, Susan Wheeler’s fifth book of poems, doesn’t need its title defined to tell what it knows about replication: each of the collection’s three parts describes a version of the relationship between poetic language and the world in which neither side is original, both subject to processes of imitation and reproduction. In the book’s first section, “The Maud Poems,” Wheeler collects the Midwestern colloquialisms of her mother (in the poem “Jeehosaphat”: “Oh, piffle. That’s not what you said last night”; in “Hot Sketch”: “Last time I had a dickens of a job getting it loose and then there was only one measly piece left”) to evoke a domesticity as pre-formed as the speech, while the second section, “The Devil—or—The Introjects” apostrophizes in a sustained whisper, a running hiss (“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”). The final part, “The Split,” mobilizes an array of forms from the limerick to the numbered list to a loud acrostic block made of the phrase “wait I’m not done fucking” repeated thirteen times in six lines such that the phrase also reads down the page. Throughout the book, Wheeler joins modernist techniques of collage with confessional verse’s characteristic shocks, revelations, and excoriations: the stale glitter of Eliot’s ventriloquized chess-game becomes dinner hour and neighborhood gossip in a suburban American household (“No, cocktail onions are just picked small. Turn that down, Dan”; “Ray, the dog’s got something in her mouth. While you’re up, would you check the ham?”; “Well, they went bloody blue blazes through their last dollar before you could say boo”), while sharp choice phrases reminiscent of confessional verse’s admissions and implications pierce that surface here and there: “I hated him like I hated lice.” And while it engages in the sort of appropriation or sampling of overheard (or inherited) speech that’s become the stuff of conceptual poetry narrowly construed, Wheeler’s work also gives the lie to models of poet-as-magpie or as echo alone. “My ear is where my heart is,” says Wheeler in an interview: the confessional ritual of heart-opening becomes an act of listening and recording no longer individualized but intergenerational and interpersonal. Meme reveals how the heightened tones and domestic dramas of the confessional lyric can be mechanically reproduced—that is, generated by and through language itself. The violences of collage’s operation, of emotional force, and of formal cacophony work together to generate a space of terrifyingly familiar intimacy. This tense co-presence is crucial: “The dominant voice,” Wheeler has said of her work in this book, “also needed its moony foil, the lyric intrusions.” Wheeler presumably refers to the moments in “The Maud Poems” when voiced vernacular gives way to moments of “poetic” observation: 

                                 Avocados, toothpicks. Coleus, root sprawl.
                                 The dif
fident glints of a late-day sun, rays
                                 splintered by leaves: they shake and, in their
                                 shaking, streak the light. Transparent murk
                                 of glasses at the glass.


Yet moments like these are less intrusion into than continuous with the book’s investigation of the play between variously formed language and expressions of rage and / or loss, or examinations of gender, family, and love. Meme has swallowed a repository of shapes and registers; at its best moments, the limerick at the pit of its stomach rises, for example, into the Auden-esque pitch and rhythm of this untitled poem:

                                 Had you entered the thicket in darkness,
                                 had the brambles been swiping your face as you passed,
                                 had you been mid-life, not in haze but in crisis,
                                 had you no other lens but damage to gaze through,
                                 had you—thwacked by branches—entered your true love
                                 as your true loved cried out with her palm on your face,
                                 her heel on the small of your back in the darkness,
                                 you might have removed the mask from your visage,
                                 the glass from the casement, the scythe from your
fist.

                                                                                    —Lindsay Turner 



   
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