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Susan Wheeler’s Poetic Alchemy and Chiaroscuro.

August 21, 2011 \am\31 11:22 am

Bartering high for low before trading back up, and catching us fast that we might bargain slow with each poem’s wit and want, Susan Wheeler is an alchemist of jargon, formula, and diction. For months my brain has been swimming defatigued among the wave-like lyrics of Wheeler’s horizon-stretching poesies. I left this latest book of poetry like a bar, always more drunkenly than I entered. If this scenario pitted a smooth single-malt against any poem from her Assorted Poems, the verses would claim victory with the first shot.

Just read, “Bankruptcy & Exile” from Bag’o’Diamonds, Wheeler’s first book and the first section’s selection and you’ll see what I mean:

Along the horizon, the exhausted buildings tilt above

the darkened streets. This silence means

a tarnishing of trade. Before you step into the gaunt

alley, your hand releases a periapt of hope.

Divisions when agreements rent come. This dappled beast

in green finds fault with the quietest prudences, uses the

sword you left behind to hack away at social convocations.

There is no calling for the dream is wavering.

Then the cloud that made the kitchen dark passes.

She is turning the leaves of the magazine and laughing.

She is knowing the silent parting of the skin that soothes the heart.

A crater appears beside the trees, in the dark.

The line that means horizon bends beneath the moon.

What can I say? I thoroughly enjoy reading Susan Wheeler. The poems here are deftly crafted with ingenuity and discipline—the marks of a master. Assorted Poems includes selections from the four poetry volumes in Wheeler’s catalog—Bag‘o’DiamondsSmokesSource Codes, and Ledger. The pages are collaged with confident songs and explorations that transport us according to Wheeler’s compass and clock.

I understand the desire to cling to the “elliptical” classification that these collections have been tagged with, but I have to twist the shape into something more closely resembling the infinity rather than an egg. I have never ended up in the same place as I started from.

Call them lyrical vignettes, form-fitting millennial koans, or cinematic cluster-fucks of brilliance, Wheeler astounds as line after magnificent lines abounds. I remember reading Source Codes, my first introduction to Wheeler’s work. It was unlike anything I had ever read. That impression is still with me. It was at once both mystifying and tangible. Few poems in her litaneutical menu are as delectable as Smokes’ “Shanked on the Red Bed,” but the anaphorastic “Cassius” from the aforementioned Source Codes is a personal favorite of mine.

Do not fell the smallest to spare the tallest.

Do not braid with umbrage the hair of repose.

Do not trifle with holy expectations.

Do not make of me an exception.

Do not bargain fast the last of it.

Do not gentle go within that tower.

Do not splay the legs or tend the sour.

Do not make of me an exception.

Do not fail the one who loves you the most.

Do not recognize the incognito.

Do not milk the cow of introspection.

Do not make of me an exception.

Wheeler’s signature, if you can call it that, is her invented verse structures and (post)modernization of form, which might be to say what they are filled with. Their forms are remembered or reincarnated in her reinvention of them with clashes and flashes of juxtaposed language and tone. Wheeler also wields a Britannica worth of reference, invoking at times Beavis & Butthead, Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans, IBM slogans, Leonard Cohen, Count Chocula, and the ghost of George Herbert. For all of her influences, egg-shaped, -headed, or otherwise, Wheeler never sounds derivative,  she is a master of formal technique and poetic chiaroscuro.

The poems that finish out the collection from Ledger are more expansive, like the 15-page epic, “Debtor in a Convex Mirror,” composed of lines like condensed coal—the gaudy sparkle of consumerism held up before us. Wheeler then goes on to gift us with two previously uncollected gems, which hold up hope for her next formal outing. With all the evocations, referential echoes, and forgotten forms here, I would love to see the invoices attached to these poems. How rich Wheeler’s knowledge is, poetic and otherwise, and how rich we are now, too, for having this collection.

The rapt dogma of wonderment prevails, was the first iteration I thought of closing this review with. But now I find myself rethinking what a more appropriate and fitting conclusion might be. Why, to go back to the start of course—back to the poem that begins the collection, the self-titled poem from her first book, “Bag’o’Diamonds.”

That this would be all there is,

That this would be enough to fill

The chest and cranium.

Well, it certainly would, but hopefully it won’t be.


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