instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads


Poetry in Review: At Century’s End: The Poetics of Flash and Speed
Stephen Yenser
The Yale Review, Vol. 87, No. 1, pp. 149-160

It is now finally clear enough that postmodernism, still alive and thriving even at the century's end, right along with its classical mate and nemesis, modernism, began in Eden. If Adam, our proto-modernist, earnestly dubbing his animals and plants, acted in the name of definition and fixity, of things as they were and thus should be, playful Eve, uneasy with hierarchy and alert to new possibilities, spoke up on behalf of change or the cultivation of mystery rather than mastery One of Eve's eloquent successors was Walt Whitman, who in Democratic Vistas foresaw (as other Romantics including Wordsworth and Coleridge had periodically foreseen before him) a "new order":

new law-forces of spoken arid written
language — not merely the pedagogue forms, correct,
regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters
of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely
told out — but a language fann'd by the breath of
nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for
impetus and effects, and for what it plants and
invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and
seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates
it [a riveting alternative]. In fact, a new theory of
literary composition for imaginative works of the
very first class, and especially for highest poems,
is the sole course open to these States. Books are to
be call'd for, and supplied, on the assumption that
the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in
[the] highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast's
struggle; that the reader is to do something for
himself, must be on the alert, must himself or
herself [this circumspection in 1871, mind you]
construct indeed the poem . . . — the text furnishing
the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work.

Whitman advocates a heuristic, imprudent process, a kind of improvised pas de deux between composed page and deciphering mind, implicitly preceded by an equally athletic relation between blank page and composing mind, that will turn out to be better or worse but in no case perfect or final. Promulgating new forms and correspondingly fresh responses, he makes the case for a poetry that is original and resistant, a poetry that unabashedly contains multitudes of meanings and points of view and yet expects to be read within the provisional parameters it makes bold to chalk out.

It's hard to imagine Susan Wheeler reacting to Whitman's desiderata with anything but applause and huzzahs. Her own poetry — Bag ‘o Diamonds and most recently Smokes (Four Way Books, 72 pp., $12.95), chosen for publication by Robert Hass, who has written an engaging “Afterword" — characteristically gets along like a wildfire: "fann'd by the breath of Nature," if I may, it "leaps overhead," values above all momentum and discovery, and propagates itself by means of the barest contiguities. To put the point another way, if all poems have specific enemies, and if all good poems resist those enemies, it is clear that two of Wheeler's poems’ enemies are regularity and predictability. A basic principle of her poetics is "That each second escorts a fresh plash. . . . Its drive is for the offbeat, the cack-handed, the apocopated. It sings with regret for its thrum" ("Clock Radio"). Her personae are slippery as soap in the shower, her narratives are discontinuous, her juxtapositions are sometimes inexplicable even in retrospect, and her range of reference is catholic, so that hymns, cartoons, fairy tales, slogans, and literary classics collide as in a pileup on a foggy freeway. It is perhaps less apparent that her poems' other enemies include arbitrariness and randomness. I am thinking in part of her frequent use of conventional infrastructures - couplets, rhymed quatrains, sonnets, a pantoum, a ballad — and in part her steely grammatical and syntactical control. In this last respect she is unlike John Ashbery — to whom one of her poems is dedicated and with whom she certainly has affinities — who is known for his liberal and inspired use of anacoluthon, fuzzy antecedent, dangling modifier, and other staples of undergraduate essays. She likes oddball puns and neologisms, but she perpetrates fewer of the latter than a cursory reader might surmise. (As far as I know, for example, while "garp" does not exist, John Irving notwithstanding, nor does "masticulate," though Lewis Carroll is somewhere green with envy, "cack-handed" means more or less "with shitty fingers" and "fribbling" means "faltering, feeble, or frivolous" — as the Oxford English Dictionary will attest.)

Because Wheeler's poems live so insistently from moment to moment, they are difficult to excerpt or to summarize, so per I'll be forgiven for walking us (according to my lights) through a poem or two. (Caveat lector: you might find yourself following were in the steps of the proverbial bloodhound, who would run out on to the lawn after his owner, in clear view and only yards and yet zig and zag for a couple of minutes because he didn't want to know where the man was but how he had gotten there.) “Run on a Warehouse" is a poem in two parts, with seven quatrains in part I and three quatrains in part II. In the first part — which was originally published by itself in a journal — the quatrains rhyme axax and the meter alternates between iambic and trochaic lines (or, to preempt dispute, between rising and falling rhythms). That seems ordinary enough, but here are the opening stanzas:

What he had said came back to him.
Sectioned seat, sectioned seat.
The lift caught wind and swayed him in.
Big armoire, big armoire.

For some time he had felt it stir.
Sideboard door, sideboard door.
He sashayed through the conifers.
Dad's chair, dad's chair.

He had not known how far he'd come.
The blanket chest, the blanket chest.
A sourceless light suffused the run.
Love seat, love seat.

Far from conventional, then, these stanzas might seem at first perversely enigmatic. But by the time we have digested the poem, we have begun to see that Wheeler is intercalating narratives. In the odd-numbered lines she is sketching out a story, which I like to think of as Hitchcockian, about a man with a mission on a snowy mountain. (The 'Run" of the title is a ski run.) In each of the even-numbered lines she doubles up an item in a furniture sale at a warehouse. By virtue of the influence of the first narrative we can imagine someone strolling among these items just as the other figure moves through “the conifers." ("Run" also signifies an overwhelming response to an ad for the sale.) At the middle of this section — the fourth of its seven stanzas — the two quests dovetail:

He had not come for his own sake.
All fixtures new, fixtures new.
Before the end he'd need to break.
Wall to wall, wall to wall.

Of course “he" did not come for his own sake. In this field of force he came for the sake of his alter ego in the other narrative, who, for someone else's sake, is searching through the warehouse inventory. At the same time that this “someone else" has to be the “he" of the first plot, their relationship is a convenient metaphor for the relationship of writer and reader, both searching something out, who must convene à la Whitman for the poem's sake.

In the following stanzas the way seems to be lost in a kind of whiteout that is ironically paralleled by the plethora of “wall to wall" offerings:

So buckily he bore his load.
Filigreed frame, filigreed frame.
He could not see the lodge for snow.
Canopied bed, canopied bed.

But there is hope. The whimsical and the careful might cooperate, like two searchers, or indeed like the random and the orderly:

He'll not forget the moment soon.
Cuckoo clock, cuckoo clock.
Now over snow a glimpse of moon.
Savvy desk, savvy desk.

Precisely savvy and charmingly cuckoo at once, this first part concludes with a muted epiphany that immediately undermines itself:

There were but two things he required.
Glass breakfront, glass breakfront.
The slope was steep and he was tired.
Just a hutch, just a hutch.

As the form has led us to suspect all along, with its meshing plots and its mirrorings in every other line, the "two things . . . required" really amount to one, which point Wheeler makes ingeniously in several ways, first by reiterating (as her nonce form requires) the single item “glass breakfront" — a move adumbrated by the earlier line, “Before the end he'd need to break." Again, in the last line, the 'hutch" that is a chest in the warehouse plot is a temporary shelter in the mountain-climbing plot. But Wheeler shies from closure even here and confesses that she has at best — as the reader has — "just a hunch." (The approximateness of that pun is an earmark of the postmodern; you wouldn't Find it in Eliot or Pound or Williams.)

Part II of the poem picks up the stubborn impulse to regularity or continuity, as a "heathen man" comes down out of the hills to argue that "there has to be / A way to bargain that will instead / Be harbingers or history" — which proposition, however, his little postmodern congregation rudely dismisses:

How come, one said, and then one of each
Joined in finding an earnest fool
The gentleman with the counterpoint
Who could not get the present rule.

Having served in part as "The gentleman with the counterpoint," as "heathen man" is now called, or as a methodist who cannot quite acknowledge the "rule" of randomness this reader is prepared to retire — only to be stopped on the way out by the final stanza's unexpected and vehement admission that this whole poem has been the product after all of some regrettable factitious-ness: "What frippery. This narrative could not / Have less to do with whim. I'm bored." Yet in this evidently interminable tergiversation or flirtatiousness “whim" seems to get the last word: "It's now that the bodice and the dots / Become the hedge for wonders scored." If “hedge" means a counterbalancing investment, as in this very image of bodice and dots where the reassertion of "whim" defends against what to the poet has come to seem an excess of composition or "scoring," the poem rather wonderfully completes itself precisely by opposing itself. Such a structure might even be said to close by virtue of its insistence on openness.

Wheeler's fondness for disjunction has ramifications for the “voice" in her poems and for their implicit definition of "self" Like the work of many of the Language poets and other postmod -ernists, her poems are permeable by all manner of speech and sponsor heterogeneous points of view. In lieu of the more or less dramatic monologist characteristic of many confessional and neo-formalist lyrics alike, Wheeler can rustle up at a moment's notice a little crowd of voices — as in "Run on a Warehouse," where the speaker's voice gives way to that of "heathen man," which is in turn overwhelmed by different responses from his audience. Michael Palmer has explained in an interview how for him and others of a similar sensibility "language inhabits" the poet, whose work consequently sponsors "a whole variety of selves and non-selves which propose themselves as language on the page." In The Changing Light at Sandover, James Merrill, to invoke a quite different kind of postmodernist, describes a related feeling of being the host for innumerable selves in the way that the body's cytoplasm is the host for mitochondria. On this view of things, the poet is not so much a speaker or a maker as a listener or a transmitter; in Palmer’s phrase, the poet “learns to listen to the poem as it unfolds."

This position has an analogue if not a source in Stephane Mallarmé's thought ('the pure poem entails the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who grants the initiative to the words") and bears a close relation to the speculations of Mikhail Bakhtin about dialogism — though Bakhtin would be surprised to hear it. Bakhtin, who didn't care about poetry and seems not to have read Mallarmé, proposed that “the poetic symbol presupposes the unity of a voice with which it is identical, and it presupposes that such a voice is completely alone in its discourse. As soon as another's voice, another’s accent, the possibility of another’s point of view breaks through this play of the symbol, the poetic plane is destroyed." Enter the writer of fiction, who “takes a completely different path" and “welcomes the heteroglossia and diversity of the literary and extraliterary language into his work. . . . It is in fact out of this stratification of language . . . that he constructs his style." Although Bakhtin's notions about poetry are patronizing, convenient, and circular, one might use his thoughts on heteroglossia to approach much postmodern poetry — poetry almost written to contravene his view of the genre, one might say — including Palmer's own little echo chambers, Ashbery’s strange orchestras, and John Berryman's Dream Songs.

Wheeler's “Notes" point out two allusions to Berryman, one of which is in her volume's last line — “Bone collating — now that’s a job" — which implicitly acknowledges her reconstruction of earlier writers, but his spirit hovers over other poems, too, perhaps most notably 'Ethic":

Manman got a special s'rup 't cures the lonelies.
All the night, up the tree'f the pickling shed
Ise drinking from it elixir.

Afters the sunup the hacked meat it come.
The truck it seethes on its brakes and the driver he look
Ise singing from t'friendly tree.

Then it smote. What business was mine
in the cardboard rune, in the native rap?
I on the tree stump, I missing all.

If Berryman's interlocutor's lingo parodies the speech of the vaudeville endman, which speech itself is a parody of vernacular African American, this poem reads at first like a parody at third remove — whatever that might mean. How else explain the awkward elisions (I take “syrup that cures" and “tree off the pickling shed” to be the expanded phrases) and the implausible solecisms, especially in the presence of words like "elixir," "smote,” and "rune"? If we extend the hypothesis, we can perhaps understand the poem not as a blatant imitation or send-up of Berryman but as a sympathetic criticism of him — and in the first place of the mode of this very poem, at once a "rune" and a “ru’n” or “ruin." (Harking back to those other odd elisions, I cannot but notice that "Ethic" is potentially a shortened form of “Ethnic.")

The poem's last lines, quoted earlier, aptly suggest that the white poet might well have no right to "the native rap" or to this intermittent pseudo-dialect, since she or he would be "missing all" the experience that it arises from and bodies forth. The further achievement of this gutsy little poem, however, is that even as it confesses its experiential inadequacy, it tries to represent a part of that missing experience affecting{y. To put that another way, "Ethic" is a riddle poem, and the question is, "What business was mine"? Beyond the answer to the rhetorical question noted earlier, one answer is "none," because African Americans could have no "business" at all in this country for long after they were brought here. (Bringing them here was a business that they were not part of, so to speak.) Beyond that answer and even as a consequence there is another: "suicide." It will be an indication of the fineness of Wheeler's textures that this inference is indirectly borne out by a reference in her ”Author's Notes," in regard to another poem, to Flannery O'Connor's story "The Lame Shall Enter First," in which a child "hanged himself." In Wheeler's other poem, "Exemplification Avenue," the child, "swinging back and forth beneath the / attic's peak, misses the telescope." ("Misses," precisely.) It's no accident that the speaker in "Ethic" is "swinging" from a tree and that he is "missing all." In this lurid "sunup" light, the astonishment of the packing company's truckdriver makes logical sense - and his merchandise, "hacked meat," makes metaphoric sense.

Wheeler's lovely, difficult, poignant, eccentric "Beavis' Day Off" is a tour de force of different perspectives:

He'd been doing a lot of cull-twanging,
he thought, walking back and forth on the deck
of his battleship whoa! correction! loft.

Small fires burned on the outskirts of Soho;
Fanelli's lit up under a stickered skv:
cirrus pitched to the top of its firmament.

How long could he crimp the diesel in the dark?
The bedlam was breathing its own air now;
the parrot shivering in the freezer glared at the hen.

Please it's time said Meg. And each infernal
truism struck a package deal for tin.

What hast thou, 0 nut job, with paradise?
The sparks 0 they crested the floor then they floated
and she lay down on fine braids and she cried.

At the poem's outset the speaker nominally distinguishes herself from Beavis, but it is soon apparent that much of the poem is as though from his point of view — whoever “he" may be beyond the dismayingly popular TV character. We hear his voice at its purest in "whoa! correction," when he catches himself up as it were in the middle of a loony fantasy by virtue of which he has transformed his SoHo loft, evidently not far from the venerable Fanelli's Cafe on Prince Street, into a "battleship" — but the one voice fades into the other. If there are also overtones of Ahab, they would comport with the rest of the poem, since one of its most important voices is that of another famous paranoid. Though Ezra Pound is never named, Wheeler alludes to him (as her "Notes" confirm) in the first line of the final stanza; and meanwhile (or so I suspect) he begins to emerge by way of Elizabeth Bishop's poem about him, "Visits to St. Elizabeths." Saint Elizabeths, the hospital to which Pound was committed following his trial for treason and the court's finding of insanity, is known in Bishop's inspired adaptation of the form of "The House That Jack Built" as "The house of Bedlam." Moreover, one of her central figures is a "sailor" who seems to believe he is (as of course he is) at sea, since his progress is associated with "a roadstead all of board," “a creaking sea of board," and so on. In Bishop's poem the sailor and the other specified figures — a widowed “Jew in a newspaper hat,” “a boy that pats the floor / to see if the world is there, is flat,” a “soldier home from the war," and “the poet,” who cast himself as Odysseus in the Cantos — all bleed into one another, until "bedlam" seems a kind of magnification of the poet himself. In Wheeler's poem the "compound ghost," to borrow Eliot's phrase, in addition to Ol' Possum himself, master of ventriloquism and polyphony ("Please it's time said Meg"), the Beavis of the animated cartoon (and probably not Bevis of Hampton, though Wheeler might welcome in this context the themes of exile and imprisonment in the Anglo-Norman ballad), involves Ezra Pound, and of course the original speaker — or listener — herself.

"What hast thou, 0 nut job, with paradise?" — the last stanza's first line — exemplifies the delicacy of these relationships. The nominal speaker, Wheeler qua poet, reminds us that even as he was in the psychiatric ward Pound was writing the later Cantos, which are explicitly in search of “paradise." (His actual situation, in contrast, is implied in the allusion to The Waste Land and the reference to the "infernal," as well as those astonishing stand-ins for the mad patients, the parrot and the hen.) At the same time, the framing terms in Wheeler's line derive from the opening of Pound's lyric of some forty years before his confinement, "'Blandula, Tenella, Vagula'":

What hast thou, 0 my soul, with paradise?
Will we not rather, when our freedom's won,
Get us to some clear place wherein the sun
Lets drift in on us through the olive leaves
A liquid glory?

So to all the other voices we must add that of the young Pound, who as Christine Froula has informed us was himself echoing Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, arid who is here ironically maneuvered into admonishing his aging, tragic self. As Wheeler surely wants us to realize, when his freedom was won from Saint Elizabeths, Pound took himself off to the "clear place" of Italy, where he could meditate under the olives. Her concluding lines heighten the complexity of the emotional chord struck at the same time that they end the poem with an arabesque embellishment: "The sparks 0 they crested the floor then they floated / and she lay down on fine braids and she cried." The female figure cannot but conjure the poet, whose sympathy, admiration, and repugnance the poem has so magically braided together. As Wheeler well knows, a "cull" is a dupe, as was the Pound infatuated by Mussolini, and "to twang" used to mean to thrust through. But there is another, broader sense in which this poem is indeed some kind of "cull-twanging," which is to say a combination of diverse motifs and voices (a "cull" is also a selection) played as though on a musical instrument. Even in its flourish of a conclusion, then, the poem frays out in other directions, and all in all it strikes me as a good example of what N. Katherine Hayles identifies in Chaos Bound, her book on postmodern literature and science, as “orderly disorder" or "nonlinear dynamics."

Most of Wheeler's other poems similarly invite the reader to discover coherence in — or at least to negotiate — the apparently chaotic. In "Carnivorous Fowl, and Otherwise," for instance, the implied task is to ascertain the relationship among a good ol' boy moved to Los Angeles (near "Miracle Mile . . . the clam dogs weren't / anything to right write home about"), "a vixen she" whose parts call up "Mo's Ravine," and the speaker, hardly more literate than his friend, who has nonetheless read his William Carlos Williams. Here is a part of his letter home:

Weren't long before we'd sent that one
back up to Lonnie's Gulch, since there's no room
for bullies here. Anyway, she ate the plums,
the plums I was saving, plums for you.

Even when the poems' principles of selection and arrangement are not altogether clear, their parts are often irresistible. Who would not succumb to the opening of "The Blanching Heart," where the illusion of high specificity somehow emerges from a mercurial voice, which in six lines changes from the judicious through a kind of knowing Stevensian lyricism and deadpan surreal comedy to the mock literary?

The hero, such as he was, in the classroom,
in the evening, found the crosstalk taxing.
He'd come, driving, from fields lit like rivers,
glittering under autumnal sun.
The machete mobile clanged;
the instructor tipped (ho, bland) his spectacles.

The last two stanzas of 'Fractured Fairy Tale" cover tremendous ground as they move from an inventive ironic commentary on intellectualism through the simplest evocation of ordinary, everyday sadness to a wild summary of this century just now breathing its postmodern last:

Several men rest their rakes at their crotches and begin to talk.
They are having an ur-argument. They are arguing over
pure and impure analyticity, or error theory or a nonfactualist
theory about ethics. It might be the Chinese Room Argument.
The light through the elms reminds them of dinner.
The hunger reminds them of loss.

Doze Doll Does Wiz Biz — a century that, her sleeping,
a stenotic century self-circling, noodling its tunes, drug
by the scuff of its kitchen to stand, squinting, at thing
coherent, drooping from clouds, bungeeing to boot.

Any quatrain that can invent a perfect Daily Variety headline for a story about the box office success of “Sleeping Beauty," use the term “stenotic” with the word "noodling," ring “the scruff of its neck" into a new shape altogether and pun with a hoot on the phrase “to boot" goes more than its part of the bail for the century of which this poem, itself "self-circling,” is an admitted part.

Reprinted from The Yale Review. Copyright of The Yale Review; no part of the text may be used without the written permission of the publisher.