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Monday, December 12, 2011

Contributor Spotlight: Lesley Wheeler

Dead Cats, Quince Jelly, and the Rolling Stones

All the synthesized sentiment at this time of year used to irritate me, but right now it’s too resonant, despite some intellectual resistance. That’s probably why I’m most struck, in this fall/winter issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, by poems that riff on nostalgia. “I have this memory and it’s really poignant to me”: there’s a whole lyric subgenre that can be summed up this way. Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” for instance, or Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” and half the British Romantic canon.

Most of the poems in the new issue are not about memory; instead, there’s a lot of eros plus an assortment of meditations on apocalypse and other nightmare worlds. Joe Betz, however, is playing my song. Like Hayden, he remembers a parent. In “Portage, Indiana,” Betz describes “my mother…holding a cat and crying. / It thawed in the sink like a package of pulled pork left over from October.” I’m impressed that he’s written about a weeping mother AND someone’s dead pet without being the slightest bit mawkish. All the consonance in the second line I quoted is key—the p’s and k’s make the voice a little harsher, on the edge of wry. Betz sees how his mother’s failed resuscitation of the cryogenic kitty is nasty and crazy, and the speaker distances himself from it by emphasizing the act of remembering. He turns the temperature down without being ironic, though. If you loop back to the beginning you see his essential pose: “I want to say something profound / but have my fists deep in coat pockets and can’t make the appropriate gesture.” That is, I can’t or won’t tell you outright what this memory means but I can make you share my helpless sympathy.

The title of Taylor Mali’s memory poem tells you that his poignant recollection is more like Bishop’s: “The Moment I Looked Around the World and Realized it Was Not Me.” You are an I, / you are a Taylor, / you are one of them. The Jan Wagner poem translated by Chenxin Jiang, “Quince Pie,” is improvising on a similar tune. His emblems of memory are jars of quince jelly, still glowing in remembrance.

My “Concentric Grooves” (you knew I would get to my own memories eventually, didn’t you?) is most like the latter in its attempt to collapse time, to emphasize the persistence of what seems lost. My current writing project has me thinking about signals, communication, and reception, searching for metaphors that suggest how poems and readers interact. The sonnet in this issue is from a short series about listening to music as a teenager. Again, I suspect sound effects help, to whatever extent this poem succeeds; “Concentric Grooves” uses pararhyme but there’s lots of internal rhyme and alliteration too. I was aiming at the mind’s ear, wanting my words to catch there like a scrap of music. My memory-emblems are record albums. They work like Wagner’s quince jelly, preserving something ephemeral and then becoming delicious in their own right. Poems can be both records and talismans, too, although there’s no exact recipe for making the flavors work.

My family changed in 2011 and continues to change rapidly, which explains why I’m more vulnerable than usual to the manipulations of advertisers and bad Christmas carols. Poems such as Betz’s, though, are full of feeling, without being either heartwarming or freezer-burnt. And some bracing weather helps when you’re queasy from leftovers.

Lesley Wheeler is the author of Heterotopia, Heathen, and other books; her poetry appears in journals such as Slate, Poetry, and 32 Poems. She recently returned from a Fulbright Fellowship in Wellington, New Zealand to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, where she is the Henry S. Fox Professor of English. She blogs on poetry and community at

1 comment:

Deborah A. Miranda said...

Having grown up in a family more prone to frozen cat carcasses than Yuletide Cheer, I'm loving this column a whole lot. Nostalgia? No thanks! I save that for the future. Nice job, Lesley.