Book Review

Heterotopia by Lesley Wheeler, Barrow Street Press, 2010. $16.95

Reviewed by Kathleen Eull

What do poetry and philosophy have in common?    Perhaps more than you would think.  In her poetry collection Heterotopia, Lesley Wheeler takes us straight to a rare intersection of poetry and utopia by building upon a theme most often seen in the disciplines of philosophy and cultural studies.  The result is one of the most original and provocative collections to appear in a long while.  Wheeler uproots our sense of continuity in part by playing with the non-linear nature of memory as part of a narrative process which both disrupts time and heightens our perception of it.  Hope struggles alongside a growing and often grappling Liverpool for a space not only to interrogate the past, but also to escape it and to reimagine the self.
This is not the first time the concept of heterotopia has been applied to art or to Liverpool. In 2008, the city of Liverpool celebrated its 800th anniversary. As part of the events to commemorate this anniversary, the Tate Liverpool mounted an exhibition titled Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde, playing on the infamous statement by Allen Ginsberg upon his 1965 visit that “Liverpool is at the present moment the consciousness of the human universe.”(Grunenberg and Knifton 9) In the companion book for that exhibition made of up of essays capturing Liverpool at critically formative moments in time, as well as the art that made up the exhibition, Foucault’s term heterotopia is used to describe how various conditions and moments coalesced to locate in the city of Liverpool itself a kind of creative forge.

Most of us are familiar with the term utopia as a perfect place or society, but one of the primary distinctions for Foucault between utopias and heterotopias is that utopias are unreal spaces whereas heterotopias are “actually localizable.” (Foucault 178)  They are active manifestations and may contain mechanisms which attempt to sort out or contain elements of “crisis” or “deviation.”   Between utopias and heterotopias, Foucault says “…there must be a kind of mixed, intermediate experience, that would be the mirror” which both places and reveals. (Foucault 179) If according to Utopian Studies scholar Tom Moylan, “Utopia negates the contradictions in a social system by forging visions of what is not yet realized in theory or practice” (Moylan 1),  then perhaps heterotopia might be seen as a layered or shifting just now, a simultaneity of spaces,  or as Grunenberg and Knifton write in the essay for the Liverpool exhibition, “…that place itself is both everywhere and nowhere at once.”(Grunenberg and Knfiton 36) Wheeler uses Foucault’s six principles of heterotopia as the grounding thematic principles and problematic upon which to build this collection, further revealing the discontinuities and distortions of a personal history as it hinges upon and is informed by the mercurial history of Liverpool and reveals a forward longing or hope. While the only place Wheeler deals with Foucault head on is in the title poem “Heterotopia,” the very structure of the volume is an attempt to place memory, historical and personal, inherited and experienced, and remove the barriers which isolate time and experience by showing how these struggle to occupy the same space—how each one “mirrors” in Foucault’s terms. “The mirror functions as a heterotopia in the sense that it makes this place I occupy at the moment I look at myself in the glass both utterly real, connected with the entire space surrounding it, and utterly unreal…” (Foucault 179) Wheeler uses a variety of techniques in creating this mirror poetically, recognizing that heterotopias both mirror and are themselves mirrors.

Wheeler’s Heterotopia is divided into four sections.  Appropriately, the first of the four sections is titled “Elsewhere.”  Comprised of eight poems, it includes the title poem which pulls key elements from Foucault’s essay and constructs them almost as a personalized found poem as well as a thesis on the process of this collection.  With it, we begin our plunge into Liverpool. Beginning with the moment of that famous visit by Allen Ginsberg and moving poem by poem, the history of Liverpool begins to unfurl before us, and embedded within it is the speaker’s own ambivalent relationship with the city as a place of both birth and exile.    Place becomes embedded in poem:

heterotopia: enables utopia elsewhere (slave trade); physical and fantasmatic, the room one glimpses in a mirror (an idea of a city derived from stories); sediment of meaning (ill-drained marshlands, low cliffs of glacial till); in a real place several impossible sites are juxtaposed; whenever I need an elsewhere (boarding school/honeymoon/prison); slices of time preserved (museum, library); steamship (no civilization without boats) (8).

In an effort to create that mirror and the sense of estrangement implied by Foucault, Wheeler’s poems become like Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, collecting found images in a narrative both personal and historical.  Cornell’s boxes, with their mix of fragments, ephemera, and scraps of the past may seem assembled exclusively to preserve the past, but in his very method of salvaging the forgotten and placing objects together there is plasticity—a forging of new relationships among memory objects and a refashioning of the past into something new; creating new worlds or at a minimum, new relationships to an existing world. Instead of Cornell’s found objects, Wheeler gives us language images of the inherited city:  Liverpool of the 1960s, bombed out Liverpool, slave-trading Liverpool—glorious port of the past built in part on human trafficking and the worst violations of human dignity and incongruously the birth of one’s own family and history. Here is Liverpool as curiosity, repeatedly housed in time beneath or behind the glass or across the theater proscenium to allow the reader a closer look.

Look down, one world inside the next
warehouse, museum, glass
display case, and the smallest box:
a diorama Derby House
where doll-size Wrens push ladders about,
thumb pushpins into maps.
Here in the “Dungeon” they fight the real war.
An analyst dreams in the gaps
She continues building world within world, the fact of history sitting next to, falling into, the personal:
between transmissions from the Enigma
cipher machine. She believes
the Brits will win, that tacks are U-boats,
that seven feet of concrete
means she’s safe. She knows her brother
bunks in a distant convoy,
unsleeping yet alive, hating
the stink of the sailor above,

the shift of the ocean beneath. History
is small and far away
but it was then too, just as I
am small and far away to you. (5)

Like Cornell, who created his worlds in framed and glass boxes, Wheeler repeatedly revisits the images of lens, camera, glass and frame—the idea of things encased or set apart for examination. The glass in this second poem of the sequence (and the frame in 6) establish place at the same time as they provide us with a way to separate from the moment and the events and allow us to witness from a distance in an incredibly skillful poetic use of the concept of estrangement or alienation. In Wheeler’s poetry this technique of estrangement or alienation functions in part by keeping the reader actively engaged with the content rather than merely being swept up in the lyric. The poet keeps us aware of the distance.
In the third poem in the sequence with its references to Alexandre Promio and the Lumière Brothers, all early pioneers of cinematography, we are twice removed from the reality of historical Liverpool by viewing the city first through the poet and then the camera lens:

Enter with Alexandre Promio and you encounter a lamppost
in some two-tone windup industrial Narnia, St. George’s Hall
tilting back its toothy head in approval.  No one but you is lost:

vans hustle by with their elbows out and dryad men, full
of mutton and commerce, stomp through in gray overcoats.
Welcome to Lime Street in 1896, filmed on the diagonal—
The Brothers Lumière sought the effect of depth. (6)

As in looking through someone else’s glasses, we must continually readjust and refocus our view as we encounter new depth of historical narrative as well as the personally historical.  

Titled “The Calderstones,” section two is a numbered 14-sonnet sequence so skillful that it stands out as one of the highlights of this collection.  We begin that sequence as tourists standing in front of the six large stone remains of this dolmen, a type of ancient tomb or burial chamber:

Six sandstone megaliths slouch in a ruddy ring,
almost forgotten, veiled by weeds, housed
behind some misty glass.  Just look at the things:
they yearn to loom awesomely, but cows
have chafed their shabby hides on them, cascades
of soot have discolored them, and resting men
have traced their bootsoles there with worn-down blades.
These rocks, older than the hulks at Stonehenge,
once brace a burial chamber hexed by loops,
cups, spirals, arcs. They lost their first site that lanes
could be widened. The mound itself was scooped
up as fertilizer. Liverpool shrugs and shrines
topple—are built again as a hobbyist’s quirk.
It was a mistake to arrange them in a circle. (21)

Again, we find ourselves with the speaker squarely behind the “misty glass” erected now in so many tourist places—keeping us apart, divided from our human history, witnessing not just the past but the encroachment of “progress” and modernity. In Wheeler’s adept hands, the prehistoric past becomes encased, the six stones becoming something akin to Joseph Cornell’s found objects. They threaten to remain nostalgic figures except for Wheeler’s skill in building on those stones as a poetic foundation to explore the various histories within that one place—ancient dolmen, housing for the affluent, park and all-girls school. She builds the history of the place course by course as if beginning with those six stones. The past moves to the present, each layer progressing, each sonnet linked one to another with the closing line or idea becoming the opening of the next. The entire sequence deftly moves from the destruction and want which followed the war to a discussion of history replaced with the closer concept of heritage—things inherited or their loss or rejection as a cost of moving forward.

In the poem “Widdershins” which opens the third section titled “Legends,” Lesley Wheeler uses familiar images from the cycle of the seasons in a distinctly unconventional manner:

The year turns in reverse, nature
unsaying her own hard words.
Low dirty snowbanks strive
to remember lightness.  Puffed
with nostalgia, they shrug off
the soot, divide into crystal
particles.  Flakes leap
skyward.  Ripe clouds inhale
them, dissolve into wisps.
Leaves jump, flushing,
onto wet branch hooks.
Look up at the green fruit
withdrawing from your hand,
shrinking as spring
yanks up its lacy knickers.
Will the petals back
into cool sheaths, your own
fleshy decades receding
into airy notions.  Watch
the tree skin grow thin
as your grandmother’s words spin
into a high pure cry.  Every
pitch that roughened and fell
can rise again.  Stories can,
with a damp sigh,
dissipate into sense. (39)

The poet’s language is filled with inversions and continual reversals. The last lingering snowbanks rise instead of shrinking. Flakes of snow “leap skyward.” Her language is nimble and lyrical, but she unsettles and reverses the customary sequence until the reader, like the stories in the closing lines, comes to the end with a sigh in a place both intuitively known and yet distinctly alien.  She warps time and space in order to create that cognitive distance that allows the reader to see something else within its passage.

As important as the devices Wheeler employs to take the reader into her heterotopia of language is the role of memory in the collection.  Many thinkers have acknowledged the role of memory in art and social resistance, including Adorno, Marcuse and Camus.  Among those currently talking about the role of memory are Utopian Studies scholars; specifically Raffaella Baccolini writes about the role memory plays in utopian process: “As Utopia is a process, so memory needs to be perceived as a process, not fixed, or reachable, but in progress.” (Baccolini 172) Memory in poetry is not new; however, in constructing her poetic heterotopia, Wheeler goes beyond memory as a poetic theme and very deliberately and consciously acknowledges the importance of storytelling and the role of remembering (and conversely, forgetting) in remaking in a way which brings cultural meaning forward, beyond the personal and into the poetic process itself. Wheeler recognizes that “a poem is a heterotopia of citizenship.” (8) The poet escapes the twin pitfalls of nostalgia and melancholia.  What she reveals is an expatriotic longing and a feminist forward hope. Weaving among the poems are the recognizable themes of self-transposition, alienation, escape and juxtaposition as here in “Sunday Afternoon in Liverpool, 1950.” 

I know how to float away,
how to glance down at my lonely form
and, passing through wall dulled to mist
fly to a world of heat and color,
Egypt sometimes, or just an English meadow.
One day I’ll knock the coal soot from my shoes,
bleach my hair, and lift my body too. (47)

Repeatedly, we meet those existing in two worlds, whether the speaker is a slave “alone in her language, her thirst, her dysentery” as in poem #4 in the “Heterotopia” sequence, or a girl on a swing in the final poem, “The Forgetting Curve,” tethered to one existence even as she reaches for another. They are caught between tradition and transition, occupying a different reality simultaneously in order to survive this one. Wheeler’s poems poignantly reveal the Mersey girl and the later young woman escaping the confines of their lives—already leaving by living in a world within a world.  We see her tethered “here” and moving “there.”   Now and Moylan’s utopian “Not Yet.”  Foucault’s near and far.
Again in “The Forgetting Curve” which closes the collection:

The first line on the graph falls almost plumb
with just a little forward kick at its base,
the kind a child makes one summer dusk,

Her glassy brown head at rest against the rope
and the ball of one foot thrust once against the ground.
If a magpie lights on the garden wall, she might
Look up, and the wind might pluck a fragrance
from a blossoming bough.  The next line is stronger,
pulling against its knot at the top of the figure,
As if the child is pumping now, leaning in
and bank again in the rhythm that makes a swing
travel.  It teaches a girl that if she dips

into the past, over the weedy paving stones,
the leggy pansies dimming, she will rock
with corresponding force into the future.
The nineteenth-century Prussian who discovered
the exponential nature of forgetting
wrote that metaphors are insufficient
to the process of memory: beaten paths,
graven images.  He proposed a formula,
sure that ideas endure, the way we infer

stars below the horizon—the universe
goes on even if we cannot see
it shine.  He tested this by memorizing
poems.  The girl on the swing wants to try
this hypothesis.  Maybe the sky
looks different  past this curve of the earth.  Maybe
the stars are flowers torn from a branch—
suspended in the blue breeze as notes
on a staff, preserved until they can be sung. (70)

This collection is so engaging precisely because the heterotopia of Liverpool has within it such striking similarities to post-industrial cities many of us know, and because it speaks to the value of knowing the past in the heterotopias of our own lives—the power of identity in transformation and resistance—and the inescapable way it exists alongside the present and informs any future. It seizes the imagination even more for anyone with an interest in both the utopian vision and poetry and a concern for the apparent failure of the utopian impulse to manifest in poetry.  Whether or not this volume succeeds is not nearly as important as Wheeler’s willingness to take her craft into a territory that has largely been avoided, minimized or dismissed as irrelevant to poetry or vice versa.  This is a bold step forward.   If any justification were needed, it may well be enough that the heterotopian space of Liverpool continues to stir the creative imagination of the curators at the Tate Liverpool and was the impetus for the hugely important companion book by Grunenberg and Knifton. Now this solidly fascinating collection by Wheeler continues a vital conversation. Indeed, it would seem Liverpool’s “moment” has lasted decades longer than Ginsberg could have ever expected.

Works Cited

Raffaella Baccolini,  “Finding Utopia in Dystopia: Feminism, Memory, Nostalgia and Hope," in Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming, Ed. Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini, Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2007.

Michel Foucault,  “Different Spaces,” in Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology,  Ed. James D. Faubion, New York: The New Pres, 1994.

Christoph Grunenberg and Robert Knifton, Forward to Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Gard, Ed. Christoph Grunenberg and Robert Knifton, Liverpool University Press with Tate Liverpool, 2007.

Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible, New York: Methuen, Inc., 1986.

Kathleen Eull holds a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  She has served as an advisory editor for Emergency Press and her work has appeared in The Emergency Almanac, Echoes, KNOCK and pith.   In addition, an interview with New York based poet Scott Zieher appears in his second book IMPATIENCE (Emergency Press, 2009).  Kathleen currently serves as the Co-Chair & Event Coordinator for the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books.