Heterotopia by Lesley Wheeler, Barrow Street Press, 2010. $16.95
Reviewed by Julie L. Moore
Heterotopia, the third book of poems written by Lesley Wheeler, winner of last year’s Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, brings to life intriguing and idiosyncratic Liverpool, England. In the title poem, Wheeler defines “heterotopia” itself as “physical and fantasmatic, the room one glimpses in a mirror (an idea of / a city derived from stories).” And what we get in this strikingly original collection—at turns, verse both formal and free—is poetry that’s part history, part maternal narrative, and—fully recognizing the influence of British lore in her life and in literature—part legend. For all those reasons, the book makes for an immensely satisfying read.
Expertly arranged into four sections, “Elsewhere,” the first part, explores the controversial and noteworthy history of Liverpool; next comes “The Calderstones,” a tightly crafted crown of sonnets that depicts the juxtapositions inherent in that city—space-wise, time-wise, and people-wise; “Legends” follows, which traces her mother’s chronology from her birth to her departure for America (as the Beatles are emerging); and the absorbing final part, “The Forgetting Curve,” weaves together the motifs of memory, language, and story to complete the sense of place the book strives to create.
In “Elsewhere,” Wheeler presents Liverpool in four basic time periods: during slave trading, during the industrial revolution, during the early twentieth century, and finally, during the sixties when her mother leaves for America. Always, a feeling of displacement pervades the poems. Wheeler seems to feel like an “other,” teaching and living in Virginia as she does, a state that “does not care for [her]”; having grown up in New Jersey, which “does not miss [her]”; and having roots in Liverpool which “does not recognize [her]” (“Poem without a Landscape”). Like the female slave who suffers on the Liverpudlian slave ship in “Heterotopia,” Wheeler herself seems “alone in her language, her thirst,” dwelling in “[a]n other place.” Indeed, later on in the sixth section of that title poem, Wheeler says, “I have no right to write, / no visa to any clouded / country. A poem / is a heterotopia / of citizenship.” Knowing as we do by this point that “heterotopia” is both a real and surreal place, both a place of escape and a place that “enables utopia elsewhere,” how fitting it is, then, that poetry itself, indeed, the collection itself, becomes a beautiful heterotopia where, like a “real place,” “several / impossible sites are juxtaposed” (“Heterotopia”).
And so the līver bird, Liverpool’s mythological, cormorant-like mascot (“Concerning the Līver Bird”) intersects with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who can’t stand the sight of a poor mother nursing her filthy infant (“Mr. Hawthorne Peeks at Me Shelf Kit, c. 1854”); the Blitz intersects with the Toxteth riots (“Forged” and “Vronhill Street in Liverpool 8”); the Brothers Lumière intersect with family pictures (“Heterotopia” and “Twilight Sleep”); and the desire to belong intersects with loss everywhere. As Wheeler writes, “If I had a family tree, it would / be pocked and charred but rooted here, on a street / that no longer exists” (“Vronhill Street in Liverpool 8”).
The book’s elaborate motifs are also begun here: the poverty of Liverpool—one finds mold or soot on walls and skin, babies who are undernourished, and parents who are starving—and fairy tales, which pop up like Queen Anne’s Lace, to remind us that a “girl / might safely climb into the leaping / flames, now rinsed and mythical” (“Forged”). Wheeler has an ear for the language, too, as she adeptly weaves in British idioms and colloquialisms, creating an authentic and trustworthy voice.
As “Elsewhere” closes with the “few carved stones and axe-heads / surviv[ing] Neolithic Toxteth,” the second section, “The Calderstones” begins, “Six sandstone megaliths slouch in a ruddy ring . . . ” (sonnet 1). Such a fluent transition is remarkable and represents the book’s dynamic cohesiveness. And as Wheeler works her way through the sonnet crown, her rhymes are innovative and surprising, yet so well crafted that they seem inevitable. She moves us from the stones in Calderstone Park to the people who’ve been there, such as the family with four children to feed and the scholarship girls from Calder High, one of whom was her own mother, who “practiced elocution, so / she would not sound Liverpudlian. A ‘t’ / evicted the ‘r’ at the end of ‘wha,’ no / ‘ayes’ survived, and any judy with sense / would lift her scoured face and apply the past tense” (sonnet 5).
More complex characters walk through the sonnets, such as the rag-and-bone man in sonnet 7, with his inarticulate yet decipherable call, “Anny ur-gar, bols, buns” (surely an image, if ever there were one, of language’s wondrous ability to communicate meaning despite its limitations); the aunt who’s homeless yet steals from the very brother who gives her shelter (sonnet 9); and Wheeler’s uncle, who gives her a tour of the city, pointing out “where Matthew Arnold snuffed it” (sonnet 13). Lively and lovingly etched, the people in Wheeler’s poems are also heroic; we learn, for instance, that her grandmother checked her father out of the hospital where the doctors were starving him to hasten his death and brought him home where “she emptied bedpans, washed his sheets, / worked in the pawnshop, kept her father’s books” (sonnet 11). By the time the crown ends, we, too, feel as if we have driven with the uncle and toured the entire the city.
In the book’s third section, “Legends,” Wheeler follows the chronology of her mother’s life, from birth (“Split, 1940”) to her flight to America (“Dressing Down, 1962”). Devoid of sentimentality and cliché, Wheeler’s poems about her mother’s childhood are so particular in their detail and original in their insights that each poem becomes a little legend unto itself—of bombings and prostitution, of births and fairies, of snow and roller skates, and as in “The Residue, 1947,” of bathwater and pies:
The bathwater, used three times, remembers
heat but does not feel it anymore. The tin tub
in the kitchen swallows the fourth child whole,
the little one who likes to watch the dirt float
from the grooves of his knees, the linty pockets
between his toes. Bubbles cluster in islands.
His mind is wordless but his stomach talks
to the apple-raisin pie cooling nearby. September,
you are a sad mood. The pie remembers summer,
warm and sweet, but does not feel it anymore.
As the poem continues on, the clean kids play checkers and read, while the youngest sits in the tub and his mother pours in hot water from the kettle, then washes him. At the poem’s end,
The tub must be dragged
to the garden, a whole month speckling the suds,
time washed away as it ought to be,
off their bodies, returned to the ground.
With poems like this one, Wheeler stretches far beyond Liverpool, as the beauty of her language and the concrete details of her descriptions speak to the human experience. Truly, this book is epic in scope.
In the final section, “The Forgetting Curve,” a title shared by the book’s last poem, Wheeler harkens back to “Twilight Sleep,” in the book’s first section, where she notes,
Awakening is touching a candle-
wick with a match-tip: a burning smell,
some flickering light, the little roar
of chemistry. You cannot remember it later.
Working out the memory motif, she incarnates that curve of forgetfulness with a child on a swing, perhaps disproving that “nineteenth century-Prussian who discovered / the exponential nature of forgetting” and “wrote that metaphors are insufficient / to the process of memory.” I will remember well the girl “pumping now, leaning in / and back again in the rhythm that makes a swing / travel.” I will remember, too, Wheeler’s invocation in “Oral Culture,” when she beckons, “Listen to the foam of my voice and I will pour it for you, / all the tiny stories in one intoxicating stream, / catching each other’s sparkle, / now, before the taste disappears.” For indeed, it is that voice she does pour for us, telling the stories of her heritage vividly, as if she were her mother, the one who had lived through the blitz and the Beatles, herself.
Julie L. Moore is the author of Slipping Out of Bloom (WordTech Editions) and the chapbook, Election Day (Finishing Line Press). Moore is a Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of the Rosine Offen Memorial Award from the Free Lunch Arts Alliance in Illinois, the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize from Ruminate, and the Judson Jerome Poetry Scholarship from the Antioch Writers' Workshop. Learn more about her work at www.julielmoore.com.