Credo/ for the new year

Forest view: ranks of slender trunks shoot up vertically in a bid to catch a bit of direct light. The rare anomaly, the difficult-to-spot wolf tree, spreads its limbs horizontally, luxuriously, because it occupied the meadow before all the others grew up around it. I learned the term reading Paula Meehan’s poem “The Wolf Tree” in Painting Rain, where it becomes an emblem for how the past survives in the present—all times coexist always, if you know how to look. Her instructions for finding wolf trees remind me of practicing art or meditation: scanning for a wolf tree involves a counterintuitive process of relaxing one’s focus, becoming fully present, and waiting “until the moment when your attention snags—”

Paula Meehan’s poetry is a wolf tree for me in the woods of contemporary verse. I know it’s better than much of what’s out there, but I’m not jumping to claim that it’s the best and the strongest and should crowd other poetry out of my attention. I just know that when I stare at it, it spreads out branches. It helps me see the forest in a new way, in psychedelic layers.

Meehan came across the idea of the wolf tree while reading “Slashes” in Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins. Adrienne Rich’s poetry is enormously important to Meehan and to me, but I read it most intensely in the eighties and early nineties, and my attention never snagged on this 2004 collection. I barely understand “Slashes,” really, although I can reason my way through it with the help of Rich’s notes. The title connotation of violence haunts the poem, but she directs our attention first to the slash as punctuation mark used in dates. Various images of connection and division throughout the poem suggest the strange duality of the slash: it can mean “or” (refusing to choose, setting up equivalence) and “and” (forging a joint between terms). From the middle of the poem (WordPress keeps erasing the spacing, but the words come through, at least):

Slash across lives   memory pursues its errands
a lent linen shirt pulled unabashedly over her naked shoulders
cardamom seed bitten in her teeth
watching him chop onions
words in the air   segregation/partition/apartheid
vodka/cigarette smoke   a time
vertigo on subway stairs
Years pass   she pressing the time into a box
not to be opened   a box
quelling pleasure and pain

You could describe something like this
in gossip   write a novel   get it wrong

   In wolf tree, see the former field

For Rich, in this poem at least, the past can be evoked but not told, witnessed but not explained.  I appreciate the ethics of that position but the poem doesn’t help me live. Rather than being beautifully warned against misrepresenting experience, I’d rather have a clumsy explanation of how to get it right.

I talked to Paula Meehan in Dublin last August but ran out of time to look for wolf trees on the grounds of Malahide Castle, where she first spotted one. A week or so later found myself in Coole Park, Yeats territory, trying for a quiet moment in the woods as my kids smashed their noisy way towards the lake. I never got my timeless interval of blissful communion, but some quality of the light snagged my attention and I snapped one picture of the lit-up greenery. Long after we downloaded the photos and arrived home, I scrolled through, chose this one for desktop wallpaper, blew it up on my screen, and finally saw it: a wolf tree, right in the middle of the shot.Coole park wolf tree


Maybe some uncanny force guided my eye and hand; maybe I liked the angle because I unconsciously perceived the break in symmetry; maybe the whole thing’s a coincidence. Barring a personalized revelation courtesy of some God/ fairy spirit, I’m choosing “and” over “or,” horizontal over vertical. I believe not in a higher power, but in other powers: not in kneeling and praying, but in watching and listening. Light is still/always everywhere.

Book giveaway

Want a free signed copy of Heathen, Heterotopia, or The Receptionist? Email me at wheelerlm at wlu dot edu and tell me you’ll review one for Amazon. Let me know which you’ll review; which one you want (it can be the one you’ll post about or a different book); and where to send it (I’m happy to send a signed copy as a gift to a friend, if you’d rather).

And as always, I can send you a desk copy if you’re considering adopting one of these books for a course, or you can contact the press directly. I really enjoy visiting classes and book clubs, in person if travel’s cheap enough, by Skype if not.






Poetry, conversation, and more small appliances

I wonder if I’m totally deluded in thinking of poetry as intensely intimate, emotionally and intellectually heightened conversation. As a reader I experience deep, demented, introvert’s friendship with Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, James Merrill, and other poets whose work I’ve spent many, many hours with. Whenever I’ve loved the literary personality projected by a living writer and then met that author, I’ve felt an instant and slightly eerie camaraderie. But that’s crazy, right? Those people don’t know me. As a poet, I love to hear from readers who like my poems, feel a connection to me through them, but I could imagine that phenomenon being creepy, too. Poetry can come from some deep interior place but it’s never cleanly autobiographical or even quite trustworthy. It’s art.

But then a real conversation happens, in verse, and I think yes, poetry IS communication, at least partly. Even when the formal parameters are strict, poetic talk has a radically open up-all-night cosmic associativeness. My collaborations in loose sapphics with Scott Nicolay felt like that–an exercise in friendship, a game of one-upmanship, but also a wild, sprawling gab across geographical and other kinds of distance. Scott and I were friends in college but he moved a couple of thousand miles away, to New Mexico. We’re both parents and teachers who write obsessively in our few spare hours, so we have few blocks of time for visits or phone calls. How else but in poems can we sit under the stars together and just talk?

Last week a former student sent me an email chain from 2009. Adam used to ask for appointments via haiku. He graduated, went to teach in Japan, and randomly 5-7-5’ed me again months later. I responded in a sort of renga about May at Washington and Lee that began:

Madras, seersucker,
flipflops and skimpy floral
dresses everywhere

I’ve never seen so many
well-coiffed hungover children

I’d forgotten it, like I’ve forgotten 99% of the emails I’ve ever sent, because talk is meant to be ephemeral. Something precipitates out of the reaction and settles in you—friendship as sediment, where is this metaphor going?—but I mean that the details of talk evaporate while its effects survive. It’s vital to my happiness that books of poetry exist, that the art has permanence, but I’m also delighted to zing it around in play, focused on the exchange, not the outcome.

Which doesn’t mean that poetic conversation is particularly light. Last summer I blogged about a bad situation in my workplace here; it inspired me to buy an office mini fridge so I could hide as needed from a difficult colleague. (I just checked to see if mini fridge was one word, two, or hyphenated–inconclusive–but I found the Urban Dictionary definition—oh my.) I told Ellen Mayock, another colleague and a friend, about this strategy; she had done the same thing in response to a similar situation. She’s a Hispanist and only lately began publishing creative writing, but she wrote a poem in response, excerpted below:

I didn’t inherit the white, cold box that kept a college boy’s beers cold for four years;
I went after it.  I knew it needed a new owner, and I knew I needed a hole in which to hide.
I drove far out into the county to buy a used, four-year old mini-fridge for fifteen dollars.
I brought it to my office, plugged it in,
and knew that I could hide out in that white, cold box for months,
years, if necessary.

She goes on to describe the appliance as a “bright little coffin.” I was so moved when Ellen read this recently at a lecture, “Gender Schrapnel in the Workplace”—it was a public validation I didn’t expect but suddenly realized I needed badly—I promptly wrote the following and sent it to her in an email. Ellen’s poem can stand alone so it’s worth saving for a magazine; mine feels like an occasional piece that can’t really be divorced from context, a gambit as much as a poem. So here it is, contextualized and blogged, and now you and I, reader, whoever you are, are in a secret silent radically open cosmically associative up-all-night poetic conversation.

Mini fridge
My mini fridge doesn’t have the sordid history of your
mini fridge, being purchased new from the politically abhorrent
big-box store, while yours is retired like some albino greyhound
from the rigors of cooling college-guy beers in the county
for years. Mine does currently house (in addition to one jug
of goddess dressing, some shriveled carrots, and a boxed-up
duck leg) three Pilsner Urquells from the six I lugged in
for a five o’clock workshop with my internship students, both
twenty-two, I swear. I’d forgotten an opener but senior men
tend to have them on keychains, so that was OK, until they left
and I stayed here in the office eyrie I rarely venture from, alone
and thirsty. In some sense, I guess, all mini fridges are sisters,
coffins for sealed beverages and other tightly-capped deeply chilled
things, women, thin-skinned plaintiffs, whatever noun floats your
leftovers. Your “Gender Shrapnel” performance—I won’t
call it a lecture because that’s a boring form, in my generally disregarded
opinion, and your presence was too warm, occasionally flaring blue-
hot like when you minced across the stage in imaginary heels—
was a sort of open-air bonfire, controlled but wild too.
I need to get outside more. I am more frightened of that stupid
man downstairs than I ought to be. Thank you for owning
that stage and holding up a mirror to my symbolically small
meekly-humming sleeping dog  of a self-defense appliance.