Short-lined sonnets

One relatively rare variation on the sonnet form involves very short lines. Meter may be faintly present or not at all in these poems, but line number/ structure/ rhyme look familiar. I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” a poem in this mode written late in her career and published in the New Yorker three weeks after her death in 1979.

Caught—the bubble                                 a
in the spirit level,                                      a
a creature divided;                                   b
and the compass needle                        a
wobbling and wavering,                          c
undecided.                                                b
Freed—the broken                                    c
thermometer's mercury                          d
running away;                                           e
and the rainbow-bird                               d
from the narrow bevel                            a
of the empty mirror,                                d
flying wherever                                        d
it feels like, gay!                                       e

The end rhyme is sometimes so slant that my way of marking it above could trigger fisticuffs among Bishop scholars. Less arguable is the structure: that “Caught–“/ “Freed–” parallelism marks the poem’s similarity to Petrarchan sonnets, in which an octave sets out a problem and a sestet develops or resolves it. Bishop inverts that scheme, arranging a turn after the first 6 lines. Bishop sometimes used “inversion,” a sexology term indicating gender role reversal, to encode what readers might now call queerness. The structure, that is, complements imagery of coming out of the closet. The great loves of Bishop’s life were women, not something she could be open about for most of her career.

I’ve taught this poem many times so I know there’s a lot more to say–a discussion of it can run QUITE a while. I’ve been revisiting “Sonnet” this week, though, as I prepare a short paper for a virtual symposium on the weekend of October 2nd, Sonnets from the American. I linked to the “schedule” page hoping you’ll check out how many amazing people are reading and speaking: Rosebud Ben-Oni, Kazim Ali, Meg Day, Kiki Petrosino, Diane Seuss, Patricia Smith, and many more. And it’s FREE–you just have to register. I’m a little worried about Zoom stamina–I don’t really want to miss any of it, but it’s a very full 2+ days! Still, I like the tight focus of this event and, more generally, I’m glad for these little intervals of literary community.

My paper will also cover a sequence by Adrienne Su, “Four Sonnets About Food.” I just read the book they’re collected in, Middle Kingdom, and spending time with it deepened my admiration of Su’s work, which is fabulous. Su’s short-lined poems follow a Shakespearean rhyme scheme and her metaphors are different than Bishop’s, but again, her deviation from the form actually seems MORE virtuoso than adhering to formula. Compression heats the lines to a boiling point.

An even tighter variation on the sonnet exists. Seymour Mayne calls it the “word sonnet”, but while I think they’re lovely, his work just isn’t in conversation with the sonnet form the way Su and Bishop are (Mayne’s word sonnets feel much more like haiku). I wrote my own sonnet with one-word lines, after many tries, but keeping the rhyme scheme; it’s in The State She’s In and also included below. I ended up calling the form “occluded” because I wanted to draw attention to what was missing. Being so looked at as a young woman made me intensely uncomfortable, but the way middle age brings invisibility wasn’t entirely welcome either. Maybe that’s a turn behind rather than within the poem.

I write sonnets so often that I joke about having a sonnet problem; my words will suddenly start slant-rhyming on me then I’m riding the volta and grabbing at closure perhaps sooner than is always good for the work. But it’s fun to experiment with a form that so many people recognize because of all the conversations it raises, AND the rebellions it makes possible (and visible). It’s also fun to turn my mind to a small critical problem like this one after swimming in a novel draft all summer. Smallness can be a respite, a way of organizing attention that otherwise keeps wandering toward the political horrorshow.

I voted early at the local registrar’s office the other day, another small good thing. Writing prompt: vote (if you’re in the U.S.), then compose a fourteen-line poem about voting. It doesn’t have to use meter or rhyme, but make sure it contains a volta around line nine, a turn toward something better.

Occulted Sonnet
 
You
look,
crook
head
awry
to
elude
my
 
gaze.
Nobody
sees
me,
these
days.

6 month birthday for THE STATE SHE’S IN (time does not exist)

I recently ordered a 2021 calendar–I favor a portable Moleskine number–but, with heavy-handed symbolism, the order keeps being delayed. I’m a planner by temperament and I SO wish I could anticipate my future doings again. Not possible. It’s all clouds.

For the near term, all a calendar-minded person can do is brainstorm short-term ways to mark the passage of time, because around here, the cooling air and spots of yellow at the tops of trees strongly imply that the fall equinox is near. I keep daily work rhythms, even on sabbatical. On Saturdays, we take walks somewhere outside of this small town, hiking in the woods if we can. I’m applying for writing-related opportunities that might bear fruit next spring or summer. Other people are desperately trying to layer multiple workdays on top of each other right now–work, homeschooling, other responsibilities–so feeling lost in blurry weeks means I’m getting off easy, but to a surprising degree, it’s still a stressor.

Here’s a small anniversary: my fifth poetry collection, The State She’s In, was published on March 17th, 2020, so if it were a baby, it would be a chubby little person rocking forward onto its hands and trying to figure out locomotion. I bought it flowers and arranged a photo shoot to celebrate the occasion. It actually IS a book about time, among other subjects–the history of my region but also the approach and arrival of my 50th birthday, an event that I could watch descending like Wile E. Coyote awaiting the anvil. Processing age and change, I wrote many poems that reference the dreaded number explicitly (as in “Fifty-Fifty”) or use 50 as a formal constraint: poems of 50 syllables, 50 words, 50 lines, and more. I’m sure much of that formal play is invisible. It worked, though. Attacking a number every which way gave me some control over its meaning. I wonder if I could do some version of that by writing poems about 2021? I refuse to give 2020 that honor.

Here’s the last poem in the book, published in Gettysburg Review but never online. “L” was a title I contemplated for the whole book (50, Lesley, Lexington); for this particular piece I researched events that happened in 1967, my birth year, as well as having a conversation about ambition with the mountain that looms over my town. The weirdest thing about the poem, though, is that all of its 50 lines are 50 characters long–a persnickety constraint you can’t even see without using a monospace font, which neither the magazine nor the book does. I might always have to hedge optimistic claims like “I’ve stopped counting”–nope, haven’t yet!–but that’s one of my aspirations, to let go of measure and comparison. To “avoid mirrors except the page” and spend these blurry days as best I can because everything ends sometime and I can’t, in fact, control when that is.

L
 
1967 was on fire: Apollo 1 waiting to launch / Jim
Morrison on Ed Sullivan stoking it higher / Mekong
Delta / Newark riot hurling out sparks / summer of
o sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock /
pulsar first glimpsed black hole first named / far
south Deception Island’s volcano in flames / while
an infancy rages / some recently extinguished soul
was slotted in my pigeonhole (Oppenheimer Coltrane
Magritte) / but I’m no reincarnate star not even a
meteor tail (Toklas) / just a minor cloud of space
dust reborn to squall anew / Four decades & change
accrue & a big birthday looms / half & half golden
jubilee 5-0 code for pigs closing in & also atomic
number of tin / Mystery heat rises to scald / What
is it I’m reaching for over this terrible wall / A
relocation / destination / permission for ignition
because beauty burns low / potential guttered long
ago / I don’t know / So I avoid mirrors except the
page and work / burn the fuel of myself in words /
program words to change this space & time / Recall
Cobain & Philip Seymour Hoffman dissolved to smoke
/ Does it even matter how in that year of our new-
born howl Lou Reed crooned heroin into the cradles  
/o it was a Warhol year surreal bananas / From my
room painted like late-in-the-daylily / I can gaze
across a blank tin roof pocked by finch claws past
snow-packed sockets of a desolate maple toward the
lavender brow of House Mountain that for this poem
let’s personify as Ambition / the blaze considered
discourteous to mention especially by women / Well
shouldn’t I be striving? / Talk to me Mountain / &
with a higher perspective than mine Mountain cries 
/ You are a conflagration / Adrenaline singes your     
capillaries / Let the anniversary of your ardor to                 
be born cool you like a shadow / Desire leads only               
to more desire even were your sororal motives pure              
and they are not / Mountain has spoken! / It meant
cease building with borrowed stones unless to lift
somebody else / message over bottle / O & hey says
Mountain one more thing / All poems may be ash but
some shelter small hot hopes / their seed swaddled
in earth’s velvet / What strikes me now like flint
on tinder is how talking to mountains or to you is
the same as talking to myself / just as impossible           
& just as hopeful / either / or / both / & / Maybe
we’re all alpine & none of us is / disconnection a  
gift of language we are supposed to hand back / No
presents please what’s yours is mine already / But    
come in & have a drink on me / Today’s everybody’s
birthday & I’ve stopped counting / well just about  

Hope, in spite of and because of

I felt really blue about dropping my youngest off for his second year of college, so I self-medicated by putting my head down and writing for long hours each day. The west coast on fire, more anti-Black violence, high infection rates–it’s not easy to pay attention and help in little ways without becoming self-destructively obsessed. Receiving the new issue of Kestrel, though–which contains an unexpected review of The State She’s In–is a big boost today. The review is a three-pager in a print journal so I can’t give you the whole thing, but Brittany Winland writes: “There is a particular resonance reading Wheeler’s collection in our present moment–with Confederate statues being toppled and Black Lives Matter protests energizing the country…The State She’s In throbs with danger: in everyday encounters like the Kroger check-out line, a racist ad in the newspaper, even deep inside the body susceptible to illness and pain…Wheeler’s willingness to examine and question herself with the same searing vision she aims at her uneasily-adopted state infuses the collection with an integrity that makes every damning observation that much more potent.” I especially loved that Winland heard my struggle to keep an eye on a better future: “Wheeler’s wonderfully prickly, unfailingly honest collection [is] also, ultimately, a hopeful one…These poems suggest that a state of hope–in spite of and because of all our grief, anger, and shame–is a deliberate and necessary place to live.” (Winland writes graceful, punchy sentences herself, doesn’t she?) I feel really lucky to have received such a generous reading.

In other good news, I’m getting ready for a virtual bookstore reading from my novel Unbecoming “at” A Novel Idea in Philadelphia this Weds, September 16th, at 6:30 pm. You can register for free here. I’ll read for no more than 15 minutes, answer questions, and of course you can order the book from this great indie bookstore to be mailed, or, if you’re local, picked up. (There’s a totally optional button for small donations, too, if you have the mood and the means–it’s not easy to be running a small business right now and word is that the sales bookstores enjoy from these events are much lower than from the live versions.) I’d love to have a few friends in virtual attendance. I had timed it so I could give my kids a visit around Cameron’s birthday, but I’m glad it can still happen in a different way.

Thanks as well to Thrush for including a poem of mine in their September issue: “Tone Problem.” I wrote it in April and submitted it in June, which is faster than I usually work, but it’s small and charm-like, with references to spring moons that I suspect were triggered by a post from Jeannine Hall Gailey, who is always attentive to those cycles. It felt especially hard then NOT to write about this world-changing pandemic, but I didn’t feel sure that my own experiences would be all that interesting to anybody, especially a couple of years from now, so I kept trying to approach it from an angle. In this case, I focused on how deeply surreal it felt to watch the natural world coming to life, gorgeously indifferent to human crisis.

Finally, that panel I moderated for the Outer Dark Symposium last month has just been released as a podcast. Called “Weird Metamorphosis or Life Change: Where the Body Becomes the Setting,” it ranged over genres–Weird, sf, body horror–and how gender, sexuality, disability, race, and many other factors affect what transformation means. Change isn’t all tentacles and violation. Sometimes it’s what we need.