A review of
Paperback: U of Iowa Press, 2012.
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Reviewed by J. Ted Voigt
I used to think that words had something to do with information. I didn’t know quite how it worked, but I knew that when I saw words strung together the result would be a gain of information. After reading Meme by Susan Wheeler, I know some things I didn’t know before, but I’m still not sure if it had anything to do with information. I’ve always heard that poetry is supposed to “show, not tell” but I have never seen that idea on display as powerfully as Wheeler does in her new collection.
I get really excited to crack open a new book of poetry, so when I got email saying the book was available, I cleared my afternoon and devoured the book. It took me less than an hour, so I spent the rest of my afternoon trying to figure out what I had just read. Don’t get me wrong; Susan Wheeler is brilliant, and this book will make you rethink the role of language in your life.
I knew that a meme was an image or video passed around the Internet, a series of jokes that all work from the same theme or idea, but what I didn’t know was that the word meme actually exists IRL. A meme can be anything, as long as it’s repeated enough that people begin to recognize it as a repetition. In language, we would call them clichés, and I’m still not really sure what the difference is between a cliché and a meme, but I do know that as a poet I try to avoid them. Actually, I abhor them.
So when I started reading the sequence entitled, The Maud Poems, the first few lines almost scared me off.
two shakes of a lamb’s tail
She was a real stickler.
Well, I couldn’t get it for the life of me.
The Maud Poems read like a script where all but one of the character’s lines have been deleted. It also reads like an index of colloquialism, but, and this is a big but, it works. Wheeler is not describing a place or a person but immersing you in it, leaving you to do the describing for yourself. We don’t learn who Maud is, we don’t even have much of a narrative, but we meet her, we walk in her slippers, and in the process Susan Wheeler helps us to learn how to read again.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com