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.