A while ago (o.k., two years, actually….) I received a collection of poetry through the mail from Barrow Street Press. I tucked it into my bag and started reading it while waiting for a dental appointment, and afterwards I finished it in my car. Every so often I sighed and raised my head, squirming around to look out the windows, yearning to see someone I knew so that I could dash after them, grab them by the lapels and say, “listen, just listen to this..!” Since then, this gem has sat on a corner of my desk, occasionally swamped by other stuff, and every time I tidy up I find it and think, “gosh–darn it,” (or words to that effect), “I’ve got to tell everyone about this book!”
Now, I realize my response to Lesley Wheeler’s extraordinary Heterotopia (2010) may be more visceral than that felt by the average reader, given that I am an immigrant (“Oh hyphenated you, the chorus mocks..”), struggling to dispell feelings of yearning and dislocation, my home-tongue subsiding, leaving the room of my mouth “full of ghosts,” (Her Voice in My Mouth), and that my forebears, too, spent a lot of time with Oxo cubes, tea-bags and boiled cabbage, and queued for baths in tin tubs in front of coal fires after a hard day’s graft in factories or down mines. And I’m sure, too, now and then with their nippers, it became their “duty to beat them into appetites” (The Calderstones). Wheeler’s point of departure and return is Liverpool, her space of transformation and revelation, her ‘heteroropia’ to paraphrase Foucault – a city built, like so many in the UK, on the backs of slavery, colonial oppression, and industrial bounty, and a stepping stone to the new world for many in the working class. “If I had a family tree, it would / be pocked and charred but rooted here, on a street / that no longer exists. / … I would belong / to it whether it wanted me or not,” she writes in ‘Vronhill Street in Liverpool, 8’ and though her longer poems consider the wider sweep of history, it is in familial portraits that her revelatory style excels. “Parents are inscrutable, their lives / all legend and anecdote. They start of as gods but their power dwindles as fewer of us believe in them” (Gifts, 1946), because as we age we take their place, and who hasn’t had a sister, or an aunt, or an ancestor who excelled at tart pragmatism?: “The gallbladder is slight as a teaspoon /… for all the bitterness / it hoards. She had hers out at twenty-two. / Never any patience for woe, that one.”
The intent and architecture of Wheeler’s poetry is ambitious, but it stays aloft because her language is neither abstract nor obtuse; her tactile exactitude produces a clarity and wisdom that is all too rare. I’ve got dibs on the following lines from her poem, ‘Twilight Sleep’, which I intend to quote in an essay I’ve just completed about motherhood, so if anyone else wants them, paws off!
“Books say there are good births, but I
don’t believe it. All beginnings hurt
someone: the animal, the ground. So much
to witness and all of it slipping away.”