by Susan Wheeler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.00 (cloth)
The extent to which one accepts T.S. Eliot’s dictum that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood is a good measure of how one will react to Susan Wheeler’s Assorted Poems. Wheeler’s poetry is thrillingly hallucinatory, a dense verbal jungle where “a cowboy is / coming after you, calmly askew, promising breath,” a place whose “inhabitants” are “burly and wild in their cars.” About the closest Wheeler gets to a simple lyric is when she observes that from the air the Midwestern prairie is “all a flat board hatched / for a ghost’s game on the earth’s odd rim.” Her allusions run from classical mythology and art to advertising jingles and the aggressive banality of common speech. Her verse is highly musical, often trickily rhymed, with a superior ear for consonance and rhythm. Whether such prosodic skill is a sufficient anchor for her wilder flights of free-associative whimsy is an open question. At times, the poetry careens off into the purely private, unmoored from meaning or coherence. Encouragingly, there is a subtle progression over the four volumes collected here, starting with 1993’s Bag o’ Diamonds and concluding with Ledger, from 2005. As the years and books mount, Wheeler’s verse feels increasingly grounded, its more excessive moments tamed without sacrificing rhetorical force. Ledger ends with “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror,” the longest poem collected here and a work of impressive imaginative consistency. She uses Quentin Massys’s painting “The Moneylender and His Wife” as the starting point for a sustained meditation that skips nimbly between contemporary Manhattan and Renaissance Antwerp. “Genuine” poetry, in Eliot’s definition, must adhere to an internal coherence, a formal logic—no matter how oblique—if it is to achieve unity and resonance. About half of Wheeler’s poems pass this test, the other half remaining resistant to even patient exegesis. One can, of course, be content to let the vivid language sluice through one’s consciousness, hypnotized by the rhythms and perfectly balanced phrasing. Those looking for a more conventional literary payoff, however, have their work cut out for them.