Closing Susan Wheeler's meme, 2012, I looked at the title and saw -- because the mindset of a poet was still in the process of dying away inside me after reading, so I saw thoroughly for a moment, very rainwashed I was … -- I realised it said me, me. Reading an interview with Wheeler I decided (although she never says so or even mentions the word "meme"*) that me, me was unintentional "in spite," I thought, "of the incredible relevance of the word "me" to a publication that spends its first twenty-seven pages reporting the words of a character who does nothing but aim remarks at other people." "You get down off your high horse, young lady," the person says, and you realise she has to be the poet's mother. The daughter never talks back – she says nothing – no one in the poems speaks except the mother. "Years later," you think, "when her mother was dead, she wrote these poems." Why did I think the mother was dead? Because the poems don't seem to wonder if she'll read them. Later the interview confirmed it. I don't think you're ever not aware that this act of recording is an act of talking back or of somehow having her mother. Anyway, the daughter is being quiet and not-quiet. You can't say the same for the other people the mother speaks to, "Ray" and "Dan." "Ray, don't make it too stiff," she says. The poet has chosen not to have them, only her mother. And of course you're looking at these lines and thinking, "That's too perfect, that's not an accurate recording, it's an act of reconstruction based on some memory or impression of the mother" who was, according to the interview, full of slang.
Robert Polito: Your pleasure in our random, fleeting, and lost slang is palpable. How did you come to this absorption in vernaculars?
Susan Wheeler: God knows, as my mother would have said. I’m beginning to get an inkling, as I’ve been writing a series of poems that use her idiomatic expressions—she grew up in Topeka, and had a strong portion of Pennsylvania Dutch as well, but who knows where she got phrases like “busier than a cranberry bog merchant.”
The mother was the outstanding slang-unit in the family. She was the one the daughter wanted to have. Wheeler even writes down statements that are not slang. "Go ask your father," is not a distinctive phrase but there it is. Somehow these lines are balancing the slang in the poet's mind, or she remembers her mother saying, "Will you take the broccoli out of the freezer," in a manner so amazing that it occupies the same place as slang when she writes it down. It continues the scolding tone. Her mother saying, "broccoli out of the freezer," was a memorable sound. Wheeler likes "broccoli" and "freezer" together. The two words have the same lengths but different personalities. "Language poetry," you think. You remember other poets who do this without their mothers being in the poems: Lyn Hejinian, you recall. Gertrude Stein herself has given Wheeler the strength to tell the whole world forever that her mother once mentioned broccoli and freezers. Or maybe the mother never did, but she has now. "A cushion has that cover," writes Stein in Tender Buttons, 1914, and a century later Wheeler utters, "broccoli in the freezer." But Wheeler has a different space in reality. The reader is convinced that once there really was broccoli in the freezer. They do not believe there was a cushion. If there was once a cushion then Tender Buttons has annihilated it. Even though cushions are as real as broccoli.
Stein's friendship with Picasso swims up. The half-secret grid in a painting like Ma Jolie, 1911-12, annihilates the woman figure. It is like shredding a tree and drying it into flat paper. There does not have to have been a woman. Allegedly it was the artist's girlfriend Marcelle Humbert but you do not need to believe in her. Wheeler, you realise (as you think of the Picasso), resists the ideal of complex flattening when she puts lines in a daughter-thinking voice at the centre of each poem, as though she is summing up some impression she had in the days when the mother was scolding her. "Avocados, toothpicks. Coleaus, root sprawl. | The diffident glints of a late-day sun," she recalls. I notice I didn't think of this earlier as the poet speaking ("no one in the poems speaks except the mother"). These lines are not uttered. Immediate publicity is not their form, as it is with speech. Real people might walk around asking, "Will you take the broccoli out of the freezer?" but they do not come up to you and say, "Avocados, toothpicks. Coleaus, root sprawl," with that careful punctuation. You would be disquieted, unless they were answering a question. "Susan Wheeler, what do you remember from your childhood?" you ask, and she replies, "Wallpaper, striped. A slippery floor." You assume these objects were given to her without asking.
*I have a memory of another interview in which she did say the word meme.