by Susan Wheeler
University of Iowa Press 2012
Reviewed by Danielle Blau
“not peaceful but hers”
In Meme, known experimentalist Susan Wheeler blends high and low registers. She throws in ditties and limericks, obscenities and puns. But these are not poems of dispassion or distance. While the poet may be passingly interested in poetic memes (traditional elegies, for instance), she constantly explores their limits. She is surpassingly interested in the extra-poetic memes that mold an individual’s life: the disembodied voices we inherit from the figures of our past, those which crowd out the space for our own authentic experience of the present. For Wheeler, who says she “lost [her] mother and [her] marriage” in the course of writing Meme, the present is always particularly important.
It is for these personally palpable memes that Wheeler reserves the bulk of her fury. For this reason, there is urgency to her poems that experiment for its own sake tends to lack: “Such is the state of our poetry caught in my throat on its way / to my mouth, why not do everything,” Wheeler writes. But it is no mere poetic war being waged on these pages. These poems present a poet fighting the outer noise that would deaden her inner voice, the memes that would deaden her unique reception of the immediate world. And so, in a sense, these poems present a poet fighting for her life.
The notion of the meme was first proposed by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as a cultural analogue to the biological entity that is the gene. Wheeler says “meme” is “a word that originated with genetic replication, and has gained currency since Dawkins as a unit of cultural effluvia that spreads widely very quickly.”
Biological evolution is determined by “successful” genes that manage to transmit themselves (or, rather, copies of themselves) to future generations; so, too, cultures are shaped by “successful” memes—ideas and practices—that spread themselves from mind to mind. Just as successful genes don’t “care” about the good of the host organism—all they “want” is to be passed on—a successful meme isn’t objectively good for the mind that houses it. Just think of some of the ideologies throughout history that successfully killed off their hosts (Children’s Crusaders, Kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers) in droves.
Wheeler takes memes personally. Between the genes lodged in our chromosomes, on the one hand, and the memes lodged in our minds, on the other, what room is there for individuality to flourish? Or, as she puts it:
Where is there room for all I have to say
in the deepening dark of fall’s afternoon?
Baubles, prizes, in the cereal box.
We inherit our genes from our parents, and for Wheeler, the most potent—and most virulent—form of meme-transmission is traceable back to this same source. In the first of the three sections that compose Meme, “The Maud Poems,” Wheeler does something ingenious, which takes us straight to the crux of her “impure” experimentalism. She constructs an entire character—the terrifyingly powerful mother figure whose voice drowns out the lyric meditations of her daughter—entirely out of clichés. Clichés are a particularly successful form of verbal meme, and this mother is successful at replicating herself in her daughter’s mind. Proust, in speaking of “the deadening effect of habit, which cuts away—from things we have seen many times—the taproot of deep impression and thought, which alone give them their real significance,” seemed also to get to the heart of the deadening and insidious effect of clichés Within each of the “Maud Poems” is an elegant, if encapsulated, lyrical voice trying to hear itself through the relentless idiomatic clamor of maternal memes. Framed (or more, caged) within the jumbled shibboleths, dated slang, and unforgiving shrillness of “Now you go across the street and / apologize. Tell them who put number two in their fence” on one end, and “Not one word, young lady! You’ve raised enough Cain for one/ afternoon” on the other, we find:
Bird dips its head: it’s an owl, recalcitrant
in its non-hooting state. Wild billowing of
sails beyond it. Wind-swept surging of trees.
The high and the low play off one another meaningfully, frighteningly, at times heartbreakingly, throughout the first sequence, as the lyric poet-daughter’s private voice strains against the ungiving vernacular hard-press of the mother’s not-so-motherly memes.
Wheeler’s struggle, then, involves carving out small spaces of freedom and, despite the cacophonous vocal imprints of the past, peaceably concentrating on raw impressions of the present, on the feel of the moment. This takes a more narrative—and nightmarish—turn in the second sequence, “The Devil—or—The Introjects.” And often it seems like a losing battle:
She mocks what she gives. On the diving-board edge of a shiny new
pool, she’s braiding a noose of your hair. The long light, the trees, the
quickening air—a ladybug’s whir to the crook of your arm and the soft
plod of shoes coming forth from the house—the peaceable place not
peaceful but hers.
Of course, there could be no human society, as we know it, without memes. Words themselves are memes. But that does not stop Wheeler from fighting the good fight. This is especially true in the book’s final sequence, “The Split,” which is influenced by the end of the poet’s marriage. As she had to do in the wake of her mother’s great influence and eventual death, she has to build her own world again. She does so by performing a near assault on language itself. She pulls its basic units limb from limb:
’im poor taunt, as in taunt what you porter in
She rhymes and puns:
The fink was fickle.
Finkl finkl finkl
With strikethroughs, she inflicts a physical violence on words:
Born alone, die alone.
Be born alone, die alone.
Birth alone, die –
Arrive alone, depart alone.
And in general, she wreaks utterly sui generis linguistic havoc: “Canal this, canal that——/ It’s a Canalabaloo.”
To explore, and combat, the many-faced virulence of cultural transmission (“It was the winter of the Z-pack, when any Tom or Dickhead with a / medical shingle repeated viral like a clock on the hour”), Wheeler has at her command a dangerous roving carnival-army of forms—discordant jingles and laments, formal lists and dirty limericks. There is a sense in which all art can be seen as a rebellion against memes. And much of Meme reads like a glorious, reckless act of defiance.
At the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophius, the philosopher Wittgenstein writes:
My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)
He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.
What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Similarly, one of the most fascinating—and tragic—aspects of Wheeler’s book is that in her effort to free herself from entrenched and tyrannical memes, she has no choice but to make use of the very memes she longs to exorcise. (One limerick plays on the cultural touchstone Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, a cliché so wrought it is painful to see it used even in an ironic or satirical context.) There is no getting around the external forces—including the malignant influences of our past (“had you no other lens but damage to gaze through”)—that determine, from the outside in, how we see and feel the world. Wheeler does not pass over any of this painful paradox in silence, and her poems are a brave expression of autonomy.