We Live in Blank by Lesley Wheeler

copiaIt’s September in an election year, so while students in classrooms argue about poetry with surprising heat, my electronic screens are occupied by one political candidate jokingly suggesting the assassination of another. An African-American boy was shot and killed, this time in Columbus, while holding a BB gun that looked all too real. Bombs just exploded in Manhattan. There’s no refuge from violence and anxiety, not even on campus or in the nearby woods. Fawns leap past me on morning walks, but their babyish spots are fading fast.

So let me make a pitch for getting your news from poems, at least some of the time. Erika Meitner, a poet who’s especially good at braiding together strands of thought and feeling and information, will be reading at Washington and Lee University at 4:30 pm in the Hillel House on Wednesday, September 28th. Meitner will also visit my poetry workshop, where we’re pondering her latest book, Copia. The title means something like “plenty,” especially, in rhetoric, an abundance of language. I heard Meitner at the 2016 Virginia Festival of the Book and was moved by her poetry’s eloquence about the too-muchness of contemporary life: big box stores, airports, suburban tract housing, urban decay. Meitner directs the graduate program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech, just down the road from me, and location deepened the recognition I felt reading her work: her landscapes are not so different from mine.

Even before I’d read Copia, however, I knew Meitner’s work from Shenandoah. A year and a half ago, I assigned poems from volume 63, number 2 and asked students to identify their favorites. A few chose Meitner’s “Continuation”. The poem begins as if extending a long, difficult, but intimate conversation:

And the neighbor’s daughter shows my son
the way her father let her hold his gun,

with bullets in it.  She was on Adderall,
and now Ritalin, and they’re only in

Kindergarten but my son doesn’t much
like her—

Like many poems in Copia, “Continuation” establishes a sense of danger immediately, while observing, too, how danger coexists with daily life’s relentless trivia. The speaker, wearing pajamas and clutching a coffee mug, routinely waits with her son and his gun-brandishing classmate for the “wheezing” schoolbus. Once they climb aboard, the bus proceeds down a street called “Heartwood/ Crossing, though the sign says Xing// as the whole name won’t fit. This cross-/ hatch, this target…” Meitner’s a metonymic poet, proceeding by association, but risky intersections pervade her verse.

meitner-photoContiguities, cycles, repetition: the speaker’s son, the one who waits for the bus, likes a TV show called “Finding Bigfoot” in which a team seeks but never conclusively finds Sasquatch, the so-called missing link. The program arrives over and over at a supremely tentative conclusion, “that bigfoot could definitely live in// ____________.  We live in blank.” Does that mean a) we’re like, really nowhere; b) all places are interchangeable; c) Sasquatch is immanent, the presiding spirit of American life; or d) all of the above? Like the news, this poem presents a range of disturbing problems without clear answers.

In the spirit of irresolution, “Continuation” also disobeys Chekhov’s precept. The gun, that is, that Meitner hangs on the wall of Act One never goes off. The two children in the first line, despite their frightening play with a parent’s weapon, remain whole. Perhaps the gun is fired elsewhere, injuring some other child. Well, we know it is.

“Continuations” is not a consoling poem. But there is good human company in watching Meitner make order out of colossally bad news. I may be safe today, but everyone’s neighbor is armed and medicated. We all live at a crossroads, a target, and Meitner stresses that, for ill and potentially for good, our alternate universes are continuous.

Lesley Wheeler’s most recent collection is Radioland.  Her poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Crazyhorse, Poetry and other magazines.  She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and blogs at http://lesleywheeler.org/

[posted by R T Smith]

About R.T. Smith

recent-meR. T. Smith has edited Shenandoah since 1995 and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington & Lee. His forthcoming books are Doves in Flight: 13 Fictions and Summoning Shades: New Poems, both due in 2017.


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