POETRY: High Noon
Susan Wheeler, Assorted Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) | Ron Slate, The Great Wave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)
Susan Wheeler’s Assorted Poems and Ron Slate’s The Great Wave are examples of books published by accomplished writers who find themselves at, or just after, the midpoint of their very different careers. Wheeler, the author of four well-received books of poetry (Bag o’ Diamonds, 1993; Smokes, 1998; Source Codes, 2001; Ledger, 2005) and the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships (the Witter Bynner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Guggenheim and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships) has spent the past twenty years living, writing, and teaching in the poetry epicenter of New York. In stark contrast, Ron Slate received his M.A. in creative writing from Stanford University in 1973, then went on to spend the next twenty years as a successful international business man. Published in 2005, Slate’s first book of poems, The Incentive of the Maggot, was awarded the 2004 Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize, the Larry Levis Poetry Prize and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize. Unlike Wheeler, Slate’s career has been spent on the periphery of the poetry world. Despite their contrasting careers, both Wheeler and Slate’s new books are both retrospectives.
Wheeler’s Assorted Poems feels less like a “selected works” and more like the reorganization and rearticulation of aesthetic aims that have evolved over the course of her career. The poems have a varied texture, but never flag in their application of language and their sensitivity to and wariness of poetry’s ability to produce meaning. Wheeler’s poems are gradual accumulations of detail, historical fact, pop culture references, and personal observation that layer upon each other, creating meaningful ambiguity. Take for example the first stanza of “Beavis’s Day Off”:
He’d been doing a lot of cull-twanging
he thought, walking back and forth on the deck
of his battle ship—whoa! correction: loft.
“Cull-twanging” suggests an activity that is at once both reductive and preservative. One who culls gathers from a number of sources, and may be said to reduce the quantity of that which they have gathered. A “cull-twanger,” then, is someone who culls towards some musical end (“twang” being the sound or vibration of a plucked string). This seems no less complex when one considers that the poem’s title may refer to Beavis of MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, a cartoon from the nineties about two burnout teenagers who do nothing but watch outdated music videos and light each other’s farts on fire. That Beavis, a sort of cultural black hole, could “cull-twang” at all, is a miraculous, affirming notion about the larger cultural mosaic of which he is a part. Many of the poems in Assorted Poems give a reassuring sense of intelligence and emotion without the burden of establishing explicitly linear narrative. The result is a collection that is confounding, stunning, and ultimately affirming in its coherence.
The poems in Ron Slate’s The Great Wave are of a very different type then those in Assorted Poems, but its aims as a collection are no less quantitative. The long pause between The Great Wave and Slate’s first collection of poems, The Incentive of the Maggot, gives Slate’s book its overarching character. Many of these poems are examinations of the past that reconfigure fleeting historical moments or the ephemera of memory into a relevant present. The final poem of the collection, “Fast Ferry,” establishes a tone shared by many of the poems in The Great Wave:
We both know it’s too late for me
build toward an exalted ending,
all I can do now is start things.
This torn ticket, the trip you’ve offered
to please yourself—I’d rather create
an entire region from it, a dock teeming
with departures, thrusted jetties, shoals and spits,
than imagine what your face is forever
too reticent and oblique to tell me.
The opening three lines encapsulate much of the character of the other poems in The Great Wave. The tone of these lines, self-effacing, almost apologetic, may not appeal to every reader, but they establish an integrity that is full of pathos and idiosyncratic charm. The lines that follow may as well be a sort of statement of purpose for The Great Wave, explicating and justifying the collection as “an entire region... a dock teeming / with departures...” Many of the poems in Slate’s new collection are, at moments, beautiful and possessed of a strong sense of self-awareness.
Both Assorted Poems and The Great Wave take stock of their author’s careers. Despite their differences, each book gives the impression that both Slate and Wheeler have much to offer as enduring poets.
Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.