Radioland by Lesley Wheeler.
New York: Barrow Street Press (2015).
RRP: US$16.95 + p&p.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.
Hel-lo! Here we are, all out here in radioland, going about our separate ways, half-listening, half-aware of an energy transmission coming from far far away – a place we’ll never see up close but whose strength we take on trust. Until it changes …
Lesley Wheeler looks at disasters in which transmission suddenly collapses and we are left alone, wondering what happened, what to do next. As a new country shakes beneath her feet, her parents’ marriage falls to bits:
Not a new fault, just a buried one,
the website says. A fracture concealed for ten
thousand years. A no-fault divorce, her email
says. after forty-five. Both broadcasts unreal,
pixels on a laptop screen. (“Damages, 2011”)
Just as dislocating are the encounters with adolescence, both the poet’s memory of her own and that of her daughter right now:
I would get on with it, but she’s so secret
while unconscious. And when she finally
wakes, her famished birds will whirl
through the rooms, her tulip blades
rumple the earth as they leave it behind.
(“Toys lost under the hedge since November”)
A major section deals with the far-away spiritual – and then physical – collapse of the poet’s father, a man who kept his Bible all his life but still misquoted Job.
There are no technologies for final whispers
across the date line but I don’t want to talk
The tree ferns shake beyond my window frame
Tui cry clock clock and whistle hurry. (“Long distance”)
Our lives take many forms under pressure – and the pressure itself changes in ways we never anticipate as the personal and the political slop back and forth against each other.
This listening is like choosing, retrofitting
noise into counsel that the world might hiss
to a heedful woman, if the world were so
inclined. The rising drone of traffic is
an oracle. Today is now transmitting.
Tomorrow’s signal lurks within the snow. (“Signal to noise”)
Wheeler cites ‘New Zealand’s distinctive take on the sonnet [which] involves organising the form into couplets,’ and many poems pay tribute to this form.
Two tuatara day, my host observes,
squinting past a glass cordon. They’re trying
to hide in ferns. Spying all four is a sign.
These endemic reptiles, messengers
of Whiro, god of death and disaster, have no
updates for me, so I pour myself to the gallery,
nearly to the heaving ocean, for a poetry
recital. Here some cagey wine, prosciutto-
clad figs, and people whispering about the quake.
The laureates, perching on stage, freeze,
third eyes veiled, waiting their turn not to speak
of Christchurch. We count them off uneasily
until one offers riddles. Elegies
with gaps. All the news we need—this lack.
(“It is difficult to get the news from poems” in full)
Any source of energy can shake us off – collapse – cut off transmission – at no notice. Each time it happens, we are left isolated at the periphery, and there’s little we can do:
Sometimes people die, kind fathers, damaged
fathers, and you carry it around, a bottle of water
that tastes bad but you’re thirsty and must drink. (“The Burren”)
These powerful and well-crafted poems illustrate some of our feelings after major dislocation, whether it is confrontation, illness, death or earthquake. Or the human condition.
 Lesley Wheeler is Professor of English at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, USA. She arrived in New Zealand in February 2011 on a Fulbright fellowship and has built lasting contacts with the NZ poetry community. On her return, she was instrumental in organising the NZ/US issue of Shenandoah poetry journal. She blogs at http://lesleywheeler.org/
Mary Cresswell is an established poet and science editor. Born in Los Angeles, she moved to New Zealand in 1970. Her poetry has appeared in New Zealand, Australian, Canadian, US and UK literary journals.