Susan Wheeler's Meme: A Contagious Book of Poems

Cassie Duggan

Meme CoverIn her most recent book Meme, Susan Wheeler crafts beautifully stinging poems that cast the shadow of stories only partially told. Reading this book of poems is comparable to the experience of flipping through someone else’s family photo album—a haunting out-of-body occurrence. The poems sing a familiar language, yet they are transplanted from another’s tongue. They read like flashes of memory, pulsating with emotional stories deep as the roots of a family tree. The subjects stay close to home with a recurring mother and father, but also zoom out to look at the world from above:

The beloved sturms to his drang.
The adulterer winces at bears.
The philanderer slips him the date-rape drug.
The fishhusband shouts like a shrew. (40)

The balance of observant montage and relayed family dialogue makes for a mesmerizing read and by the end I am completely hypnotized by Wheeler, clinging to her every word.

The term "meme" has most recently been used to define a concept that spreads via the Internet. Remember that popular YouTube video or that funny picture with the clever ironic text beneath it? These viral concepts are Internet memes. This is helpful to know in understanding the original definition of "meme," which Wheeler illustrates. In this book, the poems are speaking directly to the idea that a meme is a cultural characteristic or behavior transferred from one individual to another by non-genetic means. The word derives from the Greek's "mimēma" meaning, “that which is imitated;” and while reading the poems from Meme, one often thinks of a child imitating her mother’s speech—Wheeler uses aged vocabulary, while muddling the context, so we only receive bits and pieces of conversation. In the poem “Judas Priest” we overhear:

You can’t sit there and tell me anything you’ve said here is true.
       Lace our shut eyes shut.
Don’t you ping my machine. Young lady. (20)

Throughout the first part of the book, we continue to see this and other recurring characters, such as Ray and Dan. These names act as familiar territory and at the end of this poem the narrator addresses a young lady, a daughter. Even as pieces of conversation whiz by we feel grounded by these characters and to the family remembered in these poems.

Meme is divided into three parts, the first being “The Maud Poems,” which has been quoted above. Only in this part are the poems individually titled, but they often act as idiomatic diving boards. Because the titles are not listed in the table of contents, the reader is not set up to stop at each poem and consider its title. Instead these poems read as a cohesive series and it is nearly impossible not to read the book in one sitting.

The second part is called “The Devil—or—The Introjects,” and is the shortest grouping of poems in the book. Each poem consists of uninterrupted lines (no line breaks) of varying lengths, though none exceed five lines. The section opens with the line, “In the intimate turn, the beloved’s breath, she’s suddenly there. Whore.” (28). Each poem that follows snaps with the same devilish tongue and exudes the unconscious pressure of introjection.

The final part of the book, “The Split,” is the longest of the three sections. As in the second part the poems are untitled, but vary widely in form. Some poems consist of short lines inhabiting a small bubble in white space, while others sprawl across the whole page—such as the thirty-lined list which begins:

1. She was starting to look like her mother.
2. She was clingier than pantyhose.
3. He stayed out all night.
4. She liked to cuff me when she got plowed.
5. He was vapid.
6. She was a fool. (43)

The pronouns used in this list become black holes, sprawling into the possibilities of what is being revealed and what is being withheld from the reader. The poems echo the colloquial speech of “The Maud Poems” and often haunt the page like tortured tongue twisters. Wheeler presents two limericks that bounce off each other as a cruel joke:

I picked up a gal in a bar.
She said she’d ignore my cigar.
But when I was done
Relieving my gun
She said I was not up to par. (46)

The poem in response on the opposite page acts as the punch line, told from the gal’s perspective, summarizing the man’s embarrassment:

He stumbled outside to his car.
He couldn’t have gotten too far.
For when I replied
Your trigger’s what’s died
He lit his exploding cigar. (47)

While these poems are in consistent conversation with each other, they also appear ready to abandon the ones that came before at any moment, whether to explore a new form or an unexpected subject. The poems in Wheeler's Meme range from stories of sexual exploits to the naïve language of childhood, while always feeling extremely close to truth and aged wisdom.

Susan Wheeler has created an essential collection of poems, a meme well worth transferring to every individual possible. This book is captivating. Meme goes beyond comfortable, familial conversation and breaks into the visceral experience of living in the world. These poems are contagious and will certainly spread quickly to every poetry lover. I urge you, open your heart to this irresistible book of infectious poems.

By Susan Wheeler
University of Iowa Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60938-127-1



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