01 January 2011

Heathen by Lesley Wheeler

Heathen
C&R Press
Perfect bound, 91 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-9815010-9-3

Link to Purchase

Reviewed by Moira Richards
Okay, first, full disclosure – Lesley Wheeler and I collaborated on the editing of an anthology of poems that was published back in 2008. Rosemary Starace, whose “16 Circles” is the cover art for Heathen, was also a co-editor of that anthology. I live on a different continent than the two of those women but I loved working with them both then. And now, I love the work of them both. But to the poetry…

The title, Heathen, is a brave one to put out into our world in which the term is viewed askance at best and, pejoratively, as threat or insult at worst. Also, often misunderstood, ‘heathen’ does not necessarily mean no belief, no faith in anything at all. If pressed for a word, I’d describe myself as heathen and I approached this poetry with real interest as to the subject matter.

The prefatory poem, in its way, introduces the mystery of (pro)creation sans religion…
       Sometimes I think
I couldn’t have made her, that something
older than I am rushes through her woods,
glinting now and then, knocking new shine
into old rocks, whispering in the gloom.

 
-- “Past Bedtime”
The rest of the poetry is collected into five sections and the works of the first are coloured, delicately, in fleeting shades of pain – the growing pains of girl to womanhood. Wheeler uses a variety of verse forms and I’m particularly admiring of her harnessings of sound as, for example, in this bit of a terza rima which swirls ‘mages in a pickup truck’, ‘arrogant sheep’ and a ‘quorum of priestesses and hags’ into a
… flimsy non-biodegradable sideshow
of mystery. Dispossessed women gather
by moonlight, chant a knock-off charm or two

about expensive rituals and throttled power,
cells shining but cut off from the signal,
shaking with lightweight plastic angry wonder.

 
-- “Foamhenge”

The next section’s poems ratcheted up the sense of surrealism I so enjoyed in this book. Titles like “Ode Envy” and first lines such as ‘This is the poem Pinocchio wrote’ give some idea of what the reader might expect from work in which…
Time-lapse films never play the noise
flowers make, the grunt of the soiled
shoot or the squelch of each leaf cut
like a tooth. The rumbling bud swells
and petals pop with the crispy splat
of a potato into fat. The blossom shrieks
in the sun and down it thuds…

 
-- “Flower Noises”
or when, during…
Another night, I lay panicked, immobile,
as a deer’s teeth grazed at my cheek. In the must

of his patchy, wood-warm hide I realised,
He’s only hungry. But what to feed a dream?

 
-- “Nevermore”
Yet before the section ends, the narrator returns again to the thread of heathenism in no uncertain terms:
Other schoolgirls danced the liturgy bare-
soled, loved God’s white-flour body. I prefer
the company of dwarves—their sturdy footwear,
their naked words, their strong and literal beer.

 
-- “Religious Education”
Becoming parent must be the time when a woman feels, most, her vulnerability and when her assurance is most seriously undermined. It’s a time when religious faith could be so very comforting. These poems in the third section are filled with the defenselessness of young children, awareness of the dangers that beset them, and of a parent’s essential helplessness to do very much at all by way of protection.
My son fits his ear to my earso that the god in your head can talk
to the god in mine.


Me, I’m afraid. The god in my head

is a bear and not the talking kind.
He rears up, slavering, unsheathes
his nails, famished for sacrifice.
The title of the above poem is, “Heathen” and the poems in the following section of the book are grouped under the title, Resisting Conversion. They speak of chaos and uncertainty and of unravellings as in “Defending Our Way of Life” where…
Filthy as wolves and just as forgotten,
enemies throng at my doors and windows
and fast as I twist the locks and slam
the shutters, they are inside, infecting
my children and seducing us all into fairy-
time. Every night, apocalypse…
And again, in the last section of poems entitled How the World Talks Back the narrator finds, in a poem on the subject of supernumerary nipples, that
moles, and other rings of pigmentation
mean witches’ paps to edgy villagers,
who fantasize that sundry unclean

spirits suck them. A godly girl’s averse
to excess. A witch is a woman who
wants more than they think she deserves.

 
-- “In Threes”
But in the end, the book’s narrator does triumph on her very lonely chosen path and in another subtly crafted, subtly argued terza rima:
I can at least believe in looking. I stare
over the bank’s edge, where the burble has skin
like a cold pudding, and see filigreed feathers,

ice shaped like a dove, like some spirit-sign,
where two bare branches dangle in a cross.
The creek looks back at me, without design.

 
-- “The Unbeliever Takes a Hike”

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