Review: Radioland by Lesley Wheeler

Ann E. Michael

PQ Contributing Editor
Lesley Wheeler
Barrow Street Books, 2015
Paperback, 74 pp
ISBN 978-0-9893296-8-2
The parent-child relationship, in an ideal world, could be open to generous renegotiation—fluid, adaptable—as parents age and their children become adults. Psychology and experience tell us that such changes are often too challenging and the roles too ingrained for a successful transition, particularly when the whole enterprise of family life is fraught with discomfort and poor communication.  In Lesley Wheeler’s latest collection, Radioland, the narrator’s vexed connection with her father provides the exigency of many memorable and startling poems; but the book is not a series of memoir-pieces “about” their relationship. The collection centers on a more abstract but equally compelling concept: distance, physical and emotional, and its opposite, intimacy.
Radio, once the mainstay of contemporary music, entertainment, and news, provides the perfect image of communication over vast distances. Radio waves travel at the speed of light and across great cosmic distances, but close to earth they may be intercepted, diffracted, and distorted. There’s static. And, with a radio, the transmission can be interrupted by the flick of a switch: “Your inheritance is dead air. Receive // without refraction the heaviness of vacancy. / Trace with one finger its curious property / of one-sidedness.” In these lines from “Bequest,” the reference is to a Möbius strip; yet even in the book’s opening salvo, the closing-off or distancing appears. Radio waves possess the “curious property” of transmitting without the quality of communication, for true communication requires a listener who can answer in return. Wheeler’s poems urge us to listen.
In her previous collection Heterotopia, Lesley Wheeler has proven herself to be a poet with a deep familiarity with form and an edgy willingness to experiment with both poetic framework and subject. In this book, her approach to making a poem is similar and her themes of loss and outsider-status continue to emerge, this time focused more on the father than the mother-figure of Heteroptopia. The speaker now identifies herself as the “reckless thing,” formerly “the gale-force winds no one could pacify” and, in the now of this collection, mother to an adolescent girl. A wonderful sonnet’s devoted to negotiating this transformation, “Adolescence Is a Disorder of the Mouth,” during the course of which the speaker’s husband “inhales /  the minestrone through his nose,” an image both telling and hilarious. The daughter criticizes her mother’s lipstick, choice of television shows, even the key in which she sings lullabies: “My pitch is catastrophic” (rhyming with “hypotoxic” three lines previously—a “wow” in terms of line endings). But this is a mother-daughter distancing and intimacy, not a father-daughter conflict.
That central difficulty, the difficulty of the larger-than-life, fascinating, storied, “bad” father, sets the theme of distances that resonates through these poems. The section “Deep Fade” examines the speaker’s emotions and reasons about the father and his dying carefully, with a pragmatism that stems from the ability to distance oneself from the enemy and a genuine sense of multiple kinds of losses that arrive when an estranged family member or loved one dies. Here, the distance is physical—previous poems establish the narrator as traveling abroad (New Zealand, during the 2011 earthquake, among other far-flung places). Simultaneously there is the emotional distance between a daughter and the father who has betrayed the family over and over: “Who knows how he’ll hurt me [From what sector / of the sky” she writes; try sending radio communication and “Transmissions just bounce off his craters. / He wants to be loved but if you do / he can’t love you.” His death seems to leave the survivors with nothing but “Throats full of silt.”
Months and years supply distance, of course. Can a transformed sort of intimacy occur? Maybe not. But the radio waves continue in their outward-bound direction, and the living continue living, the adolescents mature, the borders shift. Wheeler writes, in the aptly-titled “Earshot”
This spirit-talk isn’t much of a change in our, what,
relationship. I tune. His fury, sometimes love,
beams out in long pulses. Hey you out there in radioland,
are you listening? It’s your old man swinging the airwaves.
No place with borders, schools, census rolls
but a state of mind. Ambivalent daughters sleepwalk there…
Ambivalence nails it, a paradoxical statement which sums up—though not neatly—the intimate/distant tension in Wheeler’s poems. Who will pick up the receiver and, after listening, respond? In “Belief,” one of the collection’s last poems and another of Wheeler’s curious sonnets, the speaker admonishes us that “The gods don’t give dictation,” that “Nobody tells the wind to cry.” And yet:
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen
and watch. Reception’s a religion when
everything whispers. Your hand to mine.
Starlings to branch. Signal and noise, ensnarled.
It’s a love poem, the classic use of sonnet form. The love here expressed survives, even embraces, a certain amount of distortion and interference. Wheeler has transmitted words worth listening to.