At the Circadian Rhythm/Octagon Collective Poetry night last Thursday night, American poet Lesley Wheeler read to a sizable crowd: a good turn out for the night before a holiday weekend, when many people were probably still frantically stuffing suitcases or backpacks, or making a mad dash to the supermarket because it turns out the otherwise fiercely logical children still fervently believe that a rabbit can moonlight as a chocolatier…
Recently Lesley Wheeler’s blog has shown her thinking through her recent encounters with New Zealand poetry, and how the experience of temporary residence here has opened up questions of issues such as diction, identity, and the ownership of myths and stories. Her latest recent collection of poems, Heterotopia, gives us a smartly articulate, portmanteau term for the best that a poem can offer, or for the most desired destination a poem can lead us to. A heterotopia is a real or imagined place of escape, transformation or revelation: Lesley’s collection itself transports us to her mother’s childhood in Liverpool, England in the 1940s and 1950s. At its center is an impressive sonnet sequence, ‘The Calderstones’. It was intriguing to hear Lesley say that she knew she was never going to be able to render her mother’s past accurately, when she realised that even apparently simple words like ‘stove’ had totally different meanings for her, as someone raised in the US, than they did for her mother: and that the mental imagery she carried for several of her mother’s stories were probably quite askew or idiosyncratically slanted. Yet working within the gap, or making that gap part of the material, was what finally liberated her to complete the sequence. It’s a hiatus that is deftly bridged for the unfamiliar reader: one of my introductory comments about the sonnet necklace was that its carefully picked out detail manages to make family oral history seem like the speaker’s – and even the reader’s – own lived experience.
When reading Lesley’s work before her performance, I was struck by its versatility, the sinuous way it adapts tone to form, and style to context, much the way the chameleon in her wry sestina ‘A Place for the Genuine’, pulses in and out of different shades ‘shifting with heat, light, passionate feeling’ (Heathen). At times her work is tartly ironic and political; at others frankly yearning for epiphany and release. Her subject matter is elastic, often electric. It roams confidently from prehistory to personal history; from Zombies to Pinnochio; from academia and the craft of writing itself; from sleepless or anxious children, to the long contrail of sadness migrations may leave behind; from shyness, to the barely concealed hate latent in an arrogantly casual homophobia. The expression in her poems ranges from the crisp, taut, literary and Latinate to the demotic and deliberately stumbling; from the cool and controlled, witty aphorism, to bitterly articulate, outraged slang.
Lesley was a generous and relaxed performer – and a real pleasure to meet. In keeping with her own openness, perhaps, the open mike sessions ranged from kooky to poignant to cerebral: the unpredictability of these slots is part of its appeal. Readers at the Octagon Collective nights often range from the widely published and award-winning (Diane Brown; Carolyn McCurdie; Richard Reeve) to the newly-hatched and aleatory. It’s like a mini-poetry festival each time: professional and fringe running simultaneous sessions. Yet it can all be had for the price of a cup of coffee, and the bicycle tyre/shoe leather/petrol to get you there.