Lesley Wheeler


If I sit down to write without any kind of advance plan, a slant-rhymed sonnet often happens to me: I can draft one in an hour of two of stolen time, and I love the pressure this form puts on my language. I have a lot of anxiety about sonnets, though—fear that size matters, that even most good sonnets are just pretty knickknacks, plus feminist guilt about the form’s gendered history. (Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s work has generally been liberating for me, but in this case, because of her famous “‘Corpses of Poetry’” essay, I imagine her looking over my shoulder and shaking her venerable head in disapproval.)

“Attachments” is a sonnet I wrote for my niece, Paige Kerr, when I only knew her image through e-mail. “No Privacy,” which mixes anxious dreams with the real strangeness of living in a small town, rhymes in a mirror-pattern, so that a couplet occurs in the middle of the poem but many of the other chiming sounds are widely separated. Because this poem concerns violated boundaries, I pushed hard against the sonnet’s traditional limits, both in the rhyme scheme and through those seven-foot lines.

In the case of “Theme Park Pantoum,” an itching to work with this form came first: I looked for subject matter that was full of obsessive circlings. I find pantoums incredibly difficult to compose. In other poems, you can hide a weak phrase and pretend you don’t see it; in a pantoum it returns to taunt you.




A reader peruses every pink pixel
of you, smeared with waxy vernix,
squalling editorially. Cast a hex
from November
s codex, literary girl,
and broadcast an epistolary shriek
through every aperture and keyhole,
make us hear and heed before the cold
rain falls. Many miles from you a creek
erupts in a muddy flood, the air is frosted
with sirens, and your screen-entranced aunt
smells fire. A gingko tree, in umbrage
at the season, flings down its very last
memo. Your best student ignores them -- she can
wait to hold you, to gaze at your opening page.



No Privacy

Slugs ooze in through the locked screen door. The neighbor's cat
          humps mine

out back, everybody screeching and his teeth in her ruff.
The ghost of a dirty living boy invades my dream, will not
climb off my kitchen table, although I shout, Die already,
re dead; his clean-living mother worked in my office
for years before she was fired. She is still on fire. I still
use her files. Strangers amble right into my sonnets
with their loamy boots, no glass of water please, no regrets.
I plant evergreens to grow a wall against the street; they fill out
round and low as cabbages. I wish I could piss
ritually around the property, but I am far too shy,
so I try the next best ploy and rhyme protective knots
around every notion, safe and tidy and never enough.
Crowded with holes. Haunted by bodies. The sand in a line.



Theme Park Pantoum

The sun-engine wakes in Tomorrowland
as Tropical Storm Arlene flounces off,
so we break on the Carousel of Progress.
m fat and hot as a Mickey-burger.

As Failed-Hurricane Arlene gets the vapors
what goes around no longer fits around:
I'm fat and hot as a Mickey-burger
and my waistband won't shut

across my gut. My kid tears around
like a rumor, like a rollercoaster
til the seatbelt shuts him up.
Later today a boy will die here.

Like a roller-coaster, like a rumor,
damp with fear, I hold him fast.
Today a four-year-old will die here,
but now we stagger off to drink,

damp with heat, holding hands,
from the swamp-water fountains.
We stagger off to drink and buy
a photon blaster near a stumpy palm.

The fountains are swamped so we turn
like broken records on the Carousel of Progress.
The future is rusty. His palm on the blaster,
my son-engine sleeps in Tomorrowland.


Lesley Wheeler’s poems appear in AGNI, Prairie Schooner, Barrow Street, and other publications. Her second book, Sounding Poetic Voice, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press. She is also a co-editor with Moira Richards and Rosemary Starace of Letters to the World: Poems from the Women’s Poetry List, forthcoming from Red Hen Press. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.