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Dark Horse Among The Hippos

Maria Johnston

“As we’ll remember from Ulysses it’s sometimes useful to back horses called Throwaway,” was David Wheatley’s droll response to a question put to him during the course of an interview on RTÉ in 2007. The effect of his characteristically playful one-liner, which could easily have come out of the mouth of Paul Muldoon, another Irish writer known for his ludic bent, was to somewhat discombobulate the interviewer.

Wheatley, like Throwaway, is something of a dark horse. The question is: would you back him at twenty to one? He is of course not just a poet but also a prolific reviewer, and his work has marked him out as a zesty, intelligent and exacting critical voice. His artful criticism is never less than rigorous and his winning pronouncements always get to the core of their subject. Some of his most memorable, pithy quips are sure to become legendary: his classic dismissal of John Calder’s “complete” edition of Beckett’s poems as a “monumental screw-up” or his more light-hearted though no less incisive portrait of Michael Longley as “part Hemingway, part Father Christmas”.

Wheatley is never afraid to risk blasphemy in order to expose the absurdities, the perennial shortcomings of the business of poetry. “Sylvia Plath’s grave has to be at the top of anyone’s blacklist of embarrassing subjects for poems,” he has declared. His review of Annie Freud’s The Best Man That Ever Was combined unfailing attention to detail with a generosity of spirit bordering on self-laceration: “On a wretchedly pedantic note, I feel obliged to point out that the plural of ‘vol au vent’ takes an s after the first, not the third word.” As founder-editor, with Justin Quinn, of the acclaimed poetry journal Metre, his authority and influence prompted Richard Tillinghast to describe him as a “literary entrepreneur” like Ezra Pound. Thus he is one of that species labelled “poet-critics”, an identity which, in a review-essay for the Dublin Review, hehas deemed “a tricky one to define”. Musing on the implications of this divided state, the “prickliness of that hyphen” that is the “incorrigibly plural” identity of the “poet-critic”, he gropes for an adequate definition: “A poet who writes criticism or a critic who writes poetry?”

Having lived between Dublin and Hull for some years now, Wheatley’s hyphenated identity as a poet-critic may be seen to extend into his own poetic persona as an always restless, peripatetic and troubled observing consciousness. Indeed, Elizabeth Bowen’s remark about only feeling at home on the boat between Holyhead and Dun Laoghaire appeals to Wheatley’s own edgy imagination and the themes of displacement, loneliness, dislocation – a range of existential concerns – that are articulated through his poems. His black humour, mordant wit and penchant for the surreal and absurd make for a poetry that often defamiliarises, destabilises and disconcerts. Wheatley’s outlook has also been inspired by his study of the work of Samuel Beckett, – Beckett’s poetry was the subject of his PhD at Trinity College Dublin – EM Cioran and a range of other writers concerned with the wastes of human existence. I first encountered Wheatley’s poetry in 1998 when his poem “I Burn, after Valéry” (later published in Mocker) was published in The Irish Times. As a teenager I was so struck by the poem – its hypnotic, seductive rhythm and dark, suggestive imagery that so hauntingly skirted the border of dream and reality – that I cut it out of the paper and pinned it on my bedroom wall. In some ways then, Wheatley may be said to have been my first poet pin-up. I would later come to know him as one of the younger of the “New Irish Poets” grouped together by Selina Guinness in her 2004 anthology. His prodigious talents as a writer were clear from the beginning and this review-essay seeks to trace his development as a poet over the past ten or so years.

Wheatley’s first collection, Thirst (Gallery Press, 1997), appropriately takes its title from the tortured articulation of existential crisis in Beckett’s The Unnameable: “No no, crying, Enough, ejaculating, Not yet, talking incessantly, any old thing, seeking once more, any old thing, thirsting away, you don’t know what for, ay yes, something to do, no no, nothing to be done.” Thus Beckett’s centrality to his work is signalled from the first. The collection’s opening poem, “Sleepwalking”, announces this as poetry that is drawn to the surreal, to the shifting boundaries of dream and reality and the indeterminacy of human existence in a contingent world. There is no way out of the mind. The poem’s opening line articulates the desire to recapture a sensation, “I want to feel it again”, that is, the borderline dislocation of the somnambulist. The disordered mind reaches after the memory of this experience of temporary suspension in a dislocated reality that coloured an all-too-familiar domestic space with an unreal glow: “but this was hardly the kitchen / of the evening before”. The boundaries between dream and reality are effectively dissolved here as the speaker recalls how he “moved with the new-found awkwardness / of a woken sleepwalker across the floor”. The preference is for “the more familiar / strangeness of dreams” which makes available an alternate reality:

this new place
I had seen for the first time
stripping of meaning the place that I knew
without a word or a struggle, threatening
only that it might become habitable.

Having experienced a dislocation which renders ordinary existence meaningless and exposes the gap between language and reality, the speaker is condemned to yearn to “see it again”. In this way, this poem as an initiatory poetic statement may be seen to assert the poet’s own resolve to take nothing for granted in his poetry, not even the perceptible layer of reality that appears before his eyes. This is a poetry which will be concerned with seeing, with how we perceive and experience the world. Wheatley’s promise endures and this dislocative sensibility pervades other poems throughout the collection such as the hyper-perceptive “A.M. Radio”. Wheatley is a poet of unceasing curiosity, his is a searching, ever-questioning voice, and he cannot take language, the given world or his own self for granted in a provisional world of flux, multiple realities and ultimate uncertainty.

Wheatley’s formal strengths are very much in evidence throughout Thirst, although his poetic technique is in no way as assured and controlled as it will later become. “The Accident” is expertly constructed, its jerky lines, propulsive dashes and driving enjambment across stanza breaks, all mimetic of the frantic, destabilising experience of the accident itself as the car goes out of control:

Misjudging the turn and going too fast at thirty
to hold the road, I’ve time to size up the doom-
pregnant vignette – the wintry ditches abruptly

foreclosing the mountains, the jaunty holly in bloom –

Tellingly, as these lines make clear, the driver of the car, although he is himself caught up in the accident, takes the time to register the precise details of his circumstances, as he lifts himself out of this inevitable “doom-pregnant vignette” to capture its unfolding. The speaker of Wheatley’s poems is detached, articulate, his consciousness always alert as it registers its own sense of being a self in the world with sustained scrutiny and an awareness of its own subjectivity. This is the poetry of transit, of the displaced self, of cars, trains, airports, the temporary residences of bed-sits, one-night B&Bs and of all the attendant ephemera, the litter, the dross and detritus of human existence. Thus there are titles such as “Bedsits”, “Litter”, “Littoral” and “Weekend Driving”. “Littoral” confirms the poet as a figure on the edge, as marginal, as a voyeur. The scope of the poem begins with a vista of a despoiled coastal landscape: “Municipal statues outside / the water-treatment works / gulls swooping round the outflow pipes”. The view slowly contracts and moves inwards as the unrelenting gaze of the speaker, eerie in its detached intimacy, focuses on a couple who have come to bathe and moves in to address them: ‘just look at you / scanning the dunes for a quiet spot / to scatter the months in since your last time”. In this way, the unsuspecting couple are watched by the speaker and held in his gaze as time-bound, framed victims, their own fragile mortality suggested by the sand that slips through their fingers as the poem fades out with an ellipsis which speaks of continuing uncertainty and an appropriate lack of closure.

Other poems throughout this not untypical poetic debut register the movements, encounters and discoveries of the young poet. There are experiences in Paris recounted in a sequence of snapshots titled “A Paris Notebook” and these highlight the poet’s very deliberate focus as a watcher and observer; the camera lens of Wheatley’s world-view. The title-poem is an engaging travelogue set in the city of Prague and its environs, the poet-as-tourist’s feelings of displacement echoed by the epigraph from Wallace Stevens: “that we live in a place / that is not our own”. Poetic precursors are signalled and taken over in poems spoken “after” Mandelstam, Esenin, Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain, Baudelaire and another voiced by “Simone Weil in London”. Translation is central to Wheatley’s poetics. Furthermore, we have here the beginning of poetic conversations with the important poets in Wheatley’s world and work such as Justin Quinn and Caitríona O’Reilly. Dialogues with these two poets – with O’Reilly in particular – will extend into his continuing work, particularly into Mocker, where there is a poetic reciprocity in evidence: both inhabit part of the same imaginative landscape and share common imagery and themes across their work. The tropes of whaling, falconry and bird-watching are common to both O’Reilly’s The Sea Cabinet and Wheatley’s Mocker. The epigraph to Wheatley’s poem “Bempton” points directly back to the title poem of O’Reilly’s first collection, The Nowhere Birds, and must therefore be addressed to her in a gesture of call and response, just as his entire collection is offered “for Caitríona”. It is interesting that Wheatley and O’Reilly also collaborated in a collection of poetry titled Three-Legged Dog published by Wild Honey Press in 2002.

Wheatley’s interest in formal procedures is evident throughout and the telltale sestina form is employed not once but twice and is laboured and clunky in both instances. “Landscape with Satellite Dish” draws on the teleutons “Springfield”, “TV”, “bomb”, “Bart”, “do” and “snack” to devise an episode of The Simpsons. The poem only deflates as it reveals itself although it does display a playful wit in its modulations of “do”: “doo-doo”, “hairdo”, do / -nut”, “dodo”, “dough” – the final word being, predictably, “Doh!” The use of the form is more successful in “Bray Head”, a poem which defamiliarises the landmark. The sestina form is appropriate here, its obsessive repetitions creating a stranglehold that is claustrophobic, creating a growing sense of entrapment and unease as the self finds itself estranged from the natural world. However, the reader is too aware from the beginning that the form is imposed on the words and the sestina is thereby too strenuous and heavy-handed. A similar trail is followed in “Along the Cliff”, but this poem is far more effective in its use of free verse to convey the sense of movement, the active, restless consciousness and the dynamics of human perception. Later, the sestina will be handled with much more suppleness in “Chronicle” in Misery Hill. Wheatley displays cunning in his use of poetic technique. In “Visiting Hour”, a poem that charts a hospital visit as a prolonged moment of growing estrangement, the use of slant-rhymes creates an appropriate distance and a dissonance which is further amplified by the lurching, eight-line tetrameter stanzas. Thus the sound and structure of the poem enact the experience itself so that the reader is drawn into the thick of it, unable to escape or evade the fetid stench of death and illness pervading all – “barley water the colour of pus” – as life and death are made sit uneasily by each other with no relief from the moribund. This life-negating barley water will be present again in “An Apple Pip” in Wheatley’s next collection.

The most accomplished poem in this first collection is “Autumn, the Nightwalk, the City, the River”. With a nod to Thomas Kinsella, the speaker walks the city, the suburban landscape, far from home and, unlike Kinsella’s “Nightwalker”, with no impulse to return home: “Home was defeat but consolation too, / reassurance there was nowhere else to go”. As the final poem in the collection, its concluding lines signal a vast spectrum of future possibility, away from home: “from there, already forgetting dry land, open sea”. The poem moves effortlessly in a meandering free verse that is itself mimetic of the rhythms of walking, the stumbling hesitancies, uncertainties along with the exhilaration, freedom and exploratory possibilities of “the open fields”, traversing dream and reality:

The clubs all shut, town was deserted all over:
the only living thing would be the river;
and one night following it, I got a sense
of how, if anything did, it left the dead-ends
of the place behind, moving like a dream …

Thus the final poem in Wheatley’s first collection confirms him as a poet of travel, of the city and the sea, and the city of Dublin is the locus for his second collection, Misery Hill (Gallery, 2000). Wheatley’s affinity with the poet Peter Sirr is in evidence here and it seems fitting that in a review of Sirr’s Bring Everything Wheatley applauded the older poet for his rare “imaginative commitment to urban life”. In a review of Wheatley’s collection, Conor Carville wrote: “Dublin may have finally found a collection of poems that accommodate its fractious dislocations.” Roy Fisher, famously the poet of Birmingham city, has offered comments on his approach that seem helpful in relation to Wheatley’s work also:

I just saw [the city] – partly because of a somewhat oblique or withdrawn personality – I just saw it as an agnostic, I had to say ‘What is it? What’s this great blob? What’s this noise, what is all this red brick? Why are people like this?’ And in the early poetry, the city poetry, I would be trying to more or less put a lever under it and prise it up, historically, and say ‘What are these two hundred years that have made this city? That have suddenly made this deposit on the surface of the earth, and has made these activities happen?

“Early Start” sets the tone of the collection as one that is voiced out of contemporary, urban, quotidian existence and its locked-in cycles of routine and ritual, yet there are traces of “the good life” too and the simple gifts that lend grace and even an Edenic quality, “the first taste”, to this austere urban morning: “a free gift / in the cereal packet, daybreak as sharp / a surprise as the scalding first taste of the coffee.” In the next poem, “Misery Hill”, the tone darkens as it renders the speaker isolate and alone walking through Dublin city, the “snap-together capital of forgetfulness”. The speaker walks “Misery Hill”, this forsaken site of the city’s past that exists “on the map but nowhere else”. Obsolescence is a theme of the whole collection and here the speaker picks through the detritus, the stray ephemera and vestiges of life: “I pick through the debris: / a pram, a tyre, a handbag.” Cars “drift down the quay past Misery Hill” and this suggestive word “drift” will sound in his later collection Mocker. For the moment, all is grim, barren, deserted:

The wind lifts again, a post-office van
passes silently by with letters
for anywhere but this grim street
with its rubble and wire-topped walls,
featureless and empty besides.

There is, perhaps, a hint of the bleak desolation at the end of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” here: “Nothing beside remains”. Also, the symbolic “letters / for anywhere but this grim street” call to mind the dead letters of Herman Melville’s Bartleby: The Scrivener. Given the fact that James Clarence Mangan, the presiding spirit of Misery Hill, was himself a scrivener, this can surely be no accident.

“Misery Hill” is followed by a sequence of fourteen sonnets addressed to Mangan himself, the supreme Dublin flâneur and “Ireland’s poète maudit” as Wheatley has termed him. Wheatley’s sequence not only commemorates Mangan but brings him back to life as the very modern and endlessly protean, shape-shifting poet that he is: “Of all the masks you donned, which one was you?” Wheatley interrogates Mangan’s “dizzy paper trail” of selves. Mangan’s own poetic project was concerned with reclamation and here Wheatley reclaims Mangan in the same way as a vital, enabling precursor, as well as a kindred, conflicted poet-critic: “Help me James, to take upon myself / the sins of poets: help me to tell the damned /and saved apart, all in eight hundred words”. Wheatley’s poetic voice is much more assured in this second collection, and the poetic technique across these sonnets is effortless – winning rhymes include “Te Deum / tedium” and “Siberia / suburbia” – nothing here seems strained. The opening sonnet will be familiar to many readers:

Fishamble Street, the Civic Offices
turning the sky a bureaucratic grey
above a vacant lot’s rent-free decay:
craters, glass, graffiti, vomit, faeces.
One last buttressed Georgian house holds out
precariously against the wreckers’ ball
or simply lacks the energy to fall
and rise again as one more concrete blot.
Ghost harmonics of the first Messiah
echo round the Handel House and mix
with bells long redeveloped out of use
at Saints Michael and John’s, a ghostly choir
rising and falling until the daydream breaks …
Silence. Of you, Mangan, not a trace.

The design of the poem skilfully creates a sense of unending motion, of the processes of creation and destruction. The sinuous enjambment in its “turning” mimics, in the opening lines, the unnatural working of the Civic Offices on the sky, and, across the seventh and eighth lines, orchestrates the falling and rising of the buildings, as Georgian house gives way to concrete formations. The telling pun on concrete “blot” (instead of block) perfectly renders the eyesore that is reconfiguring the city skyline. The Civic Offices themselves were built on Wood Quay, the site of a Viking settlement, and are a blight on the city’s landscape, a monument to the destruction of its rich historical past. The rising and falling of the city’s architecture as history is erased and replaced with these obdurate, corporate, high-rise edifices, is underscored by the rising and falling cadences of Handel’s sublime “ghost harmonics” – unheard, imperceptible – the lost music echoing, reverberating in the speaker’s mind only and providing a poignant ground bass to the city’s obliteration. There is no music here, only silence, as all traces of a city’s history and culture are wiped out. Again Wheatley attends to the minutiae, to the feculence, the dross and scum of human life: “craters, glass, graffiti, vomit, faeces”. Every detail is turned over and considered. What follows throughout these compelling sonnets is a journeying meditation on art and on human existence as one poet seeks out the company of the ghost of another, the poetry keeping step with the contemporary city, past and present. The scope of Wheatley’s poetic resource is large, as this sequence displays.

The often-regarded pièce de résistance of the collection is its final poem, a sequence of thirty-three sonnets in terza rima also titled “Misery Hill”. In this, a madcap peregrination through a warped, debased Dublin becomes a lurid, burlesque version of Dante’s Purgatorio; the book’s cover is emblazoned rather audaciously with an engraving from Gustave Doré’s illustration of Dante’s work.Yet this sequence is in no way as achieved or artful as the sonnets to Mangan and it only becomes tedious as it progresses, its heavy debt to Muldoon making it an inferior model. Indeed a much more impressive, though less formally ambitious, poem is “An Apple Pip” which displays the poet’s preoccupation with time, memory and loss and a world that cannot be reclaimed. Here, with these heavily felt preoccupations, the young Wheatley reveals a connection to more mature poets such as Louis MacNeice (his “Soap Suds” for example). As the opening stanzas relate, the speaker locates himself in his childhood, in the house of his grandparents, in the continuous present:

I’m tricycling in circles round the old orchard
when my grandmother calls me in from the front door.
Her lined hands, when she waves, are covered in flour.
There will be salad for dinner, cake afterwards,

then time doled out by a ceremonial ancient
clock in the living room with the tea and talk …

It is an unremarkable place and time, an ordinary scene which may be taken for granted in its reassuring predictability, yet the tragedy for the speaker is that this childhood pattern – “Sunday after Sunday every week / the same performance played out” – as regular as the ticking of a metronome, or the “ceremonial clock”, cannot last but instead “gets lost, upended”. This jolting realisation is then made manifest as the child’s playtime is disrupted beyond repair; his tricycle runs aground, “careering into nettle- / patch in the orchard, the burning and the stink / of liniment rubbed on where I’ve been stung”. The speaker has been “upended” on his bicycle just as the stability of life itself is pulled from under him, revealed as illusory, and the poem ends with a yearning to return, to rewind to the past and the moment of origin, as if cycling backwards were possible. There “will be no going back to the saddle”,

unless to cycle backwards from now on,
out of the tangled roots and the nettle-trap,
back to the original apple pip
into which I gather all that’s grown

and gone and give it all a second chance;
my long-dead grandparents restored to life,
a beetroot salad I pretend to like,
the windfalls falling upward to the branch.

There is something too of Frost’s haunting and haunted poem “Directive” here in the speaker’s stately, painfully removed mode of address and, in this way the poem, with its profound pain of loss, bespeaks a measure of sensitivity and maturity that is not yet quite fully-formed in Wheatley’s work but is, as this poem gestures, clearly possible. This is a memorable, unsentimental poem and one which every reader will keep returning to. Appropriately, the collection closes with a quotation from Beckett’s “Serena III” – “on Misery Hill brand new carnation” – which seems to whisper after it “keep on the move / keep on the move”. This dynamic spirit and restless, exploratory impulse will indeed persist.

Wheatley’s interest in formal possibilities extends to an experimentalism that is perhaps best exemplified in “A Pint of Milk”, published in the London Review of Books in May 2005. Plotting the routine, daily activity that is a walk to the local shops, the form of the poem visually evokes detours and digressions through its random, fragmented, stepping-stone design and so perfectly captures the veering movements of the ambling pedestrian in a chaotic, sprawling contemporary urban locale. The reader becomes the pedestrian as the poem operates as a set of loose instructions, like the stage directions for a play, outlining the course of the action, the pauses and intervals marked out by the gapping spaces and silences in the text:

leaving behind only yourself and the door unlocked
venture down the avenue

There is an aleatory strategy at work here and the fact that the reader may choose how to connect the loose phrases in this free-form, open poem and what direction to follow makes for multiple possibilities of movement. There is no punctuation to hamper the spontaneous release of the language – words and phrases float free, unmoored – there are therefore no margins, no boundaries and no closure and the last lines are effective in conveying a sense of unending activity:

bundling in the open door
you come bearing
a pint of milk for the tea
and a bag for life

 

Language – its interstices and slippages and its loosening connection with any ideas of an ordered reality – is becoming increasingly exposed in Wheatley’s work through his own limitless formal ingenuity.

Mocker, Wheatley’s third collection, appeared in 2006 and here Dublin is left behind for Hull, which in many ways becomes Wheatley’s own city, or second city, his “adoptive landscape” as he has called it. Hull as a bleak, post-industrial city dominates the collection just as it has been a vast repository for a range of contemporary poets including Douglas Houston, Douglas Dunn, Peter Didsbury and Sean O’Brien. Writing in the introduction to his anthology of Hull poets A Rumoured City, Dunn described the city’s “marginal, provisional, almost frontier quality”, all attributes that would draw Wheatley to the place; the impulses evident in his earlier poetry would lead him to this far-flung outpost on the edge of things. One senses that Larkin’s Hull, its “essential loneliness”, is never far from Wheatley’s thoughts: “I like it because it’s so far away from everywhere else. On the way to nowhere, as somebody put it. It’s in the middle of this lonely country, and beyond the lonely country there’s only the sea. I like that […] Makes it harder for people to get at you.” Indeed, Wheatley, in his “Irishman’s Diary” for the The Irish Times some years ago, made clear his own sense of being a poet in Larkin’s city:

For most of his time in Hull Larkin lived in a house on Pearson Park, just down the road from the flat I have occupied since moving here last January. On the other side of my flat is the hospital where he died, as he predicted he would, aged 63, of cancer in 1985. I pass his portrait every time I enter his library, I've shopped in his Large Cool Store, Marks & Spencer, played Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet recordings in my bachelor flat, enjoyed the terminate and fishy-smelling pastoral of ships up streets and I almost said I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. Well, not every night. Yet.

There is no “anxiety of influence” here however. Hull’s status as a city of poets has been well-documented and Wheatley, as a younger Hull poet, is never hampered but only exhilarated by his contemporaries and predecessors. Wheatley is as knowing and self-conscious a poet as he is a critic and his relationship to the city and its poets is always on his own terms. Indeed, in many ways his naturally peripatetic, elusive identity makes his residence of a city outside Ireland a liberation as Hull becomes a place apart – an “elsewhere” to use Larkin’s word – and one that reflects his poetic personality perfectly. Wheatley himself has identified the location of this collection as “neither here nor there, in between”; this poetic territory is shifty, slippery and always unstable.

The title of the collection, Mocker, can mean “a bird that imitates sounds” – hence mockingbird, parrot, macaw and other avian presences of Wheatley’s collection – as well as an imitator, a person who mocks, a parodist or ridiculer. The title poem itself is appropriately bilingual, in Irish and English, and it plays on the coincidences of language and the ambiguities of translation. In the RTÉ interview cited above, Wheatley was questioned about the various levels of “mocking” in the collection and in the poem “Macaw”. He offered a helpful response but also, deliberately or not, brilliantly undercut the very medium of pre-recorded sound, of radio itself, rendering it a kind of sonic hall of mirrors:

With the macaw who does repeat the speaker’s words back to him it’s as if the words of the poem are being taken and travestied and passed through all these different layers … it’s like even the experience of listening to a recording of yourself, it always sounds distorted, you don’t recognise yourself, but I mean to hear your words for instance spoken back to you by a big red macaw is one way of bringing yourself back down to earth I suppose.

Tim Kendall, in his review of Mocker for Tower Poetry, described the collection as “scarred with a self-loathing verging on the suicidal”. What Kendall’s reading of the collection overlooks in its narrow focus on the face-value statements of the speakers of these poems, is the literary scope of this collection, its subversive imagination, its ventriloquism and, following on from that, the enlivening nexus of poetic exchanges and conversations which the poems enact.

“I wish I could think of just one nice thing to tell you about Hull – oh yes, well, it’s very nice & flat for cycling: that’s about the best I can say,” a displaced and dispirited Philip Larkin wrote from the city in 1955. In the opening poem of Mocker, “City”, the speaker has “found” himself on the flat landscape of Hull, in its “flat, estuarial vagueness” to borrow a phrase employed by Wheatley himself in his piece on the poetry of Peter Didsbury. The title of this poem also calls to mind Roy Fisher’s 1961 collection of the same name and Fisher as a poet of the city – “Birmingham’s what I think with” as he famously remarked – is an important figure for Wheatley. Indeed his definition of a poem may be Wheatley’s own: “A poem has business to exist, really, if there’s a reasonable chance that somebody may have his perceptions rearranged by having read it.” Knowing its territory intimately but rendering it strange in its contours, the poem pans across the flat landscape as we journey into Hull:

I seem to have found my level:
flat, all is flat, from the moment
you come off the ring road, leaving
behind the bridge
and the estuary’s curled lip
chewing on Lincolnshire:
nothing rises,
nothing will rise

The poem continues its downward drop in this way – there are no stanza breaks – forming a structure of tenuously interlocking lines stacked gingerly on top of one another. In its precarious architecture it reflects the unstable, tentative nature of the city and its own construction. Like the poem, the city, made up of layers that are only tenuously conjoined, is easily torn down; in its visual resemblance to a child’s construct made of bricks, the poem, as the city, can be easily knocked over. Indeed, the way that the lines interlock resembles the pattern used in brickwork but it is merely a ghost of such stability. As the eye moves downward from line to line, the effect is vertigo-inducing, each alternating line beginning with a blank space which resembles a hole in a floor which one could fall through. The effect is disconcerting: this is not a poetry that will be reassuring, the poem through its very design declares. The imagery is stark, as the city’s outskirts come into view, amputated “stumps of churches and tower blocks”, “speluncular” drains – does he mean “speluncar”? No matter, the onomatopoeia is effective. The bingo halls, industrial estates, the tattooist’s, the post office; all are familiar sites yet the effect is a dislocative one. Nor does Wheatley’s all-seeing, unceasing gaze overlook the inhabitants themselves and their interactions, the teenagers,

disappearing down
the embankment or slouched
in the tattooist’s door
eyeing the line of unfortunates,
the dispersed ones, queuing
on sufferance for
their coupons and stamps,
the veteran shuffling
from the post office under
their empty gaze

The proliferation of present participles makes for a continuous action, generating motion sickness in its relentless to and fro, ebb and flow. This is where the poet situates himself and the poem concludes from an appropriate vantage point, “on top of the world”.

 

The next poem, “Cold”, continues its focus on the Hull estuary and its environs. Its epigraph is a fragment from the work of the Hull-born poet Stevie Smith. The excerpt is taken from her 1959 radio play A Turn Outside and is part of a longer prose passage which Smith described as “frightening”:

There is little laughter where you are going and no warmth. In that landscape of harsh winter where the rivers are frozen fast, and the only sound is the crash of winter tree branches beneath the weight of the snow that is piled on them, for the birds that might have been singing froze long ago, dropping like stones from the cold sky (I lick my lips) the soul is delivered to a slow death. For in that winter landscape there is no shelter for her delicate limbs, for her soft, downy and voluptuous head.

Smith herself, who shared Larkin’s “desire for oblivion”, may be regarded as another poetic kindred spirit for Wheatley and one whose “marooned spirit” (as Seamus Heaney described it) matches Wheatley’s own. Smith’s blackly humorous radio play has the poet herself undergoing an interview by an unnamed interlocutor who turns out to be Death. Death himself, having had to press Smith into reading the excerpt, declares once she has finished that it is “not so hopeful” as an image of the afterlife. Wheatley’s poem is evocative in its description of life in a deathly, inhospitable landscape and yet it could never be as chilling and exact as Smith’s own “frightening” projection.

Wheatley’s Hull predecessors and contemporaries are never out of earshot throughout this collection and the poem “Bankside-Wincolmlee by Instamatic” is a homage to Peter Didsbury and a tribute to Didsbury’s “Eikon Basilike”. In doing this, Wheatley is following on from Douglas Houston, who likewise dedicated his poem “Gardens” to Didsbury, a poem which also referenced “Eikon Basilike”. This sense of a conversation between Hull poets is there throughout Wheatley’s collection and one is reminded of Houston’s comment on the vital mutuality that exists between himself, Sean O’Brien, Peter Reading and Dunn: “I can pick up the phone any night now and talk to Sean, Peter or Douglas, read a poem if I have one worth the trouble, continue conversations started years ago.” Didsbury has described his “Eikon Basilike” as an “odyssey through the frozen city” and Wheatley revels in the journey-narrative here, which is very much in the spirit of Didsbury, using the older poet’s example as an enabling, liberating one as he negotiates the city of Hull in the same imaginative and freely associative way, eschewing any straightforward realism for a richer and more subjective succession of highly imagistic responses. With Didsbury invoked directly in this way, the “speluncular drains” of “City” now seem to specifically call to mind Didsbury’s drain in “Eikon Basilike” that “empties into the turbulent German ocean” or the “Sluices. Ditches. Drains” of the “flat, wet landscape” of Hull and its environs in his earlier poem “The Drainage”. Andrew Marvell, another of Hull’s former poet-residents, is invoked in “Complaint”. Thus Wheatley walks Hull with a number of poetic voices for company, all of whom have engaged with the city in various profound ways. A more recent example of this communality between contemporary Hull poets is the collaborative publication Architexts, a collection of poems written in response to the city’s architecture by poets including Wheatley, Christopher Reid and David Kennedy, all accompanied by pictures. Wheatley’s “At the Sign of Ye Olde White Harte” concerns the Siege of Hull of 1642, the city as a site of civil war, while his “To Wilmington Swing Bridge” hymns the erratic “house in the air” as a trompe l’oeil on its “terra non firma”.

Continuing through Hull, “Whalebone Haiku” is a playful sequence of haiku set in a well-known city pub:

I’m beached on the bar,
a Whalebone whale. When it spouts
my blowhole spouts beer.

The theme of obsolescence is pointed to in the very name of the pub; Hull thrived on a fishing industry that is now defunct and this part of northern England was also a major whaling centre. The original format of publication of these poems – on beer mats – seems appropriate when one considers the ephemeral, impermanent nature of human endeavour, of art itself, and particularly for a poet who has himself professed: “I think I’m just attracted to the idea of people spilling beer all over my work or ripping it up and throwing it away if the desire so takes them.” But the thought of a community resting their drinking glasses on Wheatley’s haiku, reading them through the bottom of their empty glasses – as they drown their sorrows no doubt – is also fitting and, as Wheatley has himself professed, the poems “arose out of and were returned to this community” in this way.

Also set in Hull, the poem “Nostalgia” is, to my mind, one of the most enduring in the collection. It draws on Hull’s past, the bombing of the city during World War II, to make connections with the present day state of war in Iraq, its bleak soundscape made up of the “muezzin cries” of roosters, foghorns and crackling wartime radio broadcasts. Yet beyond all of this, the most striking action is the creative act of the mind. The poetic process has the speaker strive for the precise definition of the colour of light that he perceives in the night sky, as words are strung together to form a composite image in linkages that will not break – “petrol-on-tarmac, salmon-and-blue-on-sable / evening sky”. The poem ends with an “azure-and-pink-/against-pitch-black-sunset” that is imagined “streaking the sky / behind the Ouse” and the lone human – this is Wheatley’s Yorkshire river Ouse not Virginia Woolf’s – with his dog, a figure of human solitude. This is enough and is all that one can ask for, the alienated speaker of the poem seems to understand in his nostalgia, his longing for the journey home – wherever that may be.

“Axolotl” is one of the most fascinating poems in the collection. Set in the “indoor park” in Hull, a reference, it would seem, to the title of Sean O’Brien’s collection The Indoor Park from 1983, the poem opens with a disturbing articulation – “The blood drains from my face” – as the speaker observes a pair of axolotls in the conservatory. The studied description of the creatures that follows is mesmerising:

[…] Notable for their
‘permanent retention of larval features,
such as external gills’, and also for
their black eyes, not red: not alibied
by a truant pigment but thus by design.

There is a strong echo in the last line here of Frost’s poem “Design”: “What but design of darkness to appall / If design govern in a thing so small?” “Evolve or die” the speaker, becoming immersed in the world and minds of the axolotls, imagines them thinking as they weigh up the choices of their existence. Thus the engrossed speaker fantasises about the creatures’ continued existence into the evening when all human life has retired for the day and they are left to their own devices. The axolotls take on human characteristics:

[…] And at night,
hoisted on their pudding hind legs
they rattle the locked conservatory door
for as long as their held breath lasts
and slouch back to their tank to weigh it all up:
the evolving or dying, the dying or surviving […]

This element of fantasy, the way that these mysterious, ages-old creatures fascinate the lone gazer and cause him to bestow on them sophisticated inner lives, reminds one of Julio Cortázar’s short story also titled “Axolotl”, and its opening lines:

There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.

Like Wheatley’s, Cortázar’s speaker wonders if the axolotls are “capable of escaping that mineral lethargy in which they spend whole hours”; they are “lying in wait for something”. The use of the word “slouched” in Wheatley’s poem echoes Yeats’s “Second Coming” – the “rough beast its hour come round at last” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” – and this ties in with Cortázar’s speaker’s assertion: “They were lying in wait for something, a remote dominion destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had been that of the axolotls.” Something, then, of the same spirit lies behind Wheatley’s poem in a collection that is at so many levels concerned with shape-shifting, metamorphoses, translation and above all, as ever, the vagaries of perception, the conditionality of reality and human identity. The axolotls are larvae, and larva, as Cortázar’s speaker reminds the reader “means disguise and also phantom”, both words which serve to describe the characteristics of Wheatley’s precarious, troubled speakers.

In Hull, as Larkin’s quotation makes clear, the sea is never far away and other locations are explored in this collection of journeys, drifts and excursions. As mentioned earlier, the collection seems to pivot on the word “drift” and its various meanings, which cover ideas of migration, drive, deviation, floating matter, a course or road, and may suggest passivity, aimlessness and wandering. Also, of course the word “drift” refers to communication and meaning, as in the phrase “do you catch my drift?”. The poem “Drift” takes the reader on a seemingly aimless excursion down the coast of England – from Whitby to Withernsea and beyond. Here, as in many of Wheatley’s poems addressed to a “you” the poem’s closing statement is somewhat maudlin: “You’d left me my ice-cream. But you were gone.” This is an attempt at emotional resonance but one which falls flat. Wheatley is not (yet) a love poet and this may signify a lack of maturity, something which is hardly unusual in a younger poet. Like a pianist who can play the right notes with technical precision and virtuosity but cannot fully convey in his interpretation the emotional reach of the music, Wheatley is a gifted technician but his poems, from Thirst to Mocker, often eschew emotional depth and prefer to dwell – or to drift – in estrangement. The one exception to this is, appropriately, the collection’s closing poem, which is one of the most memorable in Wheatley’s oeuvre. Drifting to “Ljubljana” this poem may be the truest articulation of love between one human and another in Wheatley’s work thus far. Wheatley, like Muldoon, delights in the trouvaille, the coincidences of language, and here the city’s name is found to mean “beloved”. “Journey in my steps,” the poet as speaker implores his love.

Wheatley’s most recent publication, his dazzlingly evocative Lament for Ali Farka Touré, was published by Rack Press in 2008 in a limited edition and it is his most innovative and imaginative publication to date. There is something appropriate about its small-scale publication as a single poem. That it was not made part of a larger collection lends the work a poignant integrity and sets it apart. In this lament for the famous and world-renowned “king of African blues”, Wheatley brings us on a journey through the heartland of Mali, Ali Farka Touré’s landscape, the landscape that is the source of the music itself, as Touré himself made clear in an interview: “Mali is first and foremost a library of the history of African music. It is also the sharing of history, legend, biography of Africa – that’s Mali.” Touré’s final album, Savane, was released posthumously and Wheatley quotes lines from the opening track, “Erdi”,in the penultimate stanza of his poem as a tribute to the never-ending gift of Touré’s music: “First son who has never been matched, thank you for what never ends, yes!” Indeed, Joe Tangari’s description of Savane as an album that “flows like a river, at times, tumultuous, at others placid, but always full of life and movement” and “conjures an elemental thrum” perfectly encapsulates Wheatley’s own “Lament”. Wheatley clearly sought to capture the whole, vast panorama of the landscape of Touré’s music in his poem and the “Lament” opens by invoking the almost mythical creatures of Niger with a touching, and playfully childlike inquiry:

Hippo baby hippo
at the waterhole

where the crocodile’s
narrowed eyes stare

from the pool,
o thirsty hippo

what will you do?

“In my tongue Mali / means “hippo” and Bamako / “place of crocodiles”,” we later learn, and the variety of languages and expressive forms in Mali is emphasised throughout; Touré himself spoke eleven languages. As well as being a figure on the world music stage, best known perhaps for his famous collaboration with Ry Cooder, he was also mayor of his town of Niafunké, and so it is that his spirit embodies both the universal and the local, containing multitudes. Jean-Marie Gibbal, in his 1994 study Genii of the River Niger, writes that in Farka’s copious music “the conversation roams from the most modern sound recording techniques and the process of making a record with a multiple-track mixing board in some faraway European studio to the world of the river”. It is this world of the river that Wheatley is so attentive to, where we find, as Gibbal explains: “the crocodile who ‘only fights with his teeth’ and who’s so sad he could be mistaken for a shangtan; the hippopotamus, who is so heavy he ‘digs tombs’ as he moves over the solid earth”. Moreover, Farka, Touré’s given nickname, means “donkey” and Wheatley’s lament ends appropriately with a man whistling “a tune whose name / means happiness” and “slapping the rump / of the first donkey he passes”. Gibbal’s study provides insight into the significance of these creatures and Touré’s deep connection with the land and the river. As he explains, these animals are associated with the Ghimbala genii or djinn, the spirits of the place whose presence Touré sensed every day as he had been in communion with them from an early age. Touré himself described his heritage as a vital, creative source, “a well that never grows dry”. It was the spirits who led Touré to his music and Wheatley’s “Lament” recounts Touré’s initiation into music through the spirits while also portraying an invigorating, contemporary musical community:

When the child spies a snake
at the edge of the fields

the spirits attack.
Bind him, take him away!

“What is that tune
you are playing, djinn?”

Bassekou sings. “I am
a griot and you must tell me.”

“I call it Ba La Bolo,”
the djinn answers,

“The Branch of the River.”
For a year the boy and the spirits

do battle. He returns
with a tune on his lips:

all praise to Jimbala!
Ancestral and river spirits,

Pepsi and Sicilian-style spirits
join us this evening

where Bassekou sings
Ba La Bolo in Chez Thierry

and we dine on the best
pizza in Bamako.

In this way Touré is a child of the river – he has professed the importance of “roots”, of “home” – while also being a far-sighted, cosmopolitan figure. All is possible for Touré, as his music in its range and breadth of styles testifies to. As Gibbal has recognised, Touré manages in his repertoire to “synthesise the culture of the rock-music generation with the genii culture in which he was raised”. Wheatley’s poem captures something of the whole expansive weave, the richness and complexity of Touré’s landscape, its deep history, culture, languages, religions, mythology, all bound up in Touré’s music, giving a full sense of its very life and breath, its boundless reach. This is a reality, a whole world, that is far from the culture of Western Europe and so it deepens the readers’ understanding of the world and the processes of civilisation:

 

The Manding empire,
the Songhai empire.

Colonial wars, tribal wars.
Nomad uprisings,

desertification. Abandonment
of migration routes

and slaughter of livestock.

The reader becomes the traveller, journeying through the unknown and down the river Niger in a pirogue. The traveller’s assumptions and ideals are tested at every turn as new sights and sensations present themselves and other perspectives are revealed:

The river rises, sun-baked
and hardened, to give thanks

for itself in the mud
mosque sweating under

its ostrich-egg caps
and awaiting the women

to come sponge it down.
A goat’s capsized reflection

shakes a silent bell
under the tide that rocks

the pirogue. We bring
you millet and salt

from the outlying villages
and desert mines.

The world has opened up in this way, a “capsized reflection”. As the blues maestro himself said in an interview:

For some people, when you say Timbuktu it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world.

“That sense of the genius loci, that phrase, of inhabiting the place, I get a very strong charge out of that I must say,” Wheatley has said, and in his “Lament for Ali Farka Touré” he has carried us to Timbuktu, down the Niger where Touré himself once steered his course, to a place that is both at the end of the world and right at its heart, a place that we didn’t even know truly existed as the quasi-mythical, far-off land of Timbuktu is the stuff of fantasy. August Kleinzahler has described Roy Fisher’s poem “The Thing About Joe Sullivan” as “one of the very few first-rate poems about jazz”. One thinks too of Larkin’s “For Sidney Bechet” as another deserving tribute. Wheatley, in his vibrant, moving paean to Touré’s spirit, has done the same for the African blues musician and there is a palpable warmth throughout this poem that has not been in evidence in Wheatley’s poetry thus far. There is a fresh imaginative engagement at work here and the sense of further possibility thereby seems limitless; it is a poetry that, as it develops and explores, opens up new and larger ways of encountering the world in all its multiplicity, and there’s more, much more, to come.


Maria Johnston recently received her doctorate in English from Trinity College Dublin, where she has taught part-time for the past three years. She is a regular reviewer for Poetry Ireland Review and Contemporary Poetry Review. She is currently editing a collection of essays on poetry and politics and co-editing a collection on the poetry of Pearse Hutchinson.

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