The State She’s In, by acclaimed poet Lesley Wheeler, is an angry book. This should come as no surprise: the bulk of the poems were written and published in and about the years leading up to—and following—the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Numerous poems reference him by name, or by clear and obvious caricature. He is a villain in this quasi-mythological world, based on real-life events that many of the poems deal with. But this poetic image of Trump is also a startling revelation to the speaker in many of these poems, too. The speaker has wanted the world to change for the better, but alas, that has not happened yet—and her mythic version of Trump is the lightning bolt that crashes her dreams.
I called this collection “angry” for several reasons. Before I dive deeper into them, however, I want to emphasize that this is an exceptionally well-crafted collection. Wheeler is an immaculate poet, which is to say that I don’t think a single word is out of place in this work. The poems are tightly structured and every word, every line break, every comma, has intention and purpose. Sonically, many of these poems are just wonderful. Even in the works that are heavier, and deal with topics I don’t necessarily enjoy, I have to give Wheeler credit for this because I absolutely cannot fault her form. She’s practiced and well-educated in her craft, and it shows in all the best ways. For instance, I love the sound of the lines in “Inappropriate,” even if I dislike its overall tone, as was true for many of the poems. Even though I didn’t like maybe half of the content of these poems much at all, I kept thinking of them days after my first reading. So perhaps Wheeler knew my own latent anger better than I knew it myself.
I must emphasize this point because I do not wish my labelling the work as “angry” to be misread as an indictment of Wheeler’s language or her politics. While this collection did have a bit too much political rhetoric and not enough play or uncanniness for my own tastes, especially for something I was thinking was more speculative (given the fact I’d just read her work Unbecoming), I am on her side in so many of the mock-debates and case studies she recreates in her collection here. I was also overcome by utter despair in 2016 as I watched the world seemingly implode with the election of Trump—and I’m Canadian. I have a super-liberal, pot-legalizing prime minister (who of course is not without his set of problems), but I still felt as if everything I had once believed in had been demolished with the 2016 election. I’d wanted a woman as president since I could put those two concepts together. So I can relate to the retrospective optimism in Wheeler’s set of poems/prefaces titled “Ambitions” which goes through a similar sudden realization of women and their potential legacy, as well as the utter and immovable dread in Wheeler’s next series of poems as they inch closer and closer to the final November 2016 date. One of the “Ambitions” poems, subtitled “At Speed,” is rich with luscious images, yet there is a distinct sense of sorrow and foreboding. After a taxi driver asks the woman speaker if she’s famous, she thinks about:
III. Ever coming and becoming.
IV. The moon this morning a thin-skinned clementine section, scented
droplets suspended briefly in air.
V. He bowls his taxi down broad avenues, a gutter ball, no, straight down
the middle, faster and faster, rattling time zones.
VI. Some days you pour out in chatter or in blood. Bottled months
exsanguinate. Leave a stain and a tip, afraid he will not unlock the door.
VII. Terrible scroll of purple. Each word a mishap. Audience members
Near the end she announces that there is “No such thing as arrival. Only action.” This tension escalates in the same way that the relationships feel drawn together in “Ambitions”; the man here is an outsider, longing to acquire some sort of personal knowledge of the woman he has near him (his repeating “Are you famous?”) but she refuses to relent, while the women speakers in this collection fold together, work together, speak to one another—though that speaking is so much like a scream.
I call Wheeler’s work angry, not as a criticism, but in order to reflect the bulk of its tone. She—and the speaker in multiple works—is clearly angry. Her rage in the poem “Uncivil” literally drips in time with the pink buds on a magnolia tree, creating a startling image of something blooming to life with anger. So much of the precision in her language comes from her ability to name and categorize plant life and other biological fare (a point I will return to later on), and so often, the plant matter takes on the darker emotions of the speaker. The magnolia tree is one example, but there is also “Black Walnut Tree” where there are several lines about poisonous shadows and unspeakable bitterness, which use the black walnut’s real-life ability to kill all other plant life around it for poetic value. “Fire Ecology” is another poem that takes this sense of pathetic fallacy to another level—though the anger/rage in this poem seems to be more about the process of chemotherapy rather than political poisons (Wheeler writes “Cancer jams her. Grips kidneys / and wraps hard around womb’s gap. / What was freedom became kindling / for chemo’s controlled burn”). The election of President Trump is the political source of the speaker’s numerous pains and angers, while the cancer treatment a mother undergoes is the personal manifestation of these rages and bitter strifes.
I call the work angry, though, for another reason. A therapist once told me that anger was a secondary emotion: We get angry only after we tell a story about something, and so, when we are angry, we need to step back and figure out what the first feeling truly was. That is the feeling we then need to acknowledge, examine, and then treat in an effort to heal. So, I call Wheeler’s work angry because I see it as a secondary emotion, and from that secondary emotion comes what seems to be a split country, a split world, and a lost history, a life that we could have all had, but didn’t.
This sense of split history emerges when Wheeler’s speaker discusses working at a university in the South, or about living in the South. (And here, you can already see me resisting the urge to blend the speaker and Wheeler into one person, as a way to possibly heal yet another split in the work.) Several of these university poems directly speak about the Civil War (“Turning Fifty in the Confederacy,” “Traces,” and “Before Lexington,” among others), and they are as beautiful as they are problematic. The speaker draws our attention to all the horrible things done in the landscape of the past America; she describes racist histories, horrible monuments, and is not ambiguous at all about the rage that drips from these works, especially as she states, “Whiteness will not save you,” in “Before Lexington.”
But I also think these poems are beautiful because of the way in which Wheeler describes the landscapes. Even the horrible landscapes, the problematic ones, are presented with a sense of reverence. I do not necessarily believe this was her intention, and of course, I do not think the history here is good in any way. Yet the history is history; the past is, as L.P. Hartley says in the opening line of The Go-Between, “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” We don’t live in the past anymore. Or at least, we shouldn’t live there anymore. Which is, really, the entire problem with 2016, as Wheeler has discussed in her work. We are living in the past, instead of remembering and learning from it. To be a university instructor in the South, then, is to embody that exact split between remembering and forgetting, the future and past, learning and making the same mistakes over and over.
The split between the States during the Civil War and the split that occurred when Trump was elected open up a split within the self, a split within humanity as a whole, and it is a split that is difficult to live in. It’s horrible, uncomfortable, and inspires deep despair. Wheeler expresses these splits in a grander, historical register through the Civil War poems, but then boils it down to the quotidian interactions with strangers at the grocery store, not quite sure what to say, or at the academic conference/party, where she and the other women feel threatened by the department heads, who are all “old men gone septic / under buttons, under powdery cheeks” (in “Dear Anne Spencer”).
Indeed, the split between men and women is especially strong in this work. There is not a single good man present. Every one of them mansplains or commits a crime or calls a woman a pussy or does something else horrible. Again, I am not saying that Wheeler should go out of her way to depict the one good man and I’m definitely not saying “not all men” in this review. What I am saying, and pointing out about this entire collection, is that it is irrevocably split down the middle. There is an east and west; a north and south; male and female; and it is especially hard to get these parts to speak to one another with any kind of civility. “Uncivil,” which I have already quoted from, definitely makes this point loud and clear “since anger’s born in the gut, feeds on your nourishment, and you’ll never in life starve yourself clean.”
Again, women do not need to be civil—or nice—in order to be taken seriously. No minority needs to be “nice” in order to be seen as valid or have their criticisms heard. I am merely pointing out all of these fractures and ruptures because these moments are absolutely important to understanding The State She’s In. It is a poetry collection that is about politics—but it is also deeply speculative, as the “State” she’s in can be so many different worlds. We are living in alternative timelines in our own minds, our own hearts, and the anger seems to be the key in understanding how we have become so split. So of course this work drips with anger. It should.
Wheeler is dealing with poetry, so we do not get the same sense of closure that might come from a novel which strives to explore politics using both literal and metaphorical speculative landscapes (such as China Miéville’s The City and The City or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed). Instead, we are left with evocations of feelings, of problems, and honestly, very little solution in these poems. I felt dread or upset on finishing most of them. Sometimes I was delighted by the word choice, and the clever twists that Wheeler uses, but then those feelings would fade when I would be inevitably confronted with another poem about politics, feminism gone awry, and sexism/racism. It sucked, honestly. Wheeler doesn’t suck—she is skilled—but so many of these poems were just bummers. There was anger, which for me, often turns to sadness. Then depression, because things have not gotten much better since that night in 2016.
Then I remembered my therapist’s words about anger. It is the secondary emotion. So what was the first? I became desperate to figure this out, because I knew there was something worthwhile, something that could provide a sense of relief, in Wheeler’s work. When I went into the collection with that question in mind, I was also rewarded. I found what I needed, what I absolutely wanted, especially during these difficult times: hope.
Wheeler’s work is certainly angry. It would be impossible not to see that. But there are moments where that first emotion of hope crops up. I am utterly enchanted by the image in one of the “Ambitions” poems, subtitled “Bath,” that contains a few lines about a woman talking about her daughter being born during the Hale-Bopp comet. Wheeler writes:
When my daughter the physics star was born, Hale-Bopp glowed in the sky. A maternity nurse wrapped me in blankets. We witnessed the brilliant tail. […] What equation could describe her orbit? Will anyone ever catch my shine?
This image floors me. It contains so much history, so much hope in so few words. A mother and her child, two generations, and a historical event that is shrouded in privacy. The personal becomes historical and then becomes political and then mythological. The daughter she has in her arms is brand new; they are witnessing a scientific landmark together; and then we as readers are projected into their future, which is our current present tense. We know that the daughter might also witness the horror that has previously cascaded onto the earlier pages thanks to the country becoming split open. But, as the comet misses Earth and instead becomes a lightshow, maybe all this horror will bypass her, too. Maybe the hope that the mother has, resulting from the birth of her daughter, the next in line of a series of women, will be okay. Maybe something good will come from this. Maybe, we will all be okay.
The poem itself is perhaps not as saccharine as I am making it sound. But Wheeler’s hope in the future shines through several other poems. I particularly love the take on Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto“ in “We Could Be Cyborgs,“ that cries out for a future where we can be healed and saved and shine all at once. When Wheeler writes, “Cyborgs like quiet, but that’s obsolete. This is love to the limits, at flickering speed,” I shiver in the aftermath, rather than regret existence.
Then there are the occult poems, which firmly use supernatural or otherwise esoteric images to project a different kind of future—or a new understanding of the past. These include, but are not limited to, her poems called “Occulted Sonnet” (my first favourite of the collection) and “An All Purpose Spell for Banishment,” along with the many botanical images she strings together throughout the entire work. Each time Wheeler mentions older women, witchcraft, or anything approximating that kind of knowledge, I get a thrill. I think of the long lineup of women who have been midwives, mystics, healers, who can control nature in such a way, and then how they have been ignored. They were not treated seriously, and yet, we still know about them now. They were forced to exist in this split existence, but they endured. They survived. And eventually, hopefully, these poems seem to hint, we will too.
Wheeler’s book is an angry one. It should be. We should be sticking our heads out our windows and, like Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, shouting, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But we should also step back and remember the emotions that got us here, believing in and writing about the future in the first place: hope, wonder, and belonging.