Another book from the stack! I do have a few more that I’ve read in the last few weeks (or will have finished by the time I feel like posting another reading post, at least), so maybe this will be the formation of a Good Habit. And then I can always shuffle back in time and pick out some stuff I’ve already slogged through that I think you, dear readers, might enjoy. If your appetite is whetted for some reviews, then mine is too for writing them.
So, Lesley Wheeler (whose book also arrived as part of the April Giveaway, and whose website can be found here) is an academic-poet, who (in my experience, at least) are rarer than one might think. Recently there’s been a meme going around the Internet about how various famous poets held other day jobs (doctors, mailmen, etc.), which seems to underscore the idea of not needing to be an English professor to be a poet. As someone who will most likely never be an English professor (maybe of a different stripe), there is some relief in that; but it still pays to have an appreciation of the tremendous depth of knowledge and training that Wheeler, and other professor-poets, go through. And she has done a remarkable job of portraying the world of academia with the title piece of her collection The Receptionist and Other Tales, with tongue firmly planted in cheek: there is an equal mix of everywoman sensibility, nuanced university politics, and a rich literary allusiveness.
First, the structure of the title piece is impressive: Wheeler presents thirty-three terza rimas that get playful with their rhyme and meter, but stick pretty closely to thirty linked lines of pentameter each. (I’ll assume that the number of “cantos” and their form is a send-up to Dante; and the narrative is itself reflective of a climb down through hell and up to heaven.) Over the course of those 990 lines, a coherent semi-fantastic narrative emerges slowly but surely, with each piece having a title reflective of the trope keyed by the individual poemlet: “The Priestess and the Primitives”, “A Glimpse of the Dark Lord”, “The Final Confrontation”, etc. (I note with amusement that Wheeler acknowledges Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a must-read for anyone interested in the genre.) (And then, Jones’ book is a spinoff of the Joseph Campbell tradition: more allusion.) To carry a story that long in verse is most impressive, and I think the divisions — each terza rima is a bite-size two pages — were a wise choice, as a poem of that length can quickly grow stale for readers.
The eponymous receptionist Edna (and could the author have picked a more perfect name?) seems to sum up several kinds of boundary: her family had the original benefactors of the university where she works, but she herself never finished college, she is invaluable as an administrator, but tends to side/identify with the professors, she is down-to-earth but has a number of preternatural moments that reinforce the poem’s feel. On the surface, the story is one you know well: sociopathic boss abuses his power, put-upon employees realize they must hang together else they all hang separate, etc. But presentation is everything: the drama and wry humor of the scenario is brought to life (and just as carefully put back to bed) from page to page with the fantasy element. Consider this:
…the drama professor billowed in,
followed close by the work-song-humming
medievalist. Edna dimmed her crystal
ball discreetly with a click. Her pulse was thrumming.
“The Dean,” Galina declared, “is a scoundrel.”
Her role: Head of Women’s Studies. Her métier:
to hex his sly designs.
These characters have a pulse, and use all manner of verbs to express themselves, and are doorways to side stories that flit in and out of the main one. It takes a careful read to keep track of them all, but as with any good novel, once you get involved, you make room in your brain. And look at how seamlessly “crystal ball”, “hex”, and even “medievalist” are worked in there. On the higher, architectural level, the poem makes clear when it is leading us up and down the standard paths of a fantasy narrative, but on a finer level, the genre shakes a thousand droplets of itself onto the words. And it is that best kind of fantasy, confounding a sword-and-sorcery male-centered genre with unlikely heroines in what could be the stuffiest of modern settings. You feel as though Edna, Galina, and the rest are people you know, and may have a hard time divorcing them from actual individuals in your mind. (I know I did.)
I don’t want to give too much away about the specifics of the plot (that snippet I put is from the third part, so it’s not too deep in for spoilers), but as long-form poems go, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one that is more accessible, friendly with its allusions, and steady as a steam engine. (I’m as much a fan of The Waste Land as anyone, and The Changing Light at Sandover is still on my list, but they’re not easy reads.) So let’s turn our attention to the “Other Tales” mentioned in the title, which fill out the rest of the book. It can be tough to carry an entire book on the strength of just one poem, though I do think The Receptionist is lush enough that it overbalances the other poems in the collection. Still, they carry Wheeler’s same English-academic wit, love of received form with its quality of sound, and relationship with fantasy as subject matter. The Waste Land itself gets a send-up with ”Zombie Thanksgiving”, and a number of well-known antagonists get their say in a series of near-sonnets called “Villainous Creeds”. From this latter poem comes this example snippet from the segment called “God”:
…I need my space,
I have earned the right to insist, and you won’t
ever be sure what lives behind the door.
Get used to it. Pray, worship all you want,
sacrifice a virgin. Your fix is dire:
yes, your parents helped to cook your head,
but I am the best bad idea you ever had.
Excellent stuff, that. I think what I find most memorable about the book is that, beyond the individual factors which are rare enough (who writes terza rima these days?), their combination sets the collection apart. Wheeler’s voice and storytelling tactics do not disappoint, and the technical execution helps any uncertainty about the subject matter or English-major wellspring go down very easy. (Plus, I see from her website that she has a BA from Rutgers; represent!) And that, I think, is all I have to say about that.
Have I earned a banana protein shake? Yes, I think I have.