Betsy Wheeler’s Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room has sort of undone me for the month and a half I’ve spent with it, reading it or letting it hang over to the side and reverbrate while I try ways through other stuff. Part of this undoing and me giving the book this time has been about trying to understand more fully what the hell’s going on with the thing. Reader, yes: Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room came recommended from I don’t know where but I remember feeling the thing was trumpeted, and I was excited about it, but ultimately it was on first and second reading, and is now still on eleventh or twentieth or howevermany reading, a book that reads as 1) deeply charming, 2) very very sweet, and 3) ultimately uninviting. Maybe not even uninviting: maybe exclusive, or exclusionary, or just elusive. It is, ultimately, a very private book, and that’s not a dig at all: plenty of books of poetry are ultimately private books, and the best poetry begins as a private thing that opens outward. However, if you’re looking for a book which is attempting to unfold the bindings of private experience into larger considerations of public life, or to offer more life than just that of the speaker, this may not be your book.
One feels, from the very first poem, a sort of privacy and smallness:
Non-Sonnet for the You Behind the Bedroom Door
Dear Reader, when I say I mean to ravage you,
I’m generally talking to ice cubes.
When, pleading in a scaly voice, I say That’s so
out-of-doors of you, I mean I am afraid you will leave me
with my muffler of sea-green foam, my star-shaped
sunglasses. When I tell you that I love my neighbor,
I actually mean my next-door neighbor—how his crying
makes the trees bow over the house,
makes the grass try to stand up straighter.
When, signed off and halfway sleeping, I murmur
O Fabulous coverlet! it means I feel ready for death’s comfort.
When I say again I’ll be sorry when this ends, and my voice
is shards of ice, then I’m not addressing my drink,
but rather the whole mad collection of You.
The reader gets quite a bit as far as what the rules of this world may be: 1) forms will be hinted at and recognized but used bendedly; 2) you will be deployed in ways that include some trickery; and 3) there will be almost a radio feel to this, almost a calling out (“When, signed off and halfway sleeping”). Radios and boats make regular appearance throughout the book in fact, both of which are vessel enterprises: radio demands a listener (+DJ), boats demand rivers (+helmspeople), and ultimately Wheeler’s poems demand communication, demand a readerly presence, but I myself only felt fit to understand about half the book.
I think the first “Non-Sonnet” (there are several throughout the book) hints at a sort of
cutesy internalizing that happens quite a bit throughout Wheeler’s stuff, this whirling away from the reader. Certainly this is just a matter of taste and style, absolutely, however, for at least this reader, the final four lines of the ‘octet’ of the non-sonnet, those about her neighbor: my readerly response is okay, but nothing more. How can I be interested or care? I don’t know her neighbor, don’t know why he cries, etc—how am I to square what she’s telling me? Or the fact that she’s got star-shaped glasses: again, okay, but what other than signifying a certain type of sartorial marker does that fact do? The biggest struggle for me about this book—and please know I sat down to review this and began in one direction and am now coming back, torn+of two minds—is this sort of cutesy personal crap that garbles the whole enterprise coupled with the fact that that stuff’s almost 100% balanced out by poems that seem ultimately engaged in talking to the reader’s mind in the best and biggest ways. Here, for instance, is what Wheeler’s awesomeness can look like:
Non-Sonnet for Telling You Everything
Like how high banjo trills make me go electric.
Like how charity. Like how gold.
Like I’d like to take you in and feed you a little
sweet milk. Like you’d mind, but I’m so
tired of honesty like California fault lines.
Like how this is the big moment.
Like how cuteness rules the dating quadrants.
Like how sexy. Like when I say you look good
in white linen, I mean sheets. Like I’d like to
rob your booty bank. Like how I’d take my
winnings to the grave.
Light and playful and ultimately cool as hell, this poem shares almost identical ingredients with the more forgettable, inbent ones in Loud Dreaming: there’s you, there’s cutesy stuff (maybe banjo trills aren’t cutesy to you), there’s this slipperiness in meaning (she stabs honesty right in the guts basically halfway through the poem, so how honest is the actual poem?), and but then, at the end, there’s this directness, a feeling of risking actual emotion and exposure on the part of the speaker, that makes the whole poem zing crackingly to life.
Here’s part of another one, less successful:
The Voice in the Sky.
A detonating effect.
The Embassy green and marbleish.
The water below and the bells.
The bells and their salty confidence.
The ruddy lights and we are frozen.
The French had concerns over architecture but others
believed more in signage.
The poem keeps going like that, not once remotely (to my reading) attempting to actually connect with the reader. What ultimately ends up happening, or what feels to be happening, is that the poems that don’t work feel as if they’re ultimately performances in quotes, or poems in quotes, or I don’t know what but something in quotes: they feel multivanetly self-aware, which (I’d argue) makes for steep odds against a poem ending up offering the sort of propulsive ah-hah that good art most often does. Here’s what I mean: say you catch yr beloved (if yr lucky enough to have a beloved) singing to him/herself in the bathroom mirror, really going for it, using the brush handle as a mic, belting out old Bon Jovi or whatever. You’ll be tickled, likely, because it’s sweet, but if you end up actually feeling something on witnessing this, you’ll likely be feeling it because your beloved has let go and is all-in and feeling something. In other words: risking being lost in the actual thing, and letting entirely go of notions of self-awareness. Nothing’s sadder than unintentionally letting someone know s/he’s being witnessed in letting go, simply because there’s almost no way someone can go right back to letting go once the letting go’s been compromised by audience.
That all’s a long way of saying: Wheeler’s weakest stuff feels almost performative, winking and knowing. Please know that this reviewer’s 100% aware of how flimsy and subjective such a judgement comes across as—who am I to say it’s performative or winking or knowing? The scary aspect, to me, about trying to get into a book of poetry is that, ultimately, we’re talking pretty closely about the writer’s person as reflected in tiny lexicographal or compositional decisions. Take this, for instance: “Collector’s stamps / accidentally licked and posted, the Basil Dove / heckling the rest of the postal pouch. / Leaves faking change and then the guard.” These are early lines in another of the non-sonnets. Before one can even address questions of whether the rest of the poem coheres, we’ve got to at least admit that Wheeler’s asking an awful awful lot of the reader in terms of association (I now know, having looked it up, what the Basil Dove is, but I’m not sure how it fits). I’m not saying this is a problem: everyone’s welcome to their own poetry. But I am, absolutely, saying that at least 50% of the time in Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room the poems seem less designed to connect with the reader and more styled to prance and play quite out of cognitive or intuitive or aesthetic reach.