Not Looking Away: The State She’s In by Lesley Wheeler

Reviewed By

To begin, not as disclaimer but an acknowledgment: I am an ideal reader for The State She’s In, an unabashedly feminist book dedicated to “the Nasties.” Like the author, Lesley Wheeler, whom I have never met but would like to meet someday, I’m an English professor and a poet—a liberal white woman who is, let’s face it, visually indistinguishable from the demographic that ensured 45’s victory in 2016. I hate this fact, more than I have been able to convey, which is another reason The State She’s In resonates so deeply with me. Wheeler and I are wrestling with many of the same pressing concerns, including the eternal imbrications of the personal and political.

As I write this, we’re approaching a contentious general election. The world is reeling from a global pandemic, and I’ve been sheltering in place for many months in Florida, the red state I now call home. Wheeler is based in Virginia—another red state, another Southern state—and we share in common the surprise of ending up in places that don’t entirely reflect who we are.  More often than not, we’re mulling on the question, How did I end up here?

The State She’s In is not only a compelling title but a powerful multivalent phrase that echoes throughout Wheeler’s collection. There’s the emotional state of the poet-speaker, “turning fifty under a poisonous administration,” as she notes in her Acknowledgments. How does a woman confront the fact of our fact-hating, woman-hating President? How does she cope? And how does she simultaneously confront her privilege in a white supremacist nation whose “leader” celebrates and indeed aggravates our enduring legacy of racial injustice?

In those same Acknowledgments, Wheeler appends another clause. Not just her milestone birthday observed under this administration, but “amid the remains of the Confederacy” as well. The state she’s in refers also to Virginia, and within Virginia, the small city of Lexington she’s in, which is home to the school where she teaches, Washington and Lee University. More personal, more political to contend with. This book outright astonishes me with its deep dive into the local history of Wheeler’s residence and place of employment, its honest and forthright inspection of those places. I wrote in my notebook as I read, What do I really know about Dania Beach, Florida [the small city where I live]? What do I really know about North Miami [home to the Florida International University campus where I teach]? Most of all, what am I afraid to find out about the particular racisms of all the places I have ever called home?  

And then there’s the matter of menopause, the so-called “change of life” about which middle-aged women who menstruate receive an abundance of advice, both solicited and unsolicited. That’s another state—often anticipated, sometimes dreaded, always mythologized, culturally laced with misogynist presumptions but also tales of empowerment—a new chapter of life begins. In the poem “Invocation,” Wheeler writes, “What kind of god is this? Her name / just a hieroglyph drawn in muck / by a tentative finger.” Not a goddess, note, but a god, pronouned femininely. The noun doesn’t have to change to accommodate what is not masculine. “Drowsy spirit, I’m pleading,” our speaker entreats. “Take / this blood shed unseasonably, / mineral gift. Be comfort. Be / danger. Of seep, of trough. Wake up.”

It’s not just this mythic feminine energy that needs awakening. It’s us, though—the cisgender women who are here now, especially the cisgender women who occupy positions of relative power within patriarchal culture. Women like me—white women, tenured professors. The State She’s In brims with earned wisdom and earned rage. What it works against at every turn are the twinned oppressors of silence and shame.

Take the poem that appears paratactic to “Invocation” in this book. It’s called “Perimenopause,” the prologue to menopause, marking the end of reproductive years and the beginning of—what? “Unstoppered. Uncorked. The spilt mess / of the body’s plan puddles in the john,” this poem begins.

Since I first read Lucille Clifton’s “poem in praise of menstruation” as a sophomore in college, I’ve been awed by the fearlessness of poets who write the visceral body—not only write it but sing it, unstoppered, uncorked. Some of us were told not to write about menstruation. I remember showing Clifton’s poem to my mother, so proud of the shattered silence around this subject, only to hear my mother snap back, “Who would want to read about that? Talk about dirty laundry!”

It’s a familiar message now, even from other women. Put a cork in it! About menarche and puberty, pregnancy and birth—the young man in my first grad school class who said, who felt empowered to say, in the midst of a poetry class, “Well, you know how women’s bodies are kind of gross.” The silence thereafter, the shame, the way I felt myself sliding down in my chair. All the more fiercely, the corked bottle, the stoppered ears, when it comes to women later in life, women’s aging bodies—what Wheeler’s speaker describes here as “unspeakable clots of denouement”?

But look at this poet-speaker speaking the unspeakable! Listen to her, pluraling the sites of speech: “My mouths are unjammed.” No shutting her up now, no imposition of silence through shame or shame through silence. This poem’s culmination is also its rallying cry: “the song carries / on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.” What a necessary and insistent declaration: “me, shameless.” This was exactly what I needed to hear, to remember, to hear, to remember… and I trust I am not alone.

Part of the angry wisdom/wise anger of this book is the way Wheeler locates her speaker not only in terms of time—time of life (her own age and the age of her children) and zeitgeist time (the post-Obama years of backlash and regress)—but also in terms of place. Wheeler is a poet of the here-and-now who doesn’t sub-tend, short-change, or overlook the here. Rather, her poems of here clear the path for now.

Consider this intricate, tripartite sequence, “Before Lexington,” with the italicized underscore “Unremembered settlements.” The first version of the poem culminates with this stanza: “Whiteness will not save you. / Warm water lifting into cold air / erases, always. This place, / this shine, wants you to forget.”

Then, a strike-through version of the same text, which is the second version of “Before Lexington”—this time presented as “Unremembered settlements.” Look closely, and you see it, the new word formed from the old: Unsettle. Wheeler’s business as a poet is to unsettle the past, the yoked forces of omission and fabrication: what isn’t said at all and what is spun into an altered story.

The third version of the text is a visual-spatial erasure of the first: “Unsettled.” The word unmasks the neutral connotation of “settlements.” The word reflects the speaker’s state, which is also the reader’s state, as we confront what has been “stolen / deflected / muffled / dissolved” in the process of receiving history. What do we settle for? What have we learned to accept in lieu of harder truths?

Something equally astonishing about Wheeler’s collection is the range of poetic forms and approaches she employs in service of her content. The poems that follow “Before Lexington” progress chronologically, establishing a timeline of events likely excluded from the master narratives of Old Dominion State history. “Racketing Spirits,” for instance, is set in “Brownsburg, Virginia, 1825” and recounts the haunting of a wealthy household by the apparition of an “old woman with her head tied up.” Here Wheeler’s prowess as storyteller shines through: “Nobody stopped food from going missing, or / the fields hands’ tools. Bottles of madeira danced. / Embers jumped from the hearth to bite ankles. The doctor/retreated to his fireless upstairs room […].”

As the narrative culminates but cannot resolve—for how can you resolve a haunted past when the present is haunted by the very same ghosts?—Wheeler’s poetic commentary speaks at once to the present of the poem (1825) and the present of its reader (2020): “There are other powers, better, though / they may not get your name engraved in history books.” Which is to say these “other powers” do not belong to one particular or contrary ghost, but to all the untold stories of our past, the unpacified spirit of slavery that haunts our nation still.

There’s also an epistolary elegy called “Bells for Henry Allen,” which recounts events from the life of the title figure—a man Wheeler is right to assume her readers will not know. (My Google search for “Henry Allen” and “Virginia” instantly corrects to “Henry Clay Allen,” a Virginia lawyer and politician who represented Shenandoah County in the Virginia House of Delegates and later served as its Speaker.) In her letter to Allen, Wheeler’s poet-speaker reveals that she first learned of this young Black man while doing researching in an archive: “I found you, / or a trace of you—a name on a list of people / bequeathed to my college in 1826.” Then, “Records forget you till 1851.” It takes twenty-five years for Henry Allen’s name to appear again—this time in connection to a foiled uprising by enslaved persons against their white oppressors. “City / Council addressed the university, convinced / that Henry Allen, a slave, property of the College, / is an unsafe negro […] Henry Allen’s sale is loudly called for.”

This poem’s sourced multi-voicing from official historical documents educates the reader in the facts of Allen’s life, while the poet-speaker’s voice reaches intimately across two centuries to Allen himself, puttying gaps between then and now, between personal and public: “The current college president declares / he won’t apologize.” This is the president of Washington and Lee University in the twenty-first century. The poet-speaker, who is a professor at this school, cuts deep into the president’s silence: “I would say, if you / were willing to hear”—and in saying this, she acknowledges that Henry Allen may not be willing to hear, which is equally his right—“the incalculable evil / was how men bought you, blamed you, traded you / away. I’m sorry they profited, and now I / profit, making and teaching words, while yours / went untranscribed.” This is not an ending, but another invocation. “The silence still vibrates,” Wheeler writes—with the absence of institutional apologies, of long-overdue reparations—but a vibration at least is the beginning of sound. (Think of the “bells” in this title. Think of the “racketing spirits” in the last.)

And then a found poem titled “Five-Star Reviews of Lee Chapel.” Firmly established in the historical here of the Washington & Lee campus and the historical now of Yelp, Wheeler compiles a chorus of contemporary voices whose comments implicitly validate the need for her book’s project—historical context and (re)education in viewing national monuments, in studying American history:

Whether you’re a Yankee or a Southerner, Robert E. Lee is a man
to be admired

                        …almost unconditionally…

[…]

Unfortunately the impressive recumbent
statue of Lee has been recently denuded
by the Washington & Lee administration
of the Confederate flags
            political correctness

[…]

Beeter [sic] go see this folks
   before most of it is removed due to liberalism and
     those who try to erase history.

The ultimate irony here is the Yelp reviewer’s assertion that it’s the liberals who are trying “to erase history.” Wheeler’s project, meticulously researched and deeply felt, even draws on erasure poetry with deliberate irony to expose what is hiding in plain sight. The Lee Chapel, one here of our poet-speaker’s now, is a site where we can see the repackaging of the past taking place—and via Yelp, a digital site designed for commenting on a physical site, we can hear the sounds of our polarized present at work: “If you want to visit the grave of General Robert E. Lee, you better / do it soon before the Libs dig him up.”

There are many more poems I’d like to discuss, but I’ll leave them for you to discover. In closing, I want to draw us back to Wheeler’s milestone birthday and her poem “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy.” A heart poem of this volume for me, “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy” finely splices personal history and public history, the poet’s here with the poet’s now. While you will find crisp sonnets and deft haibuns in this book, not to mention the knock-out “En Dehors Garde Bingo” poem that adopts the form of a bingo card with a central square that reads EPIPHANY: THERE IS NO FREE SPACE, Wheeler also stuns her reader time and again with free-verse: concise, candid. Here, her quatrains stack like building blocks, foundational.

To live and die in Dixie was never / the plan,” begins “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy.” We hear the song lyrics of “Dixieland” seeping into the poem. “At twenty-six, pitched what seemed / like camps in a Virginia valley. / First draft, provisional, // now set in sediment.” Any reader working the math can see our speaker’s own epiphany taking place: At fifty, she’s lived in “Dixieland” for nearly half her life. More epiphanies: not coded, not hidden: “I’m made of Dixie,” the speaker reflects. “Forgetting’s the trick,” she tells us, but Wheeler’s imperative is to remember. “Look away.” The two words are italicized because they’re lyrics from the old song, but they double as an emphatic, implicit, cultural wish—the visual analogy to admonishments like Put a cork in it!  and Shut up and move on!

The State She’s In is ultimately a poetic instantiation of not-looking-away. It’s not a book that replaces past’s past with past’s prologue, but rather a book insists that past’s present. The past’s here! The past’s now! Wheeler’s poet-speaker takes us to women’s marches. She takes us to the Pulse night club massacre. She casts spells (literally—“All-Purpose Spell for Banishment”) and throws stones toward the current administration through the windows of her own house. Every poem in this book, in fact, is invested in shattering the impulse—especially for white and privileged people—to look away. Listen to how her poem ends: “Can’t carry / this tune; can’t give it back.” The past-qua-present isn’t “out there” in some esoteric realm. It’s in us, here-and-now, for the reckoning. “Its burden stuck—become me.”


Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →