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Wheeler, Lesley. Barrow Street Press. 2010. ISBN: 978-09819876-2-0, 78pp. $16.95 [To order, please order directly from the press's ordering page at] Support literary presses by reducing the gross discount jobbers demand.


Lesley Wheeler’s newest book, Heterotopia, won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, and it isn’t hard to see why. The poems are rich as rare steak, humorous and heartbreaking, always elegant and eloquent, even when they contain words like bedpans, nappies, chewing gum, scouse.

For those of us who know Liverpool only as the home of the Beatles, Wheeler’s book is a revelation. The opening poem “Forged,” defines it as “an unreal city, purified/of reeking detail like a fairy tale/or a film set,” but it doesn’t stay unreal long. A quick history in the first section, “Elsewhere,” includes the Beatles, of course, but moves past them to the Second World War, the slave trade, and forward again to the more recent past, with the speaker touring Liverpool with an uncle who “is a tourist now—/he moved to London many losses ago.”

The book’s title comes from Michel Foucault, for whom, according to the back cover, it means “a real or imagined place of escape, transformation, or revelation.” That concept of real or imagined is central to this book, beginning with the title poem. “Heterotopia” explains the term in six sections, each a different form, including a sonnet, terza rima, and a prose poem. The last section includes the poet’s tongue-in-cheek warning:

…         A poem
is a heterotopia
of citizenship; these
are my papers, counterfeit.

Transformation is also apparent, in poems about neighbors killed by German bombs in WWII, and in the rebuilt city that is almost unrecognizable to relatives visiting after a long absence. But escape? It seems that people can leave Liverpool, but they carry it with them through their lives, which leads to various kinds of revelation.

The second section of the book consists of a remarkable crown of sonnets, “The Calderstones,” which refers to six sandstone megaliths, the remnant of a prehistoric grave, removed from their original site and now protected from erosion in a Liverpool greenhouse. Wheeler has expanded the Shakespearean sonnet into a narrative vehicle, its lines often enjambed, the closing couplet more an astute observation than a punchline. The misplaced stones become a metaphor for the speaker’s misplaced family: a mother sent on scholarship to boarding school, a battered aunt briefly sheltered by her brother’s family, the uncle who needed directions to find the Calderstones he remembered from childhood. Like memories, like imagination, the sonnets circle back to their beginning, telling a family history with tolerance and wry humor:

On a red-eye, I return, my boots agleam
with cactus spines. I’ll glance around, jump a jet
back west in a wink—who could bear the damp?—
it’s like the whole bleak town is an exit ramp.

In the third section of the book, “Legends,” the poems narrow their focus from the city to a young woman. Years in the title of most poems in this section help us follow the chronology from her birth in 1940 to her 1962 emigration to the U.S. on an El Al turbojet: “Rwanda, Algeria, and me/declaring every kind of independence,” she thinks, as she listens to “blonde women settling in their seats/and bubbling diphthongs to their husbands.” The speaker’s (and the poet’s) attention to language fills this book; one poem notes “The damp air speaks in Scouse,” which can mean both the Liverpudlian dialect and the mutton stew this city was once known for. After years in the United States, another poem mourns “The vowels have quietly relocated/whole phrases in consonantal drift/…I feel them/as phantom limbs.”

The final section of the book, “The Forgetting Curve,” is set in the United States. Here, Wheeler contrasts contact lenses and laparoscopic surgery against the grandmother’s and mother’s stories of their hard life in Liverpool. One poem is in the voice of a 10-year-old girl sharing her bedroom with the foreign grandmother she has only just met; in another, a suburban backyard picnic becomes a scene from a natural history museum, a vignette of “[r]andom inheritance,/inexplicable migrations.” Four generations come together in one of the last poems in the book, “Oral Culture”:

My grandmother had a song for her name and a song for
driving home and a song for childish love, but my
children will not learn them.

Loss is inevitable, the speaker tells us, but the book ends on a note of hope and possibility, with “the girl on the swing” pumping her legs hard, lifting her into a heterotopia of her own.

—Review of Heterotopia by Pat Valdata (author of Inherent Vice and The Other Sister)