Finishing Line Press, 2007: US$12.00 - www.finishinglinepress.com
In the absence of any larger qualities, this excellent pamphlet, consisting of nine poems (one a fourteen-part sonnet sequence) would be notable for its pungent, diamond-hard images alone:
a girl/might safely climb into the leaping/flames, they are so rinsed and mythical
(‘Remembering My Mother’s Childhood’)
the day/is underbrewed, like tea in cool water
(‘The Calderstones’, 3).
But the whole book, though short, aspires to bigger things. Taking the vehicle of childhood reminiscence and shifting not just once—to her mother’s childhood—but twice, back across the Atlantic into a largely re-imagined England, is a hugely daring move, and one which pays off handsomely. Exploring “my memories of her memories” Wheeler traces the sights, smells, smokes and grimy urban spaces of post-war Britain. Take her mother, the eponymous scholarship girl (1953), entering a roach-infested laundry, for instance:
The light will reflect from a thousand
shiny carapaces scuttling away,
shrinking like a skirt in hot water,
like lines suddenly forgotten.
Or her own realisation that it is impossible fully to recreate the sound of remembered scenes:
for everyone and I was never
there with my spiral pad or
a microphone, the resonance
just caught in me like rain
in a lost shoe, like grit in a pot
boiled often, rarely cleaned.
(‘Born, We Didden Know We Was’)
The clustered vowels in this passage, marked off like puddles by repeated ‘r’s, are typical in their subtle effect. Without reaching for the poetic, Wheeler demonstrates a commanding precision and evocativeness in her language, which occasional strongly un-British diction (“sidewalks” for ‘pavements’, “creek” for ‘stream’) cannot sully. Without need for apology, she renders a lost world in all its lasting detail, and brings us to the realisation that far from slipping into obscurity—even extinction—it is the past which gives birth to our future:
I invent this blitzed, hungry, smoke-thin world
because it invented me, and lies
are my birthright. Some history may
be true. Even mine. She was born.
The sun was warm, and the life it made
is remembered by the coal as it burns.
(‘Remembering My Mother’s Childhood’)
James Roderick Burns
What the Common Reader says about Lesley Wheeler’s Scholarship Girl:
The gloomy grey cover didn’t quite fit with the frivolity and extravagance of the blue ribbon tied around the centre fold of the book. The layout of the table of contents reminded me of the books I had to read at school. It was all a bit formal and still at odds with the ribbon—sorry to go on about it but it did irritate me as I read. Inside, though, there were more than a few poems to draw the reader into Wheeler’s world. ‘Oh Aye Yeah’ was very moving:
We knew she’d passed
the way me dad came home and walked straight up
the stairs without saying a word.
‘Scholarship Girl 1953’ clearly shows that school life for the writer was an experience to be endured:
and scholarship girls quarantined
in one crowded classroom
How could you not be drawn into this and hate “the Sister”
who docks her bus fare
in fine for laddered stockings,
or mine, or even yours. Listen
for her nails scratching
against the fabric.
When I started to read ‘The Calderstones’ I thought there was little chance I’d get to the end of a 14-verse poem but Wheeler grabbed me in again and I enjoyed it much more than I expected.
And the Young Reader says:
This book has the oddest, almost metallic endpapers that look like something out of a spaceship. The cover’s interesting, illustrated with a photograph of Liverpool sky (you know this because the top of the Liver building appears in one corner). Inside, the layout is clear and the print quality is good.
The poems are about second hand memories. This is what someone who hasn’t been to Liverpool but has heard about life there in the World War II era from her mother ‘remembers’ of it. There are things in them that you don’t get in history books, and that made them interesting to read. It seemed as if the poet had experienced these things herself, so she must have spent a lot of time learning from her mother.
I wouldn’t want to read this whole chapbook in one go, but it’s good to dip into.