RadioStay: Stay by Kathleen McGookey (Press 53, 2015); Radioland by Lesley Wheeler (Barrow Street Press, 2015)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann

 

Radioland, by Lesley Wheeler, and Stay, by Kathleen McGookey, are new books by two poets who appeared together in the spring 2014 issue of Salamander. Their collections, as in the individual publications, explore the breakdown of one’s parents’ relationship (to infidelity) and the experience, in adulthood, of the death of one or both parents. While they are, in fact, stylistically very different books, they are married through similar unexpected and electrifying associative qualities. Radioland explores all the sounds of a colliding natural and manmade world, how these result in poetry, and the distances poetic form can travel. Stay is an accumulation of detail and phrase that pushes forward the Escher-like movement—parented/parenting/parentless—through the heightened language of prose poems.

Wheeler’s book is formally inventive; Radioland hinges on the interaction of diction and the poem’s overarching structure. Her vocabulary is broad, and she pulls freely from whatever particular lexicon surrounds the central idea, as, for example, the lexicon of her past, in “Art Film”:

 

Cue the Moog. Alone in a cement-block

dorm room where the light fails early—state campus

in winter, friends gone for the weekend.

That mirror girl from California, another

Leslie but blonde to my brown study, the one

with weird left-coast passions for yogurt and yoga,

invites me out. Her role’s too minor for such

a lingering shot but the camera can’t help itself.

It’s a Cronenberg situation.

 

While the allusions resonate for the insider, they are also effective for the reader who might not get the full reference. Wheeler chooses carefully (again, from “Art Film”), adding end-of-stanza allusions to David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Stanley Kub-rick, masters of physically gritty, graphic, chilly films—in this poem about college sex. The poem rides on the not knowing of oneself—and not knowing one’s partner, in this case “the quarterback.” Consent was not established in what becomes here a cinematographic experience of trauma and dissociation:

 

Someone is crying and the noise sounds almost

sexual. A trick of sound design.

In another screenplay the poor actress would say,

and then I realized the sobbing was me,

but I still don’t know. Too drunk.

Jump to daylight.

Soon he calls on the hall phone for a date, persistent,

petulant. See: Lynch’s ear in the grass.

 

One doesn’t need to be familiar with Lynch’s Blue Velvet for an ear in the grass to signify. In Radioland, Wheeler is examining communication and clarity, or its failure.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the poetry editor at Salamander. Her book reviews have appeared recently in PN Review (UK), The Critical Flame, and the Boston Globe. She is the 2015 Poetry Fellow at the Writers' Room of Boston.