Issue 35, Final Fringe

Four poems

by Lesley Wheeler Issue 24 11.22.2010

The Book of Neurotransmitters

The heaviest book in the library basement was stripped of gilt
by all those fingers whispering along its edges. I had
to handle it to learn its name. Open me, open me, it said—
finishing, as I splayed the leaves, and you will regret
it forever.
              Dear Necronomicon, when I dream now
I rehearse the birth-pains of the human world, our battles
with original monsters, the fires that burned so long.
Your formulas scribble themselves across my vision
like a migraine. Your tables, ideographs, obscene
incantations have rewritten the chemical messages
my cells transmit, and I seem to be printed with gibberish,
degraded codes. I know how to raise the dead from their salts
but cannot get out of bed. The doctors’ scripts—oh plain
illegibility!—flutter down, washed into the gutter by autumn
storms. I fear that if I rise again I will leave a slug’s
silver trail to the regions you describe, and that trail will be a map,
and some innocent soul will read it and betray herself thereby.

Woman Using the Men’s Room

All summer stroking carved
woodwork, Greek letters and quaint
obscenities on the ancient stall doors,
while men in their undershirts hack
the women’s lavatory to rubble.
My brain is in my fingers, in my tail,
like a dinosaur’s. Ezra wrote
in a canted chair so that seminal fluids
could pool in his skull. My brain wanders,
chews at the treetops, goes for a swim.
Does it surprise you that I am an animal,
an extinct animal? In the future,
scientists will study my dung.  Now
I urge the conceit too far, but who
can be a genius when each bodily
function requires strategy, an expedition?
Here in the men’s room the mops
dawdle in corners, their long sad
gray hairs crusted with old
similes, dry as a sorority,
as a dean’s tear ducts.
Now they have turned the water
off and my poems are thirsty but
it is better this way, crumbling to dust
as the air conditioner sighs intellectually,
no need to haul my lizard guts
to the burial grounds, just the stone
feet of Ozymandias enduring until
September when the beautiful delicate birds
return, freely fornicating midair.



Ruth’s a fine name, he argues, but Evelyn’s the queen
of grandmas—she hangs up without saying goodbye
The leaves quibble and his pregnant wife shrugs.
Her silence wobbles the hot brine in her belly
and the fetus wakes, removes a pleasantly fat and salty thumb
from her mouth, and gazes up through red-lit membranes.

Some smiling adult places the cordless phone to her ear.
It’s the sea in a shell: a grandmother’s voice through a veil
of golden hair, through space, broken into data and rebuilt
into presence.  She doesn’t believe it’s her nana without the smoky
waft of coffee, a soft body pushing air through those words.
She doesn’t believe they are words.  Yes, she says.  Yes, yes, bye.

[once upon a time]
The woman who made a promise sends messengers into the woods.
The first day, they just sit on a stump and eat cheese.
Returning, they lamely offer their queen:
Tom, Dick, Harry.

You’ve heard this story before. Shortribs, Sheepshanks—
other bad-luck monikers not in your name book.
On the third day, one discovers a little man gloating over his bet.

Ruthie Evelyn Miller King dabs on some kiwi lipgloss.
Her best friend has just earned her license and they’re driving
to a party in the county. The radio plays a tune

we can’t imagine yet and they sing along.
It’s a hot wet night. A cute boy with curly hair is awkwardly
quiet.  She dares him, Bet you can’t guess my name.

Bicameral Woman

Sometimes I draft similes for writing instead of writing.1 Alternately, I forage for brainfood.2 Yesterday I was reading about a book by Julian Jaynes on the origin of human consciousness because he has a theory about why people hear voices, and the book I am not writing concerns poetic voice. Jaynes, a biologist, argues for a prehistoric creature he calls “bicameral man,” split into an executive part and a follower. Even in the present day, he theorizes, the left-brain speech center controls our conversation, while the apparently dormant right-brain speech center offers advice in stressful periods through auditory hallucinations.3 Time! I check my watch, slam down the book, and lope off to pick up my children. While we catch our breath and graze,4 we talk about my third-grade daughter’s invisible friends, a dinosaur and a monster who began visiting when she was two.5 I am surprised to learn that she still hears from them. She “pretended” to take them to school in her hair last year and “pretended” that they gave her the answers to tests. She rarely sees them anymore now that she is so old, and they do not come when she calls, but sometimes she can feel their presence.6 When she describes the sensation she taps the right side of her head.7

1 Writing a scholarly book is like climbing a mountain in flippers.
2 There are no chocolate-orange biscotti in my sabbatical office. I look down from a modular building through a twin-boled oak at a wooded trail. A hidden creek occasionally sends emissary dragonflies to bump against my window.
3 Before Grandfather Ape was quite conscious, then—when he could talk a little but was not able to exercise abstract thought and remember what he wanted from the creek an hour ago—he might have wandered out to the rocky edge of the water and looked around foolishly. At that point the right brain would issue a verbal hallucination: “Mmm, cress, good with mammoth cutlets, Grandmother might have sex with you if you bring this home.” Grandfather thinks he is hearing the river god.
4 Havarti and plums.
5 Her invisible friend dinosaur was named “Friend Dinosaur” and her invisible friend monster was named “Friend Monster.”
6 Sometimes I seize words like slippery fish from the water, one at a time with dreadful effort, and they taste terrible. Sometimes they leap up from darkness and they are delicious.
7 I suppose I should just perch on the river rocks in my big wet dirty flippers and breathe the thin air. The gods might tell me what to eat. Or maybe they won’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Lesley Wheeler

Lesley Wheeler

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Lesley Wheeler’s latest poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales, is a Tiptree Award Honor Book. Heterotopia was selected by David Wojahn for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize; her other books include Heathen (C&R Press, 2009) and Voicing American Poetry (Cornell, 2008). Her poems appear in Poetry, Rattle, 32 Poems, Prairie Schooner, Slate, and other journals. The Henry S. Fox Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, she has also won fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and other grantors.