Source Codes, Susan Wheeler. Salt, 2001. 120 pp. $12.95.
The on-line manifesto of the New Media Poets—a tenuous grouping of writers (Rick Moody, Brenda Hillman, D.A. Powell, Susan Wheeler, etc.) housed by the website New Media Poets — reads as an ars poetica for those determined not to ignore our culture of endless mediation: “We encounter through filters of the media the language of Medicare, Insurance Companies, Wall Street, Pharmaceutical Companies, the IRS, the IMF, the military, The Administration, the Supreme Court…. And we own their language as ours. We write from where we exist, from how we live.” Commenting on the failure of differing epistemological approaches to recognize one another, the manifesto continues, “And still we grapple with the official language of media as well as poetry. We grapple with those languages that present themselves as transparent, benign, universal and clear-seeing.”
Source Codes, Susan Wheeler’s third book, could be seen as somewhat of a totem for this particular poetic approach. Eschewing the authority inherently prevalent in the act of titling a poem, and the boundaries such an act engenders, Wheeler has opted to number each of the book’s forty-nine pieces. The contents page displays those numbers followed by a clue, a source code for the particular piece’s construction; although reminiscent of Eliot’s elaborate & oftentimes misleading use of footnoting in “The Waste Land”, Wheeler opts for the immediacy and imminence of the contemporary multiplex of pop culture, language and iconography, placing it in direct contact with the various discourses employed by everything from the art world to the magazine The Economist. The book’s cavalcade of sources runs the gambit from Hip-hop feminist Queen Latifah and Marcel Duchamp to Cicero, Robert Frost and Stanley Kubrick.
This sort of vigorous juxtaposition also appears in the form of visual collages interspersed thought out the book. Their poor reproduction quality and the obvious, purposeful simplicity with which they foreground the scared & the scenic—with figures ranging from a soccer fan in full body paint to a businessman covered in bandages—is reminiscent of the collage work associated with the DIY (do it yourself) punk scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Bands like Crass and the Dead Kennedys, whose album covers featured work analogous to Wheeler’s, were to the music industry what Source Codes is Charles Bernstein’s Official Verse Culture. Wheeler’s unapologetic embrace of imperfection comes full circle with the book’s three appendixes: the first comprised of drafts, both handwritten and typed, for the poems in Source Codes, the second being a dozen pages of HTML computer code and the third, drafts from Bag ‘O Diamonds, Wheeler’s first book.
Architecturally, the book is an archivist’s dream; however, the sequential structure strips the individual poems of much of their inevitability, which is, perhaps, the point of such a project. Wheeler confounds the notion of the poet as shaman, walking in contemplation outside, and implicitly above, the rest of the culture. In fact, she even lampoons the erstwhile daringness of Robert Lowell’s “My mind’s not right.” Here is section Twenty-four in its entirety:
The mind fails to get full round. Watching
The blowsy curtains billowing aft and fore,
The columbine creeping toward the door—
or listening to the siren mark the dark,
its phat beat keening through the streets—
the mind knows the local not. In the TV light,
the mind’s not—well, right or wrong, it’s
fraught for something more. The reveries
on screen—the fireflies out doors—cling
to light in form. Salut. A century clicks to.
Clicking is the apt verb for the new millennium where the computer screen is the dominant mode of communication and “phat beats” have replaced “Love, O careless Love…” as the public sound track. Just as surrealism, after being fully appropriated by popular culture found itself ensconced in the moving jaw of Mr. Ed, the television talking horse, so confessionalism manifests itself in the souring sales figures for tell-all memoirs and reality TV. Wheeler twists these channelings back toward the poetic, essentially enacting Williams's claim that everything is subject matter for poetry; however, because many of its sections appear almost tossed in, relying too heavily on the book as a project, Source Codes’ dominating superstructure leaves one with the feeling of it as a culturally specific artifact, an expansive collage which never quite makes it outside of its own framework.
Noah E. Gordon is the author of The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises). His recent work can be found or is forthcoming from Hambone, jubilat, Volt, Verse, American Letters & Commentary and elsewhere. He co-edits the new journal Baffling Combustions.