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Scholarship Girl in Liverpool

What is a poet if not a recorder of sounds human beings make in their efforts to communicate? The Dresser has been ruminating on Lesley Wheeler's nine poem chapbook Scholarship Girl from Finishing Line Press out of Georgetown, Kentucky. This collection of poems examines and reflects on her mother's life circa World War II in Liverpool, England.


The story begins as the poet in the presence of her mother tries to make sense of where her maternal parent came from and how that legacy informs the poet's life. In the following excerpts from the opening poem of the book, the poet notes the communication differences and struggles with something that is lost between the mother and daughter. Has the mother lost her mind? Has the mother died? The Dresser is not sure.


When she says stove she means fireplace,
a great soot-blackened maw. When I say
Liverpool I mean an unreal city, purified
of reeking detail like a fairy tale

...................... ... handed down. A girl
might safely climb into the leaping
flames, they are so rinsed and mythical...

.................................. ...I cannot
even place the telling--whether
in a kitchen...daughter and mother

crying over onions...
...My memories of her memories
are too reduced. I can only give them
to the fire, piece by broken piece.

...Here is the scuff, bang of stout shoes...

........................................Someone's tenor
cry, the smell of wool that never dries.
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.


"Poem Without a Landscape," the second poem of Scholarship Girl establishes that the poet is traveling to discover her connection to this world. The journey proceeds from Virginia to New Jersey to Liverpool without settling. By the last stanza of the poem, questions arise about who is the poet's father and echoes back the line in the first poem "lies /are my birthright."

My fathers are sailors--the fathers on paper.
Who knows what other men swam those private beaches
while the women waited one year, maybe two?
My mother sailed, too. The land is not my mother.
It minds its own business, and welcome to it.
You can see the hiss brooding on their own blues.
I'll be my green world--it can seethe inside me.

Here the Dresser pauses to reflect on the assertion "The land is not my mother." The Dresser having had issues with her own mother has come to believe that we each choose into the life we have and that our parents, whoever they are, remain incidental to our existence. In "Poem Without a Landscape," the poet states that her mother's natal Liverpool doesn't recognize her and it speaks Scouse, an accent particular to Liverpudlians who also eat a cheap, boiled meat stew that is called scouse. What the Dresser particularly admires in this poem is how the poet, while acknowledging a brooding blues from her journey of discovery, sets aside the physical world to take charge of herself "I'll be my green world." Wheeler ably handles complex metaphors in an understated way. The Dresser thinks, however, that the chapbook could have benefited from a short set of notes that defined some of the unfamiliar words associated with Liverpool.


The meat of Scholarship Girl is a fourteen-part set of interlinking sonnets entitled "The Calderstones." The Calderstones are monoliths said to be older than the more familiar Stonehenge. They are located in a park in Liverpool. In 1964, six of these stones were moved to the Harthill Greenhouse in Calderstones Park and erected in random order. Wheeler notes in the opening sonnet of her long poem that these historic monuments have been neglected and mistreated. "They lost their first site so lanes/ could be widened... Liverpool shrugs and shrines/ topple--are built again as a hobbyist's quirk."

The second sonnet moving from a business portrait of Liverpool that saw the slave trade and the rise of cotton mills slides into a domestic situation. Sonnet 2 ends "Nothing/ to eat, nowhere to go, pretty paths weaving" and sonnet 3 begins, "Nothing to eat, nowhere to go, and the day/ is underbrewed, like tea in cool water,/ but the four children set out anyway." By sonnet 4, the poet depicts a hungry girl riding three buses to her new school and we know that this girl is the poet's mother. Sonnet 5 describes a My Fair Lady lesson "Most urgently,/ each apprentice practiced elocution, so/ she would not sound so Liverpudlian. A 't'/ evicted the 'r' at the end of 'wha,' no 'ayes' survived, and any judy with sense/ would lift her scoured face and apply the past tense."

Sonnets 6 through 11 deal with the hardships of life in Liverpool in that post WWII world. The Dresser is not sure, but thinks the poet's grandparents took in a paternal aunt and her two sons after most of the grandparents' children had left home. By sonnet 12, the poet shows up in Liverpool with cactus spines on her boots. She has come to her mother's place of birth to explore this foreign country with the help of an uncle who still lives there. He doesn't really offer that much to the poet, except he drives her by "ancestral houses" (sonnet 13) and then helps her find the Calderstones (sonnet 14) which stand metaphorically for the mother's neglected history. "Some/ recollections have bones, gritty mass/ that you could touch if they would let you."

Just to state something that might be obvious so the greater form of this poem doesn't go by unnoticed, the sonnet is a fourteen-line form and the length of this particular poem is fourteen sonnets. To the Dresser's way of thinking, Wheeler, who does not impose a rhyme scheme on her sonnets like Shakespeare and Petrarch did, brings attention to her repeating ending and beginning lines by limiting the number of sonnets (14) to the number of lines making up a sonnet (14). The Dresser also thinks that Wheeler made a good choice by not using the rigid formality of a particular rhyme scheme because her subject matter would not benefit from such elevated use of language.


The final poem "Born, We Didden Know We Was" brings the work full circle. The poet has listened deeply in her quest to discover her mother. Her final conclusion is "this place-and-time/ was noisy once, and has a sound/ still. No elegies here." For a poet, relatives who "can't spell or sing" but who have "gobs [mouths] like the Mersey Tunnel" are a huge familial weight. The Dresser suspects Wheeler has a longer book of poems in her that goes beyond "The land is not my mother" and her mother's people who were for the most part not self aware.

On March 14, 2008, at 5:30 pm, Lesley Wheeler will read from Scholarship Girl, at Studio Eleven at 11 Jefferson Street in Lexington, Virginia. Wheeler is a professor of English at Washington and Lee University.


Copyright © 2007 by Lesley Wheeler


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 25, 2008 6:52 PM.

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