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New Hibernia Review 6.1 (2002) 153-154

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Book Review

Misery Hill

Misery Hill by David Wheatley, 96 pp. Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2000. $13.95 (paper). Distributed by Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, PA.

David Wheatley's second book, Misery Hill, will be familiar, in part, to readers of New Hibernia Review, as seven poems from the collection have appeared before in these pages. Others may recognize Wheatley as a founding editor of the Irish-based international poetry journal Metre. Wheatley's own poetry is not far from the taste and judgments of that journal, with a preference for formal discipline—sonnet sequences, villanelles, sestinas—over open expression. But Wheatley also imposes rhythms of spontaneous speech on his lines, often with comic results: "'We're lucky,' his co-pilot said, 'we didn't go splat.'" Humor, as a by-product of loss, pervades Misery Hill, much as it does in Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" or Bloom's walk through nighttown. Wheatley playfully repeats words in their different senses throughout also, illuminating many echoes in a sort of house of mirrors, such as Pope and the pope: "If poetry wells up from some true source / Pierian spring water's all we need, / Pope innocently thought."

Misery Hill? "A name on a map but even at that / more solid than so many other ghosts / I have stalked in our snap-together capital / of forgetfulness." A neighborhood in Dublin, a locus for lament and complaint at its decay, a zone for poetic allusions, a run through the carnival house of mirrors: "Misery Hill" is the title of the volume, the title of a poem of sorts, and the title of the most accomplished section of the volume, a sequence of thirty-three sonnets that at their best mingle elements of many poets, as diverse as Dante and Heaney, as well as John Berryman. In the voice of Nemo, presumably the Nemo Loris after whom another sonnet in the volume is written ("Rubik's Cube") readers may recognize the spirit of Mr. Bones.

The first of two sonnet sequences in the volume is "Sonnets to James Clarence Mangan." The sonnets take on directly Wheatley's anxieties about his race through the poetry mill, and the burdens of judgment. He moans to Mangan about the hardships of his profession:

No more than I can, James, could you refuse
demands for instant copy from the press.
Unlike mine though, your verse paid; alas
the only work I'm paid for is . . . reviews.
The post this morning brings a dreary load
of books for journalistic vivisection.
My inertia jumpstarts into action:
what, X still alive—and still no good?
Perhaps one day he'll make it to my shelf;
on form like this he should be glad he's skimmed [End Page 153]
and not thrown out before the carve-up starts.
Help me, James, to take upon myself
the sins of poets: help me to tell the damned
and saved apart, all in eight hundred words!

The lines exhibit Wheatley's sound control of meter, as well as the facetiousness that runs through Wheatley's volume, at times urbane and droll, at times self-conscious. We have heard such complaints about the writer's life before, with bitter irony, from such poets as Pound: "I never mentioned a man but with the view / Of selling my own works. / The tip's a good one"; but perhaps Wheatley's tone is too self-satisfied, despite its protest. In the next sonnet of the sequence we read "Which lasts longer, poetry or drink? / Posterity's a cheque no barman yet's / agreed to change, and fame a low-class brothel." The triteness of the line is intentional, one supposes, but such lines walk perilously near to gab and cant. Wheatley must have been aware of this: in the last line of sonnet 19 of "Misery Hill" the voice of the pope—like the ghost of Joyce to Heaney about pilgrimages—instructs him "Get real, son: drop the cant." The next sonnet begins "I cant, I cant, I can't," a cadence echoing Joyce...