- Scholarship Girl
As a Cuban-American, born of Cuban émigrés but never having seen the Cuban landscape myself, I am the keeper of a nostalgia that does not belong to me. I have felt the sorrow of loss, viewing those panoramic shots of the Cuban Malecón on film, which should really, perhaps, only be felt by those who had those warm stones underneath their feet and sifted that famous sand between their toes. Is this mere empathy? Do we not all cry with the characters, fictional and nonfictional, who lose their Africas, their Russias, their Scotlands? Or is it something more? For some of us, our parents’ memories haunt us, nag at us like dreams half-remembered and quickly dissipated into the clamor of daily life. Speaking of those whose parents lived through the Holocaust, Marianne Hirsch calls it postmemory, the act “of adopting the traumatic experiences—and thus also the memories—of others as experiences one might oneself have had, and of inscribing them into one’s own life story.”1 Such is the project of Lesley Wheeler’s debut collection, Scholarship Girl, in which she attempts to piece together her mother’s past as a struggling girl in 1950s Liverpool. In doing so, it is Wheeler’s own identity that is at stake.
As Hirsch points out, postmemory is not the exclusive province of trauma: “postmemory characterizes the experience of those who . . . have grown up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the powerful stories of the previous generation.” Moreover, postmemory has a “textual nature”; it “is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through representation, projection, and creation—often based on silence rather than speech, on the invisible rather than the visible.” In other words, postmemory is particularly suited to art. Half creator, half recreator, the artist’s task is to make real the unreal via the vicariously manipulated senses of the reader. Wheeler does this beautifully in the opening poem, “Remembering My Mother’s Childhood,” with language so sensually evocative it transports the reader to a “mythical” past “purified / of reeking detail” and “cooled by duplication” which she nevertheless recreates via borrowed or “invented” sense memory, “because,” she argues, “it invented me, and lies / are my birthright.” With details such as “a great soot-blackened maw,” the “scuff, bang of stout shoes,” and “the smell of wood that never dies,” Wheeler gives birth to the past that gave birth to her.
It is not an easy birth, however, and throughout the collection Wheeler struggles to coax the truth of her background from a landscape—both temporal and spatial—that is stubbornly reticent and unforgiving. In [End Page 207] “Poem without a Landscape,” it is she who is without a landscape to which she can belong, not Virginia, nor New Jersey, nor Liverpool. The world is a secret, with “hills brooding on their own blues,” and the poet is locked inside herself: “I’ll be my green world—it can seethe inside of me.” This frustration is one that haunts the entire collection, with symbolism that speaks to a thwarted fruition, such as in “Oh Aye Yeah,” in which Wheeler describes seeds as “the opposite of flowers, / a pile of hopelessness swept into a pocket.”
It is not until “The Calderstones,” however, a series of fourteen unrhymed sonnets, that we really start to see Wheeler’s preoccupation with the passage of time and the inevitable inaccessibility of the past. The stones, Liverpool’s less famous Stonehenge, “yearn to loom awesomely,” as awesomely, perhaps, as Wheeler’s own “memories” of her mother, but they are crippled by time:
they yearn to loom awesomely, but cows have chafed their shabby hides on them, cascades of soot have discolored them, and resting men have traced their bootsoles there with worn-down blades.
The recalcitrant landscape returns to “shrug” nonchalantly yet “topple”` this important “shrine,” which is “older than the hulks at Stonehenge.” Their partial rebuilding—like Wheeler’s own partial reconstruction of her mother’s...