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W&L Professor Lesley Wheeler’s Debut Book of Poetry Garners Praise

When Lesley Wheeler attended Catholic high school her nickname was “heathen.”

“It was a very dislocating experience. My family was irreligious and it’s still not entirely clear why they sent me there. Maybe they thought I’d do better in a single sex environment,” she said.

Since then, Wheeler, professor of English and department head at Washington and Lee University, has always identified with that particular word, hence the title of her debut book of poetry Heathen (C&R Press, 2009).

The book is the culmination of the last 10 years of poetry writing for Wheeler. “It’s basically about my thoughts during those years. I think most of the poems circulate around a feeling of being outside of organized religion,” she explained.

The poems are not all directly about religion. “Sometimes I take the word heathen in a larger sense to mean someone who is outside of the civilized space, outside of the pale,'” she said. “The book considers the various ideas or pleasures that can take the place of religion in a person’s life, particularly the natural world and raising children.”

The latter, along with literature and teaching, has occupied a lot of Wheeler’s time over the past few years, but she still found time for writing. Heathen consists of 55 poems whittled down from over 100 she considered for the book.

“I do write a lot,” she said. “It’s a very important practice to me. There’s something about the space I get into when I write poems. Maybe it’s spiritually satisfying, but it does calm me and center me in a way that nothing else does.”

Wheeler said that she wrote a lot of the poems at a moment when “they suddenly articulated something that I was struggling to put together.” The result has certainly resonated with reviewers who have described it as “wildly ambitious,” “exquisite” and “sheer magic.”

“Wheeler strikes an impossible balance between the wildly witty and tenderly elegant detail,” writes one reviewer. Another calls Heathen a “wildly ambitious first collection,” and adds “We are richer for this keen gaze, for this poet’s vision.”

The creativity in the book is not limited to the poetry. The cover is an image of pastel on parchment created by a friend of Wheeler’s who is both a poet and a painter. “To me they look like eggs. I think it suggests a sense of possibility, of something about to happen. There’s a line in a poem by Emily Dickinson that reads “Still at the Egg-life–/Chafing the shell,” and I’ve always thought of myself as still in the egg life.

“My 8-year-old son says they look like dragon eggs and I like that too,” she said.

Another creative element on the cover is Wheeler’s signature. She described it as literally a “literary font,” since the designer created her name out of elements of Mark Twain’s signature.

Wheeler’s book is available at the University Store and on line at Amazon.

A reading of the poems will be held in the Staniar gallery at 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18. It is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served.