David Wheatley’s well-folded very short poem

David Wheatley’s new collection “The President of Planet Earth” (Wake Forest) overflows with formal wit and wisdom.

Thinking about the fold, I’ll mention now a two-line poem titled “Sighting.”

A ? is standing on my
copy of “Birds of Scotland.”

The last three words are italicized (no quotation marks) as the title of the book the ? happens to be standing on. Presumably were it not
standing on the book the book would be in use to name it. But not knowing the name — referring to it only as a punctuation mark, even the least punctive or pointed question mark — makes us feel its presence as a mystery and a solider one at that.

The hinge (fold?) of the poem is “formally” the word copy. The bird, if we knew its name, would be closer to a copy of the model of the species. But we don’t know that species —- perhaps because we won’t open the book to find out and scare away the bird. The poem concludes with a name, not a question (mark). The final reference in the poem is to that definitive joining of title and substance that is a (copy of) a book and the other to the equivocal creature conjured in the first line. And yet the contrast between A and B rebounds to A. The nameless bird becomes a mystery in the flesh.

Very short poems must do a lot with little. The complex fold, the doubling of figurative structures, is happily unobtrusive. The clever poem is more than clever.

Fold 2: Hellenistic Epigram

Short poems are “folded” — that is, the “form” folds or doubles somewhere past the middle. This complicates the energy of the whole.

From the Hellenistic collection — some of the earliest self-conscious “short” poems in the Western tradition — we have this from Leonidas of Tarentum:

Give me one small smattering of earth,
the unhappy cemetery weight
of a heavy stone is to crush richer sleep:
If I am dead who cares I was Alkander.

(Peter Levi, trans Greek Anthology, Penguin Classics, 102).

The “genre” is the epitaph: our short tradition is rooted in an awareness of finitude, which must mean our tradition has roots in transcendence, for without some notion of transcendence, we cannot conceive of mortality (hence no epitaphs).

A further move within this particular language game is the distinction between light and heavy on top of the grave. Here this topic intersects with the concept of eternal sleep AND with the topic, “do not disturb this grave.”

The “fold” or final move in the game is to name the possessor of the plot, but now noting that there’s a contradiction in the tradition: all his fuss over the identity of a dead man.

Thus the “fold” in the form helps the true “form” emerge at the end of the poem.