My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Joshua Marie Wilkinson has been in my radar for some time, though this is the first proper response I’ve really had to his work. I first came to him at the vehement request of a better read friend of mine back when I was poetry editor at Dislocate, that we solicit some collaborative poems Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon were then getting out to periodicals in advance of what, I guess, would become Figures for a Darkroom Voice. I mention that “guess” as caveat that, other than this collection, I’ve only otherwise read Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk. His (and Gordon’s) kingdom is vast, impressively prolific for his age, so I feel a little embarrassed that I am about to draw such large conclusions from merely two collections. That being said, I’m hoping for a shorter post and review, so now that the obligatory hyperlinks are out of the way, let me get down to it.
If you are at all familiar with Wilkinson, you know his writing is most often fragmentary, near tanka-like, and his voice is defined by great mystery—these kinds of dark narratives of childhood and youth, often in rural settings, with strong bents toward fable and quite often an almost painterly delivery. This collection is no different. I am tempted to call him a surrealist, but that’s not entirely true—every time I go and seek the actually fantastic in his work, I find nothing but the utterly possible, the, in fact, plainly possible, the quotidian, a great population of objects that suggest otherworldliness simply by their delivery and combinations. We get, for instance, lovely lists like that which makes “deer & salt block:”
One boy hides a turtle from his brothers in a dresser drawer. One boy is mute & sluggish from the hurricane sirens. One boy took a long time in the bathtub reading the comics. One boy loops a tractor chain to the ceiling fan & tears the whole roof down. One boy speaks through a keyhole to the others about a shortstop’s hex.
And so forth. On one hand, this seems a rather run-of-the-mill catalogue meant to establish a summarial description of life in that place, of boyhood there (perhaps, as a result of his draw from films), and yet, on the other, the deep specificity of each sentence, not to mention the really striking imagistic qualities, resist our summary. Despite the fact that one could very well have experienced any one of these, that one sees a self-recognition from one’s own youth, the grouping as a whole is indeed surreal, and this is partly because it is difficult to draw a really tenable narrative or thematic line between them all. There’s an overriding furtiveness in the actions, perhaps, which evokes that quiet place of boyhood imagination and the private machinations of figuring-out-the-world, but the distance between territories is still so great that it challenges the reader to not rest simply there. Such arcs are translated more often across entire sections, in this case across the various “books” that makeup the collection, which secures a stronger sense of each little asterisks-bounded moment as an entry in a catalogue. They are curios, and there is an inherent difficulty, then, in deriving a larger concern for the sections or for the book as a whole.
This is what I think Wilkinson does best—he makes the ordinary seem otherwise, and within the specific realm of youthhood, childhood, I really can’t think of someone who does this any better. He will capture you with his stories; he will make you want to stay. Of course, I have a problem with this, too, in that the tableaus of the child’s more enraptured mind also fall into these sorts of crutches. One is that he populates so much of the text with old-timey nouns. Like this, from the section “The Book of Trapdoors, Thimble-Light, & Fog:”
A fifty-cent piece in the sweeper’s
clapping in the game
behind the cistern.
Not lurk, just lisp
or coined through.
Another is that he populates so much with a kind of slick darkness, like this from “The Book of Falling Asleep in the Bathtub & Snow:”
Carry your sister’s ring
in your hidden pocket.
Carry this song
in the hood of your throat.
My quarrel is that “fifty-cent piece,” “cistern,” “hidden pocket,” and metaphorical pairings like “hood of your throat” have already had all the poetic work done for them in the past—there is no argument that they make for compelling surrealism—they seem, in fact, like staples thereof. They are almost anachronisms, and in that way they feel like nostalgias. And this is not something exclusive to Wilkinson—rather, I see this as a larger cultural trend among the young, urban, and artistic, the “hipsters,” but I will address that more thoroughly in another post. The point here, for this collection of poems, is that some of the text seems to sacrifice truly adventurous, risky image-making, image-making that could fail (and therefore, provides the tension of that as a possibility) for a more flawless, dependable design. In a sense, I feel slightly marketed to, at moments. Largely, however, this book will blow you away with a really stupefying array of powerful images.