I want to understand better what I like about reading John Wilkinson.
And as it happens to be in front of me, I’m going to talk about Down to Earth (Salt, 2006).
The effect of reading Wilkinson’s poems is disorientating, but they almost always display a syntactic and grammatical logic. My brain does not encourage me to find and follow the meaning in a linear fashion – it just assumes it’s there already. I respond in the same way to Oulipian N+7 poems. One feels traces of a source text hidden beneath the poem.
Like Prynne, Wilkinson favours dense, tightly woven blocks of text. Regular syllabics reinforce that sense of the poem’s integrity as a unit of meaning. It coheres.
Verbs propel you forward. ‘Rich with verbs, the sense of happenings, deeds, potentialities, necessities, results’ – Roy Fisher.
But Wilkinson’s verbs often lack subject or object, leaving you with a strange sense of a world depopulated; in which control/agency has been passed up, given over.
Beats slip, gears mash,
clutch though they disjoin,
rivulets grip the gravel,
mash conforms to mesh.
This is crunchy sonics, wordplay and punning. But unlike someone like, say, Paul Muldoon, you don’t have the sense of the poet’s voice behind the text. No, these poems are unguided, unvoiced; mechanical/industrial. I suppose this is why Wilkinson falls into the ‘difficult’ camp, whilst Muldoon is merely… I dunno… ‘tricksy’ or ‘playful’.
Talking of mechanics… I think of Ballard a lot when reading Wilkinson: his dystopian vision of a world dominated by ‘oil, rods & concrete’ (that’s Wilkinson, of course).
The warm flanks of trashed cars,
the hot leather,
blue leather blistering like bee stings proliferate.
(‘Ravenous At Noon’)
Here you have the Ballardian holy trinity of sex, violence and the automobile.
Other mechanical/industrial/sci-fi reference points:
lunar chafing trays
Lipped or canted space
Harlem Air Shaft
A powered hub
Glass & chrome sing
the loom fires & shunts
To contradict myself slightly, Wilkinson’s poems may evoke automated, networked modernity, but they are not without personality.
‘Lyric grace’ – Patrick McGuinness
‘A haunting, unheard of lyric poetry’ – Adam Phillips
Do they approach the lyric? I don’t know. I guess it depends on your definition of ‘lyric’. And certainly there is something of a reclaiming of this term within avant-garde circles. I am thinking of Tim Atkins, Emily Critchley, Harriet Tarlo, Geraldine Monk, DS Marriott, Chris McCabe and others. The lyric as marker of linguistic excess, extravagance, and, crucially, of music.
What I do find in Wilkinson is the sudden injection of often incongruous voices or register. The effect is disruptive and exciting, suggestive of the mashing together (or layering up) of experience.
O how free I am amongst the yapping dogs.
Broom pods crackle. Rivulets of molten glass solidify.
(‘Hunter at Dusk’)
What strikes me
shut into the car’s inside
merging left shrinks shadows into porch steps,
curlicues of trapped music
kerb-crawling through my sleep.
I haven’t of course talked of the politics of these poems. Car bombs, war, finance; the application of power, often by violent means. ‘Freedom’ appears again and again, as if to imply a word stretched beyond its limits. The language is resistant, for sure, but against what, and to what end is harder to distinguish. There is a strong suggestion of control. Of things being altered forcefully, irreparably changed. Cut, slash, shave, pack, crush, ‘sear, drown, clench’, &c. This is the vocabulary of industry, and of physical abuse. The world ordered and aggressively exploited by commerce.
One poem points most overtly towards the control of the many by the few.
Lined up for the gangmaster at dawn,
set off like a boost of painted pebbles,
faces clatter into runnels, into plough
ridges, burst like sacks of lime
& broken arms & legs, hollow necks
march resurrected. Forces make strikes,
swank their nakedness, now the tax-
exempt, I pour my heart out, I do,