April Reviews: Joshua Marie Wilkinson

Zach Savich
April 18, 2013
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It’s tempting to discuss Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s poetry through metaphors from film: Wilkinson is a filmmaker, after all, a fact that his poetry recalls both overtly (his 2009 collection is titled The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth) and more subtly, as in the atmospheric assembly of images in what is one of his best collections for a reader to start with, 2006’s Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk. His latest book of poetry, Swamp Isthmus (Black Ocean, 2013), makes clear, however, that such metaphors shouldn’t naively refer to film’s most obvious techniques—the way that people sometimes talk about realistic fiction as though literary perspective is a camera, here comes a jump cut, here’s an over-the-shoulder spit-take. Rather, Swamp Isthmus offers film’s sense of gathering up impressions by moving through them, of capturing observable phenomena through a mechanism of recording that, by moving at its own tempo, is able to preserve both the stillness and motion of a scene. But it’s the motion of the film in the camera (or whatever moves in a digital casing—confetti and amoebas, I think) that one is always, in a way, seeing when seeing a recorded image.

Metaphors are tempting, and the one above may reveal flaws in my understanding of film, but I stand by it as a way of discussing Wilkinson’s recent work, which doesn’t foreground the bravado of an actor staring into a camera but the awareness one has a moment later of the camera operator looking back, and then of the larger scene surrounding both actor and camera. Swamp Isthmus’s seven poetic sequences offer notation from a similarly steady and steadily adjusted position, a position one sees—as focused, as steadied—by Wilkinson’s roving and honed attention. “we stand in / for the moon,” the book’s first sequence begins. “carry / a slide rule / to the yard under // logging noise.” This voice is known by its surroundings, by how it replaces them. At the poem’s end, this replacement, in which the only measure is a slide rule, comes to compose the poem’s figures, or, more accurately, to note particulars before they dissolve into depersonalized experience: “we put our clothes / back // slowly // before / our laughter turns us / into somebody else’s,” the poem concludes.

This following distinction may itself seem amoeba-small, but I feel that by offering this steadiness of attention, around which one senses a saturated landscape—in which some moments roil against the book’s dominant hush (“ice-foiling & under-grassy dusk,” “rickety carousel and cement truck shadows”)—Swamp Isthmus differs from the similar but more diffuse notations in Wilkinson’s preceding collection, Selenography. That book’s poems, paired with photographs by Tim Rutili in Sidebrow Books’ beautiful edition, often present casually vacuous sites for a reader to lushly move in and out of; Swamp Isthmus offers more pointed and poised attention. As a result, the newer book’s poems are stranger and more affecting, to my taste, for their relation to what I want to call precision. I hesitate on that term because this is clearly a work of process, intent drift, the marking of time at the moment just before or just after one’s perceptions cohere. But throughout this book one feels the sort of heightened and even disorienting clarity that comes, with precision, after meditation’s initial wandering stages: “there on the corner you are / your shirt open a bit in your blue skirt / & flat owl shoes,” Wilkinson writes, and the slight moments of seeming imprecision (is the shirt wearing a skirt? are the owl shoes paired to the skirt or are they the subject of a new phrase?) bring about exacting vision, blinking included. The book is packed with similar instants of vibrant revelation.

This small difference between the books—am I really talking, after all, about a difference I feel in “stars construct / a dummy out // of your / promises” (Selenography) compared to “this kitchen window is / saying something // so we should learn to listen” (Swamp Isthmus)? forgive me—is significant because these two titles are the first installments in a five-book sequence. That projection might seem like the author’s sly comment on his prolific publishing, but because of the slight difference in mode between these first two books, I wonder eagerly about the architecture Wilkinson has in mind for the sequence: is the first book an overture, from which these sometimes ethereal notational utterances will gain weight? Prosodically, the poems in Swamp Isthmus have a steadiness of rhythm that matches the steadiness of attention I noted above. Their short lines typically land on a varied but regular accentual down-beat, fluttering in counterpoint to jagged lineation. This effect can be astonishing, as in a poem that ends

more noise to eradicate

but must first find


capturing the length

of evening with


our kites

up in the smoke


circling us but for


cordial disappearances


& a garish

fucked-out light

One of the book’s chief contributions may be its relationship to landscape; it doesn’t labor to reverently prove that we and all environments are part of a complex ecology, but instead shows one living among such scapes, which include the imagination and friendship (“swallows gather up in the air again like / a bushel to pull the cartoon curtains shut // nothing against us / standing out here // waiting with Declan & cigarettes / for any bus”). Here is a passage from “Upholsterers’ Moon” in which I feel the full flush and seizures of spring, the ways in which perception alters and is altered by nature. In this poem, I buy, and may even tremble at, the palpable abstraction of the last couplet’s “it,” as though the poem is a similar bellows:

unfreezing mud gathers

on slender meadow boards


horseflies do their weaving

& trees list


above thieves in the clearing

enlisting radios


as phones

as nets


so it works us


Swamp Isthmus is published by Black Ocean, which, I’m happy to disclose, will become my publisher in 2014. But my friends know that I have long heralded Black Ocean for its publication of remarkable poetry that, across the press’s list, is both aesthetically diverse and indicative of a distinct and adventurous mission. Often, this distinction involves elements that feel visionary, in books that range through ornate pastoralism to harrowing absurdity to reflection on the ineluctable to prophecy that seems both temperate and catastrophic. I just wrote some loud blurby phrases, I know, which might distract from the stunned velocity at the core of the collection under review. So, in honor of the visionary, let me end with an image: reading Swamp Isthmus—I saw moonlight constructed against a snow fence.

Oh, and this book, by the way, is gorgeously designed. As soon as you see it, as soon as you open it, you are reading it. You should be glad about that, since Wilkinson is one of our essential contemporary poets, and Swamp Isthmus is among his essential works. You can buy it directly from the publisher here.

This post is the seventh and final in a series of brief blog-reviews I’ve written this April. Previous posts in the series discuss works by Jena Osman and Yevgeniy Fiks, Kevin Goodan, Cole Swensen and Hadara Bar-Nadav, Miguel Hernández and Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, James Tate, and Margaret Ross.

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