Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk: A Poem in Fragments
by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
U. of Iowa Press 2006
Reviewed by John Deming
Grackled Pane Pop-up Picture Book
Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s new long poem makes me think of an efficient brown piano folded shut in the corner of a Kindergarten basement. Or the smell of dry-erase markers. I don’t know. Any other variation of the lateral sensation that the world is willing and affable—a sensation most grown-ups, pushing along, have difficulty maintaining.
The ability to “maintain” is also what separates the good from the bad in a book-length poem. What exactly constitutes a “book-length” poem these days? I’d say there is really no criterion apart from the designation given it by the poet or publisher; you call it a book-length poem rather than a bunch of little poems, and so it is.
Generally speaking it’s a poet willing to indulge a broader vision and often, it’s the attempt to find cohesion in a bunch of annoyingly disconnected fragments (“Hey man, what about The Waste Land?” seems the argument). But in successful cases—including that of Lug Your Careless Body—it has more to do with fusing a sustained inspiration with a trancelike appropriation of tone: both its consistency, and the control of its flux.
The best thing about Lug is that it is amazingly readable—a sort of surreal page-turner that gives you little ground but keeps you walking on it. It feels almost like an intellectual revision of the pop-up picture book; instead of illustrations or actual “pop-ups,” Wilkinson blends carefully sculpted imagery with sensible abstractions. What gets me the most is the childish playfulness of this, most humanized in one of my favorite passages:
Magpies fly out from the cartoon cat’s
slippery teeth, I feign exasperation
& the little girl on the sofa scoffs,
calling my bluff, & says,
Oh, yeah right—
The best part with the cliff
& the birdcage
& the rubber hose & that grumpy
old bulldog hasn’t even happened yet.
A sweet description of a cartoon and a child’s response to that cartoon; it is a good example of how this book is not sprawling, but careful. Small stanzas of varying lengths occur page after page, separated from each other at varying degrees by asterisks. There is no elaboration, no overwhelming sense of plot—just the chiseled fact of image and association. Sometimes it’s downright haunting:
Grackles of laughter.
A wet ghost sings her
widower’s body shakily
out of his shoes.
There’s a sense of gravity in such lines that appropriately weighs Lug down. Most every section is as charming and easy on the eyes. This is what I mean by page-turner; there’s no reason not to keep going, because the meditation is well-sustained and seldom overwrought. The consistency of tone is the all-important bottom, whether he’s positing rhetoric in one of a multitude of three-question tercets:
Couldn’t they fix you a pancake?
How did the mail arrive in the middle of the night?
Where didn’t they find the butterflies?
or tempting fate with his heavily guarded noir thread:
The thieves had lifted
themselves out of the tunnel
with such swiftness—
Thieves, butterflies, pancakes—the stuff of youthful adrenaline, if not for Wilkinson’s consistently grown-up dependence on evasiveness. The more glorious images pop off the page (“The boy arrived with a book of penguins”) and the questions find a cookies-and-milk way to apply reason to the hint that asking questions is vital, whether you figure things out or not. Along the way, the more spirited lines just plain sound good (“Ghost hole & a wooly rug slung out.”).
Once or twice, the aforementioned sweetness goes too far; here’s another depiction of a child, this time an apparently perfect young boy who frees a moth: “He has cats & sisters & confuses on purpose / their names.” You gotta go easy on the number innocent children you put in a book—limit it to one or none. But the fact he was able to access the sky-capped optimism they imply, then sustain it in amongst various other impulses serves as a great example of how a larger-scale project can be a success—and the title, at very least, has that motivational quality. This isn’t the cascading genius of Splay Anthem, but in its own pointed, tonal and majestic way stands out as one of the most readable, freeing and troubling books of 2006.