by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Black Ocean 2013
Reviewed by P.J. Gallo
“another code fathoms forth”
In one of this book’s more intimate moments, a speaker recounts, “we put our clothes / back on // slowly before // our laughter turns us / into somebody else’s.” It’s an early flash of clarity in the book’s nighttime landscape, and if we squint through the poem’s carefully constructed atmosphere, we can imagine a light on in a bedroom. We can hear laughter as it courses over a yard into a neighbor’s house. And we can see a neighbor’s smirk in appreciation of all that’s good and perfect.
This is strong stuff from a sensory perspective. It’s a multifaceted moment around which we can construct a multidimensional narrative. This isn’t precisely what Swamp Isthmus is after, but it is a way to point out that the book’s short lines and short stanzas, its variable leaps from image to image or image to narrative, give the poems a sparse, imagistic feel. These poems hint at something recognizable. They often feel like a supercut of atmospheric moments from horror movies – one moonlit fence here, one stray dog there. It’s easy to throw a bit of ourselves into what becomes a collective idea of how perspective, memory, and language come to form thought.
There is joy in those early lines, but there is also a complexity typical of the book. The optimism in the speaker’s presumptive “we” herniates through the poetry’s bleakness. The conjecture that “somebody else” will laugh at the laughter of others instead of, say, plotting to kill them (which seems like a real possibility given the uncanny, murky mood the book cultivates), seems confidently hopeful. An underlying assumption of decency forms a scaffold on which poems filled with rot, decay, and darkness can be an affirmation of who we are in a poisoned world.
Here’s a more representative sample from the beginning of a later poem called “Cold Faction”:
three men already four
one with a shovel rests it
on the casket & won’t re-
commence the digging
till the dead start to
put their clothes back on
take their sketches
to a pawn
This is “representative” for a few reasons. First, the structure of poems – the aforementioned short lines and stanzas – is mostly consistent throughout the book. There is some variation from poem to poem, but they move down the page at a common clip. Second, “the casket” and “the dead” highlight the book’s thematic preoccupation with darkness and decay. It’s a constant preoccupation, but it’s sprinkled rather than poured. And third, the way the three drinking men morph into a vision of walking dead is typical of the way the poems quickly shift direction.
In this vein, Swamp Isthmus creates a dichotomy of murky private moments and open invitations to a collective idea. The image of dead people taking their sketches into a pawnshop registers as a private moment. It feels less referential than other moments, so it excludes us from some of the implications of “sketches” and the “pawnshop.” In an even more private moment from a poem called “A Saint among the Stragglers’ Beds,” the speaker describes “a six on the back of your hand // it smudges your chin in the rain.” Nothing stops us from understanding what the lines describe, but they invoke a small detail in a personal, encoded narrative, or they allude to something unknown. Either way, without more information, “six” is impenetrable as a signifier of additional meaning.
Still, other lines ask to be placed in particularly public contexts. In “Upholsterer’s Moon” for example, we see the Bates Motel in the “buzz-snap buzzing / in the vacancy sign.” The titular character in “I go by Edgar Huntly now,” the sixth of the book’s seven poems, refers to an obscure Gothic novel about a sleepwalker. Early in “A Saint among the Stragglers’ Beds,” the speaker introduces “a man named Ashley / & a boy called Small,” which certainly seems to allude to something, though a reasonable Google search comes up nil. Which says in part, even when things are clear or clearly searchable (like passing references to Max Roach and Geeshie Wiley), sometimes their importance to the speaker remains private.
The book sustains this continuum of private and public. Movement along this continuum is a central part of our experience in these poems. As such, the poems seem to zoom in and zoom out without much warning. Within a few lines, the poems can ask a reader for completely different brands of attention. In another passage from the first poem in the book, “Cordial Disappearances,” things subtly throb for recognition:
just the incantation
of long meadow-like strings
coughing their tracers
between each step
white spool of our kite freed
but what returned
was the roof floating down
& three days of hake in the sink
The image of a roof floating down a river brings to mind the flooding of New Orleans or New York or Colorado. In “tracers,” we might see nighttime footage of overseas conflicts. The passage alludes to a contemporary reality, but there is nothing overt about the allusion. The poems are all connective tissue. Understated threads of continuity between parts of this poem – a roof floating down the river is feasibly connected to the fish in the sink, tracers are connected to the kite spool – lend the book a sweeping quality. Abstraction doubles as grandiosity. Other moments are smaller, like the following passage from “I Go by Edgar Huntly Now”:
this girl maybe seven
in the tavern
she’s all tooth & freckles asks
what’s your dog’s name
& wants to know
if my dog has a heart too
so brindle Bella lets this kid lift her
to her small ear & says
I can hear something
in your dog
And so, despite the book’s sometime privacy, despite its slow unspooling of image and language, there is room for a cute story about a little girl saying the darnedest thing about a dog. Just as words and lines and stanzas are units of thought and emotion, Swamp Isthmus allows that a well-framed, colloquially written anecdote is also a valid unit of thought and emotion. The book’s variety and inclusiveness, even with its carefully cultivated atmosphere, makes it meaningful beyond any speaker’s individual motivation. The poems feel at once constrained by their mood and freed by their piecemeal breadth.
It’s worth mentioning that Swamp Isthmus is the second book in Wilkinson’s No Volta pentology. This is interesting insofar as one’s read the first book, Selenography (and insofar as one finds ambitious, multi-volume poetry projects interesting), and this information, given to us in the book’s front matter, affects the way we read the book. First, there is the possibility that other volumes of the pentology will reveal or expound on certain aspects of Swamp Isthmus, which is fine if we’re in a collect-all-five frame of mind. The consistency of this volume heralds a similar poetry in future volumes, which are undoubtedly worth a look. Second, the knowledge that something we don’t know might later be named allows us to read the poems in a particular context. It compounds abstraction. It piques curiosity. It extends the possibilities of the book beyond the first and last pages. Most importantly, it frees us to let the poetry wash over us, to let the poems simply be. Purposefully or not, it provides a worthwhile framework to a worthwhile stack of poems.