Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Saturday, May 2, 2015



Schedule of Unrest: Selected Poems by John Wilkinson
(Salt, 2014)

If wholes were only catalogues of shards, John Wilkinson would be a 'difficult' poet.  His diction borrows and recodes the terms of half a hundred disciplines.  His rhythms tend toward the shifty and elliptical: splintered monologue and programmed imperatives irrupt through a kind of fragmentary agility, a linguistic transcription of REM sleep.  He touches, often and with great unease, upon the monstrous collusions that life in the West entails, and diagrams the gangrenous way that political power infects even our least guarded acts of love and need.  (See 1986's Proud Flesh for an unsparing and brilliant index to the latter.)  But if I'm pressed to name the salient characteristic of his new selected-poems volume Schedule of Unrest, I come to something much rarer than mere complexity or erudition: that strange sensory halo called grace.

          It's not a word that we're disposed to take seriously.  "Grace" has been roped in by both religious fundamentalists and the effete nicety of artists who aspire to interior decoration.  I use the word in an older and more carnal sense: the grace of his work is an internal logic, a structural rhythm that articulates the whole of a book or poem in ways difficult to explain in abstract terms.  As Wilkinson writes in his brief introduction,

The poems are the reverse of ‘intellectual.’  A cry emerges into song, the song into language, language is weighed and attributed in its relations to the world as language must be, such being the ‘intellectual’ moment of a poem’s emergence, and lastly, through the attentive impregnation of turned-over words, poems thicken into somatic entities of some sort, whatever sort satisfies for the time being.  These are not primarily poems of ideas but […] poems of embodied thinking and feeling in progress.

The poem, then, is a map of itself and articulates a territory inextricable from the language that composes it.  Neurology is not sensation, but each is a decoding of the other, a manifold congruence.

It's not something easily grasped in quotation, nor can it be attained by craft alone.  It requires the deftness of a properly alchemical synthesis to animate a poem with nothing more than sheer linguistic voltage, a current running word to word to word.  The allegedly ‘experimental’ poets who have received the bulk of critical attention during Wilkinson’s career (e.g. John Ashbery and Charles Bernstein) have resorted to precious humor, garish pseudo-invention, and self-congratulatory cleverness. Wilkinson hasn’t, doesn’t, and presumably won’t. His writing is meticulous as only natural growth can be, organized less like a drama or a list than like a protein sequence, and any given poem makes perfect sense in ways that paraphrase can’t capture.

            Here, for example, are the first 16 lines of Wilkinson’s long poem Sarn Helen, previously collected in 2001’s Effigies Against the Light:


bayoneted.  If any will hear the truth must cling best
avoid blow dragonflies, clung on by nail-feasance
over a cataract which scours a giant curtain wall,
or was it short-of-time shrunk the unseeming aimless
river to a bank’s sediment?  Common seals luxuriate
transmitters pinned behind their perked-up ears,
breezes buffet from all directions Body-build them
into a race of top achievers, filing across hillsides
mewl within their gathering blades, a scopophilia
shrink-wraps the forest in its retailer’s proud image
Preserving it while it speeds, dragnetting seagulls,
seagulls, choughs, a tinkers’ brood they desolate
with far cries

          And that “/” should properly be considered a line.  The intimation of fracture and of depersonalized language, as in computer programming where a word is an arbitrary placeholder for a set of electrical signals, is important.  Wilkinson has almost no interest in the first-person singular, at least as constituted in the confessionalist swamp, and the romantic-oracular prologue “if any will hear the truth” is gashed on both sides: to the right, insects swarm Ezekiel, and to the left, a scrap of factual violence supersedes the heroic injunction.  We arrive bayoneted and are cause of, and prey to, the endemic slippage of nature into measurement, calculable value, quantity enough to trade with.  The seals have been tagged for further study; the forest asphyxiates at the end of a telephoto lens; the ex-river is punished for its apparent aimlessness, and mineral surveyors swarm its corpse.

          Theme, in the standard sense, is an irrelevant concern, but the poems in Schedule of Unrest brush consistently against a few complexes of concern, cultural biopsies: the mass manifestation of desire, the pathways by which energy becomes first routine and then control, language’s potential to disassemble and rebuild pervasive schematics of power. If that reminds you of Deleuze and Guattari, J.H. Prynne, or Joseph Beuys, you’re on the right track.  Wilkinson isn’t much given to explicit allusions within his poetry, but he studied with Prynne, the polymath doyen of English poetics, at Cambridge. 

He also, however, spent decades working in the mental health wing of the National Health Service and, as he writes in the introduction, he “felt closely the engineered corruption of the most admired and trusted institution in British life.”  These were the Thatcher/Reagan years, when a Prime Minister could declare that “there is no such thing as society” and sell her nation for scrap – which is to say, they were today and will be tomorrow. The tension between a program of cultural resurrection, like the one Prynne inherited from Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, and the mean sclerosis of Thatcherite desertion, civic decay, and profitable squalor is all over his language.  Every word can be turned, broken, plugged into a strange and unstable constellation, but every word is also marred with barcode, price tag, and a whiff of North Sea oil.

Consider a poem, given here in full, from the sequence Case in Point:

A DJ puts the groove down in a private club.
A scratch held a part so as to incubate.
A vigilante takes his heat.  Hotshot.

Feet compress the forest trail, its underthatch
            /horsehair sags aloof desirable
Where’s the pocket.  Ripped out.

That’s to provoke not some resigned attitude
uniformly strikes
lash for eyelash, feedback in the cubicle

detects its always front makeready thin stock,
soaks in saliva,
soaks in acid, in urea

rowan splash, photoperiod burst,
            fingering a blunder mass installed
base in that booth sucks the silt back & forth

  mending & re-mending what
lemon spare part So let flatten
                        So a regular pulse
locks & re-dilates,
sweeps the sand now marked out for runway.

          On first reading, several months ago, Case in Point struck me as one of the most opaque pieces of language I’d ever encountered. There are several dozen poems in the sequence, and most are of roughly this length and density.  I got through about ten of them, sure that I’d find something but without much idea what, when their structural principle suddenly deciphered itself, and every word began to rattle and buzz. 

          What happened?  I heard this poem scratching at the cognitive divide between energy and structure, flow and form, what Heidegger would call the Earth (what is) and the World (what we make from it).  We’re soaked in an overgrowth of embodied stimuli; we group those phenomena into patterns, pulses, shapes; and if we’re not careful, we come to occupy a necropolis of dead rites, trying to bargain with carcasses.  James Joyce savaged, mourned, and dreaded that morbidity on every page he wrote. 

And every poem in Case in Point focuses on a recognizable cluster: try rereading the above with the set [track/groove/pathway/route] in mind, and see what strange conjunctions appear.  Eyelashes fret the cubicle as cartridge does a record’s grooves, and biometric scanners lay the tarmac for the Gaza City Airport.  (There are likewise poems for box, bag, membrane, and limit.)

All of which is much more legible in sequence – and that may be the only major problem with Schedule of Unrest.  Wilkinson is a serial poet.  Even his page-long poems are best read together, fairly quickly, moving at the rhythm of their own disclosure, not pored over or dissected until you’ve gotten through them in real time.  Taken out of context, the longer work can’t quite create the same marvelous continuum of altered, local sense, and Proud Flesh, The Nile, Sarn Helen, Saccades, and others need to be read in their entirety, all at once.  (Several complete sequences are, fortunately, included.)  But if this volume leads to those poems, and to the more discrete work in between them, it will have accomplished something crucial.  He’s right here, living and working at the peak of his powers; read him.


Michael S. Judge is an American writer.  He has worked in poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, and criticism of music, film, and literature, but he's primarily a novelist.  His recent work includes the novels ... And Egypt Is the River (Skylight, 2013) and Lyrics of the Crossing (Fugue State, 2015).  A third novel, The Scenarists of Europe, is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive.

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