“Every creative act is first an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso
“I believe in a deeply ordered chaos.” -Francis Bacon, interviewed by Melvyn Bragg in 1985 (Link to Video)
I don’t write reviews in the traditional sense. I’ve learned how to critique a work of art through a proper university program. I’ve always known that art can open up one’s world, increasing connections across many facets of human activity and expression through the ages. There are times when this feeling/thought is present as I am interacting with a work. This short piece (or quasi-critique) is about one such instance and is probably an exercise in failure. Nevertheless, I wanted to write down my thoughts concerning this most recently completed book.
To read Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s poetry from the last ten years is to take a journey with an artist that is determined to cut his own path. This all may sound cliché, but Wilkinson is a writer with a solid grasp on what has come before him. A scholar of poetic history and form, film, and philosophy, he has absorbed and synthesized his influences and has been creating an engrossing and challenging body of work for almost two decades.
In his most recent book and the fourth work in his No Volta pentalogy , Meadow Slasher (Black Ocean, 2017), the author performs the task of cutting into his influences. He lays bare the work that is currently moving through his mind, and he dispenses with traditional narrative completely. There is no perceivable storyline. This work is more of a well in which the reader is plunged. This imagery of being overwhelmed by it all is mirrored in the text itself. Wilkinson’s “narrator” describes water and “watery graves” and sinkholes and the “black dank earth.” He brings in imagery of trains and baseball and birds. Wilkinson is referencing all of it. Robert Frost, Donald Hall, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Carl Sandburg, Paul Celan, T. S. Eliot, and countless others. He is bringing in the entire history of poetry, of art (with a particular emphasis on what constitutes an “American” art). But it’s all overwhelming as the narrator admits several times. This passage conveys the challenge of creating anything in our current place on the timeline:
How much noise did you take in?
I crossed out so much there’s
little left to work through-
There is a great deal of noise. Noise from the past. Noise in social media and interconnectivity. Noise in the political reality around the globe. Noise that one can get lost in. Too much, too fast. Wilkinson is touching on the philosophical ideas of accelerationism (Nick Land’s Quick-And-Dirty Guide To Accelerationism) and dromology with a strong hold on the despair that can occur in these times, despair that originates in a feeling of isolation and social paralysis. Take this passage from p. 30:
I’m on the computer
just to see if anything
I don’t want to go to
invited me out
to turn down.
We have all had these moments of loneliness. We want to be part of something larger than us, but we almost have no way of actually imagining ourselves participating. The invitation is online, and therefore has no connection to a reality with which we are familiar. It is a pale, curated version of reality. Yet, it breaks into our thinking and becomes part of this great noise that fragments our thoughts.
“I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” -Georges Duhamel (1930) as quoted in Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Although Duhamel is describing his distaste of movies (in their beginnings), he has managed to capture how all media has the potential to break our thought process…how the noise can control your own thoughts. This is a powerful premonition of what was coming with propaganda film and the Nazi party. Is this really all that hard to imagine? Are we not overwhelmed by the quantity of information with which we confront daily? With all of this vast history and the speed of technology, we can be left with a deep loneliness. Out of this loneliness, this isolation, we become content recyclers…automatons that simply share the same memes…the same jokes…the same post-produced reality.
“But if images start pouring across screens and invading subject and object matter, the major and quite overlooked consequence is that reality now widely consists of images; or rather, of things, constellations, and processes formerly evident as images. This means one cannot understand reality without understanding cinema, photography, 3-D modeling, animation, or other forms of moving or still image. The world is imbued with the shrapnel of former images, as well as images edited, photoshopped, cobbled together from spam and scrap. Reality itself is postproduced and scripted, affect rendered as after-effect.” – Hito Steyerl, “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” (2012)
I don’t want to dwell too long here in the depths of what may be depressing to some. This context is key to understanding the situation of the poem. The poem is celebratory and exciting, fast-paced and funny. Throughout the text, there are echoes of seminal poetic works, re-envisioned in new language (not without some self-deprecation and irony). For example, the beginning few lines seems to revise the beginning of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) as a fast pitch, or a dash as Wilkinson puts it.
Here are Eliot’s lines:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Here are Wilkinson’s lines:
Do your friends know you well enough to pull you through your past?
I cut my face in looking.
Dogs on a hunt for what may come.
I am a looked-through garage window where a cat furred an oil stain.
A bright April dashing us to the curb.
The author reimagines so much while still referencing the three previous books in this series so effortlessly, I almost didn’t see them in the text during my first reading. Selenography (2010), Swamp Isthmus (2013), and The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal (2014) all appear either directly or descriptively. This helps to contextualize this particular poem and link it to-separate it from the others. One example is the line, “This isn’t for a book of polaroids” (p. 13).
My immediate thought upon reading this was that the author (by way of the narrator) was being incredibly honest up front. The narrator seems to exam his or her own ability to reflect on the past and shares with the reader a lack of confidence in their ability to create anything better than that which influenced them. The next sequence of lines includes the Celan-like phrase, bruisecuts, which perfectly captures those specific wounds that boxers get in the ring.
These are just the references on the first page (and I left out some). These are also the references outside the direct lines pulled and mentioned on the acknowledgment page, which include Marvell, Mandelstam, Catullus, O’Brien, and Shakespeare. He also pulls in references and descriptions of everything from the Illiad to Jay-Z and RZA, from Akira Kurosawa to Roberto Bolaño, from Faulkner to Tammy Wynette. Additionally, Wilkinson often refers to contemporary poets by name or by work. A few examples include Zachary Schomberg’s Scary, No Scary (p.44), Kazim Ali (p.56), Philip Jenks (p. 31), and John Cleary (p.51). Is that Dana Ward mentioned on p. 12?
The world as it is presented is a complex one, not the hollow dystopia of Eliot’s poem, but a more nuanced reality that includes both horror and beauty. The stage that Wilkinson sets is populated by loved ones, icons and friends.
This is a love poem, an ecstatic and challenging love poem to poetry and to life.
The world of Meadow Slasher radiates with love, gratitude, memory, and honesty.
Although there is much to cause dismay, we can still have agency of our lives. We can still create beauty from all of the noise. What are we waiting for? It’s not the air conditioning and geysers needed, but it’s something. We should follow Wilkinson’s lead on this:
Let’s stroll down to Hades & turn the box fans on.