John Wilkinson, Lake Shore Drive
annotated by Michael Peverett
or, "Merry co-star" as JW plays around with the letters of the title. The poem (and the book) begins:
A lovers' shadow, thumbed
from waxy & ambitious
Typical Wilkinson over-determined image: the thumb shucking out the quarters of a grapefruit, the pith revealed and overcast with the hand's shadow; squeezing a spheroid into a 2D projection, shape of two lovers curled up in one bed, and one of them is ambitious. Everything here is meant, including the apostrophe and the ampersand, which might be a logo of the poem's image. From that ambition springs the anticipated political vector, aggressive possession of the earth and all that is on it.
I don't make much of this - always a possibility because of Wilkinson's way of constructing poems, but I'll remember the ending:
run the mill. Internal
motivation gallops in sealed units.
It's easy to extract such memorably disenchanted nuggets about the way the world is going, or perhaps has already gone; this one reminds me in a lonely way of that novelty mouse-pointer that is a tiny horse galloping emptily. Lonely as Wilkinson's world of people at work and play is, I think this poem is more about international timezones than dating agencies. In W-world people communicate rather than converse. The communication tends to be aggressive.
The whole poem is an exploded image similar to the one discussed earlier, this time based on the abacus, of course with economic implication. One of the things that gets whirled into this mix is raindrops compared with beads on a wire. Unfortunately that line of thinking tends to lead us off theologically towards a First Mover who storms at us and who controls the only account there is, and who shifts around the helpless victim-people-beads, themselves fattened by pickings of His economy. But this monolithic theology tends to ignore the specificity of human economies as cultural constructs.
The q in the final word, "sequestered", trimly completes the last quarter. Quarters, old rooms, are what this poem itemizes and doesn't return to.
either upon this stele, or bellywise.
is how Wilkinson uses rhymes and textures. All these opening poems have a disarmingly stiff four-square stanzaic appearance on the page. As you read the poems what happens exposes a gaping tension between that appearance of constraint and the wild pitching of the poem's directions. Which is partly what this poem's about.
A Reasonable Settlement
"Those poltergeists .... their clumsy, abstract title-deeds...." This is a kind of expression that Wilkinson deploys a great deal: what in abstract terms you might define as "demonstrative adjective followed by fleering description".
Here's a few more:
"this moon-/face" (Cité Sportif)
"these sowers of disorderliness" (Spiegeleisen)
"these ageing / heads of the town" (Marram Mat)
"these package deal finickers" (Shoal of the Ditto Ship)
Who is pointing at what, is nearly always unasserted. It would be silly to interpret in the gross. Still, it's an interesting question: what distinguishes a high-minded critique of global capitalism from the barrage of street insults that are emitted by capitalist processes in daily operation? Does anything? Who's really on the moral high ground here: the mealy-mouthed critic, or the critic who tries to come down to street level, or the street itelf, honest and spontaneous loathers actuated by no critique at all?
Cité Sportif (four poems)
This is the first of the major groups of poems (or is it one poem in four bits) that jut out like dense challenges from the rest of Lake Shore Drive. It's also where the tension of that initial stanzaic constraint bursts. The immediate effect is of an overwhelming crescendo.
• Oxygen of suppression
• Suck-out from the dug-in
• The tell-tale account switch
wrist-flashing lane IDs
neon-clocked down the strip totally what stamped
intelligence docket couldn't, can you stomach, you
have no stomach which must be superscription
documents sent ahead, to add up to a fateful boy
dubbed incorrigible had from birth or by neglect
traded for time in blocks,
the flat soles cushioned,
the Uzi clips were shucked –
"Cité Sportif" rages wildly and is plainly and bitterly and often brilliantly satiric. You can't ever pin down a JW poem to a single political background, but the title reference is to the massacres in 1982 in the old Camille Chamoun Sports Stadium in Beirut (see Robert Fisk's account). That's only one strand: another is the Estadio Chile torture and detention camp where Victor Jara died. At the same time JW is writing about the pain stitched into our sporting institutions, the (figurative) torture of young athletes from poor backgrounds trying to compete with their PBs. Whether you think that's a tasteful analogy, trivializing or illuminating, is an argument to be had. Wilkinson courts it; atrocity is never just in some distant place. (Perhaps it is tenable to conceive these narrative strands as mutually-illuminating ingredients without inferring an analogy.)
Elevation to Rear Yard
"Pathways frost the green field...." ah, a pastoral poem. But later, "pings confirm paths", and perhaps the green field is a spectroscope or a radar. Either way the poem is bothered with the pressure-drops of movement, skittering and frittering, "drumheads being damped".
Unfavourably reviewing Andrew Duncan's The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry in Quid 12 (March 2004), Wilkinson briefly turns aside to sketch contrasted formulations of two poetic avant-gardes: the US "language poetry" group and the British "Cambridge" group (the latter of course including Wilkinson himself) : "These avant-gardes could be characterized broadly and in turn as a practice where the text demands a work of 'completion' by the reader, specifically as a metatext which identifies the theoretical debate in which the poem intervenes, assessing its 'strategy' in that context; and a practice of over-completion, wrapping up a counterfactual universe whose principles of organization the reader must discern in some measure so as to enter and participate in its restructurings of consciousness through language. ... an even bolder sketch might distinguish between works having no inside and works having no outside. More theoretically, folllowing Niklas Luhmann one might say that 'language poetry' is concerned with coding and therefore requires the reader to supply its reference, while 'Cambridge poetry' is concerned with reference (occurring only within a system of self-referentiality and autopoesis) and exacts an observer's evaluation..."
premorse = ending abruptly, as if bitten off.
This is a desert poem, waterholes overwhelmed by the distances between them. So much for reference. A teasing feature of the contextual uncertainty is the verbal repetitions: "pauses", "long pause"; or "Operant / crowds about that well thirst / licenses and bounty thirsting to be crushed out". A certain obviousness in what the poem seems to be about is combined with a certain obviousness in the choice of vocabulary: a pause is a pause, what more is there to say? Thirst is thirst, what outré poeticism is wanted? It's teasing because the poem also has a contradictory bent towards such recondite words as "operant" and "reversionary". You tend to think: this can't be as plain as it seems, and then it isn't; it stops being about the desert, and becomes really about the desert. What I'm saying here applies mutatis mutandis to all this group of short poems, from "Elevation" through to "Writ".
We're at work again, on a "dry cough mission" - it's really remarkable how in W-world no-one is ever at home. The trajectory is a fairly long timescale, formation to death of stars. Then the star is conceded an inappropriate causality: "Clamp our latest contrail" - a frequent JW tactic that you might link to the word "counterfactual" in that quotation.
I break & then dream, re-
gearing, then breaks off.
Typical concatenated sentence (dream is a verb in the first proto-sentence, the active subject of the second). "Re-gearing" is that brief moment when the pedal slips before encountering the new reassuring resistance. What really clinches the ontological leap is the second "then", which is not superfluous because we're now on a different plane with its own temporal sequence.
"profligately", a word also found in "Trellis".
Multistorey (seven poems)
This is the second of those major groups, seven poems themselves subdivided into up to five parts; to put it another way, 26 pages, each one as formidable as, say, "Protractor". Opinions differ on what (if anything) can be said to be unifying subject-matter: Jeremy Noel-Tod in the Guardian suggested "civilisation and the construction of living space". Quid 13 (aka IRAQuid 13), which I haven't seen, apparently included "Multistorey" or some section of it among its "poems in response to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib", but don't expect grainy details of those horrible events. Another attempt to negotiate the sequence could begin from the reiterated "brothers" and "blue" in the final poem, or the pervasive birds, birdlime, gulls etc. - living-space on a cliff, perhaps.
But "Multistorey" also intermittently evokes one of those cavernous car-parks, e.g. "strip system laid over diesel-spotted dirt". Incidentally another characteristic Wilkinson device, the ill-chosen metaphor. "Strip system" might very aptly suggest the visual effect of ranks of vehicles in different colours, but because it also connotes ground, it is not sufficiently distinct from the dirt itself. The reader's realization is deliberately troubled, the expression deliberately impure.
Wilkinson's occasional use of a two-line stanza is unstable (see also "Spiegeleisen", "Elementary Film") and these poems always break up in due course.
"Sometimes I am unfeeling, / sometime love to folly" instantiates the uproarious Wardour St parodies that crop up without apparent motive through the book, contributing to the mixed signals about sociolinguistic context. Whether "the fly-by-night / communicate on love's leash" should also be taken as spoken without commitment, i.e. not as an epigram but as an ostentatiously glib epigram, is less easy to decide. Can one solve this recurrent problem by regarding everything in every poem as individually uncommitted, and only the poems as a whole as expressions that the writer in some sense stands by? It's not that easy, of course, e.g. try this, from "Multistorey":
their stuck-up integrity
plundering the biosphere,
rolls the thin mantle to a lump sum.
Surely this revels in the brilliant expression of an invective that it thoroughly commits to?
Ridge cucumbers: outdoor varieties so-named because traditionally (though now rarely) grown in raised beds known as ridges.
"net the starry / dome of flight-paths" - see also "Trajectory", etc. Lake Shore Drive is very interested in what's happening above our heads, and with the future of the thin mantle in mind that seems like the right place to be looking. There is also, it must be added, a certain excitement in whizzing about the empyrean like this. It's still away from the crowds and still associated with the heroic phase (discover, take possession) in the life-cycle of exploitation.
Talking of which... A child's guide to Lake Shore Drive might well kick off with this and with "Organize, Move and Back Up", both of them generously vivid poems on definably political ground. The use of technical vocab like "oedematous" can't really be called difficult now that looking it up is a click away in Google; what's important is that the use made of the word is immediately illuminating.
A favourite passage:
Opportunity will bust
its tympanum, the solidifying
lights clumps & bulks, tapioca
gobs in cherryade, a syllabub
thinks up cloud, thinks interference
Andrew Duncan's general complaint, c. 1995, that Wilkinson's recent poetry had become unprofitably opaque, really doesn't seem usefully applicable to this latest volume. Nevertheless it's well worth reading, along with JW's indirect response (see earlier under "Trellis").
Step by Step
The grey escalator breaks, breaks, lifts
grey teeth biting through their comb shoe.
... And it even contains this, compressed evocation at a high level of virtuosity, with a superbly relevant Tennysonian allusion in tow; the "traditional" craft of poetry, the blur of a new speediness only just discernible.
Leda was Iphigenia's grandmother. Briefly, it appears that Yeats was Wilkinson's grandfather.
Iphigenia (eight poems)
This is the third of the major groups. In our present times - in most times - allusions to Iphigenia tend to evoke Euripidean pacifism. And certainly there's an invasion going on in this poem: it's loud with helicopter-swooshes and is thrilling to read. The expansive flow of the opening paragraph promises a continuity of musical development and though it isn't long before jagged fractures and general pauses disturb us the initial promise is never entirely flouted. (You'll see what I mean if you read it back-to-back with e.g. "Multistorey"). Not coincidentally, "Iphigenia" holds out strange offers of simplicities ("small wonder", "simply put"); of educated dramatic speech of the Penguin Classics variety ("Get on board now, get in, help up your father"); of archaic ejaculations ("Queen of ships, chopper queen / Benign reaper"); of statically hymnal chorusses replete with ritualistic repetitions. The simplicity is only relative; for example, large sections pass outside the military zone into consumerism and the food industry. Somewhere a little outside these, too, stand ranks of the resourceless, the illegals and the dead.
The Shoal of the Ditto Ship
"One day he'll wake with wings", says the epigraph, and these twelve frantic pages are in incessant overdrive.
Slurping at dab nectar, woozy
comforters fall, denied access
by these fibrous bunches
spongiform at base – hey,
you trying to stick your nose –
Know what's coming to you? –
Say you pass the horseradish
clockwise while at home?
Insolent to waiters? Get lost!
Ouch! Ouch! An apt little hound
rounds up misdeeds in flocks,
water thickens with tadpole-
dense performances, frogs .....
"Ouch! Ouch!" is from the Fall's "Cash'n'Carry" and that's where I've heard this compulsive groove before, a namesplattered heavyweight sort of light verse and quite irresistible.
You see, I was right to mention music. The furious momentum is still carrying on from previous poems and it gets into "Advanced Driving", too. Here it isn't too long before summer insects cohere into the "crash apposition" and "fly major minor" of a jazz-giant tribute, then disperse fondly onto buddleia cornets.
"Colonial mahogany". As usual a poem that seems to be in one kind of country soon seems to be in another; W-world has a supreme indifference to such comfy mental compartments and routinely attacks them.
Organize, Move and Back Up
Somewhere down the bottom of the poem's layers is a real lament for rain-forest commoditisations, destructions and extinctions. At the same time the poem is aware of the compromised nature of the western voice evoking the alien culture that is unsayable, secret, and disappears on exposure. This text too, jumbled with film titles, DVDs to be returned, and the ultimate floormix, is compromised. To be impure is better than to let it pass? The poem isn't sure; finds its uneasy resting-place instead in the dissipation of the alien slit of "slit gong, eye slit, slit of the vulva" into "list" and finally "silt".
Holidays in the Sun
"SUVs, APVs dropping their children off": Sport Utility Vehicles, Armoured Patrol Vehicles.
View from the Air
"Syllabled elegance makes a goose of itself / on purpose", the poem begins, as if meaning to set about traditionalist versifiers for good and all. If it's they who leak into the diction of the poem then "traditionalist" is barely adequate to describe such ancient plaintiveness as "must implementation lie subordinate so / to fateful bands" or such pulpit austerity as "their ductwork / stretches unto the first supplier". But perhaps the real target of the poem is not so much poets as, that equally suspicious group, poetry readers - a string of terms: "evidence", "delicate fragments", "attention", "shows", "reveals", "second-guessing", "encompass".
In this fable of the bees it's suggested that even the drones might, in a Mandevillian spirit, happen to "reinstate / a corporate earth, shocked-still waters". As the last image hints, this outcome isn't entirely happy, since at some point the helplessly humane flow gets thoroughly screwed.
"xenomorphic": referring to the film Aliens, as also later when a nail scores a microwaveable pack and an exotic "births itself in steam". "Slot children" needs further elucidation: it's a term connected with Chinese-American immigration but the Journal of Immigrant Health (where Google found this) isn't available online: readers please advise in comments and I'll update this note.
Blues-style repetition of opening lines has surprising effects; one of them, to resolve the poem (that is, the way it's read) instantly into lyric.
... an effect that carries over into this one. "After Abbas Kiarostami", says the subtitle - the Iranian film-maker and poet. Maybe you could read this as a Kiarostami-style narrative with long takes, occlusions, wrenched point of view, a calm rhythm of repetitions, etc.
A list of concepts that crop up in Lake Shore Drive with sufficient frequency to be statistically arresting: sheaves (and other agrarian words), birds (of various kinds), stars, flights, bulk, paperwork (such as dockets, letterheads), cables/wires/trunking, lemurs.
The sentimental-poetaster title is intentional, a nostalgia later re-aroused by "a Karelian snuff-box" (made of birch). And as it turns out, expectations of a descriptive holiday poem are not utterly dispelled by circular saws, leaden sky, or even "cantilevered blocks of blood". Yet Karelia is a weighted choice: the imaginative locus of Finnish Romantic-Nationalist "Karelianism" in Sibelius and others is no longer part of Finland and does not now contain a Karelian culture, its pre-War Karelian population dispersed through the rest of Finland or Russified or compulsorily transferred to other Soviet republics to the extent that a "return" no longer makes a simple kind of sense; it is a Russian-speaking area.
Marram xxxx (ten poems)
The last of the major sequences. The "xxxx" is a placeholder for various words, e.g. "Marram Clutch", "Marram Mat", etc. Of "Marram Grass" Joyelle McSweeney writes: "The model of the leveling verge, dump, marsh, or margin might be the most optimal in this book, a superior alternative to the gruesome urban visions related elsewhere" (review in Zoland Poetry) - a comment that might have influenced my ideas about the resting-place in "Organize, Move and Back Up". There is a calming beauty in the abrasions and water-worn siftings of debris. Yet "optimal" isn't a good term. It should apply to a programme for change, not to a therapeutic vision that the eye interprets symbolically. Anyway, these poems are not simply, though they are to a pleasing extent, descriptions of the littoral in its natural aspect: "Marram Mat", for example, is more concerned with the built environment of poolside; "Marram Clutch" is a mock-Keatsian effusion that ends drunkenly; "Marram Nursery" a Garden of Adonis ("spangles, Mars, Skittles, Wotsits"); "Marram Trench" a hospice bed-scene. These are short-hand pointers and are inaccurate since none of the poems is really as located as I imply, they're all expanded, inter-sparking and (as I started by saying, what seems a long time ago) over-determined: everything is also about something else. I'm trying to avoid suggesting that the "Marram" poems are in some easy way epiphanic, a calm after the storm; they're one of the best stretches of poetry in the book, maybe the best, and as rigorous as any except probably "Multistorey".
John Wilkinson, Lake Shore Drive, is published by Salt, 2006 (ISBN 978-1-84771-255-7).