A Fortnightly Review
By John Wilkinson
By RUPSA BANERJEE.
JOHN WILKINSON’S COLLECTION, Wood Circle (2021), unmakes lyric language as it carves out a unique intimacy between words and their referents. The poems, taken as isolated instances, do not generate specific images, but the collection as a whole evokes a fragility of reference which alternatively hinges on poetic language’s own resistant folds and the multiple surfaces of the object-world.
In his formally beguiling essay, “Imperfect Pitch”, published in Poets on Writing: Britain 1970-1991 (1992), which effectively wraps itself around subjective reflections on the processural nature of writing and the emotional extremities of verse dispersions, Wilkinson argues for a “non-relational” tie existing between the experience of the world and the contours of lyric language. What is preserved in the poem is not the materiality of objects but dissociated modes of looking which makes the language both a felt response to the outside and an enclosing of bodily sensations hacked in by the incomprehensibility of political actions. Poems in the Wood Circle engraft this indecipherability of political intent of the state within the lyrical search for the subject’s brutalized conscience. Polysemy is beneficial but only as far as it admits the evasion of necessary action amidst fatuous dialogue; as the poem “Hearing” states, “Shortly let rip./ Overhead the ministers of justice look elsewhere”.
The poems in the collection are responsive to language’s own referential verisimilitude and its admittance of the erratically corporeal. The images transcend the ontological lint and lumber of the everyday world creating moods that are estranged from the bodily yet inscribed by the primary act of sensorial mapping. In “Trial”, Wilkinson writes the abstractions of economic transactions into the residual subject-position within the “energy landscape”: “You’ll be identified as a plastic varietal/ disgorged along an ocean trench, no […]”. Poetic language faces the task of identifying the non-material lack, which defies imagistic representation and, yet, possesses an undeniable substantiality: “Absence being a thing not a state, solid/ contrary pricked out/ as if stars, will join them as a salamander, […]”.
In “Imperfect Pitch,” Wilkinson characterizes moods as “the minute-by-minute coherence by which you persist as more than a recipient and emmissionary; […]”. The moods presented in the poems in Wood Circle do not externalize the landscape of the psyche but expunge the division between the feeling self and the instrumentality of inert words. This poetic movement of reference as redirection of feeling operates within what Matt Ffytche calls in “Objects and How to Survive Them: Several Views of John Wilkinson’s ‘Saccades’”, a “psycho-somatic realm”, and it comes to affect the lyric self and the words uttered, equally. In “Imperfect Pitch,” Wilkinson points out the slippery nature of words: “Words belly-flop to lie stunned like uncollected fruit”. In “Impromptu: Beyond Recall,” from Wood Circle, a poem printed entirely in italics, the shape of the words stretch the intelligible image of the polished grounds near a supermarket to include the loneliness of the mind’s inner eye, “fretting away in its own recognisance”.
Ffytche studies the image of the pore in Saccades as an instance of the text’s permeability to intertextual allusion. Simultaneously, he reads the image of the porous surface metaphorically combining the collective pronoun “we” with a “framework”:
“In ‘Following the Poem’, Wilkinson lights on a phrase of Celan’s—‘stood firm/in the midst, a/ framework of pores’—and suggests the framework of pores is a ‘we’: the pores proclaim our permeability, a porous human universe’ […] a place, then, in which we might actually live”.
In Wood Circle, the “pore” is an anonymous, unidentifiable structure that is alternately “hole of soot” and “churning stoma” in “Pit”, the openings in “Insect valves”, and the holes created in war-torn landscapes by falling shells, “this thud of earth, this hollow thud” in “Temperature”. The image of the pore, then, makes room for the lack—in this case, an evasive act of social mourning—within the lyric’s subjective cry. As Wilkinson writes in “Burnt”:“Return us to our senses,/ thus, thus, hobnailed boots, kick senses back/ from the circumference they have migrated into:”. The perforated framework of community is rendered unstable against the poems’ repeated admissions of harm against the individual body, “Had/ my second scan Had my check-up Have you scheduled/ your next attempt?” in “Al Noor”, and the body of the nation-state, “shells multiplied in hapless thuds” in “Temperature”. The text itself becomes a symptom for a society where the hope of community comes across in feelings of political culpability and helplessness.
The language consciously resists the style of the “difficult” poem when admitting words and their syntactic patternings as contentious substitutes for moral debates. In sentiment, the poems recall J. H. Prynne’s 2004 Refuse Collection. Prynne’s poems refer to the brutalities of war by emphasizing how the English lyric is required to foil an empirical historicization of the present and fashion a language that refuses alignment with the accounts of torture: “To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up/ barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in/ crawled to many bodies, uncounted”. In Wilkinson’s poems the news reporter’s voice in “Hearing” “for instance Abdullah Dilsouz, 15 years old,/ run down by a refrigerated truck in Calais,”, the voice searching for theistic experience in “Argus”, “Mass lowing hymns the sun as it resumes its/ scratching out […]”, and the anxious, feverish voice in “Frontier”, “I feel like there’s something alive in my body and I/ don’t know what it is”, all collude within a lyric persona that alternatively succumbs to and rejects the call of community. What cannot be appropriated into the language of the difficult lyric are the poems’ ready disclosures of how lyric language is both responsible for and wounded by political events. For instance, the poem, “Hearing,” begins with, “The fiction of their voices the repining floor affirms”, and plays on the implied missing letter, “r”, which both re-enacts the glissade of voices over each other and underlines our imperfect attentiveness that lets the particularity of tragedy to be swept under the wave of news. The poem progresses by making the inability to hear into an effacement of the singular. The comprehension of the tragic becomes an absent signification: the recorded name can never be a substitute for the lost life.
Sean Bonney in Letters Against the Firmament (2015) registers the other spectrum of lyric language written as a violent protest against police torture and dehumanization: “There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound—we live inside it like fossilized, vivisected mice”. Wood Circle, on the other hand, offers itself almost as a retributive statement for a subject that is marginalized and dispossessed of hands-on political involvement. The revelation of the social self occurs through the morphing of the “pore” into the “wound”. In “Rood”, Wilkinson writes, “Where is the wound the blank unimpressionable/ long to pass through,/ the cracks in the rood screen, the suffering forest?”. What holds us together is how one looks for and identifies the pointed edges of periphrastic breaks and implicit burials in the transpositions of metaphor.
RUPSA BANERJEE’s poems have been published by Lady Chaos Press (New York), Chaour (Kolkata), Earthbound Press (London), and Veer Press (London). Her poetry is interleaved with the desperation of identity erosion and the longing for a literary anchor that is placed at once in an everywhere and a nowhere. She teaches at St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, India. Her academic publications include writings on the works of Modernist and late modern poets such as William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, J. H. Prynne and Peter Riley. She has translated the works of Hungry Generation poets of Bengal into English and is currently working on translating the works of J. H. Prynne into Bengali.