Victoria University Press, $19.95
Damien Wilkins’ first collection of poems strikes me as commentaries on snapshots, arranged in three photo albums. The first section has pictures of a father in ill-fitting togs who (God knows why – ‘something about/contraction’) waters the concrete on Sundays, a cousin who’s a reformed convict and ‘from whom God nothing hid’ but everybody else does, and a mother who’s a politically correct English teacher to culture-keen solicitors.
They’re relatives, neighbours, so uncomfortably close, but you know them even if you’d prefer not to. Their lives of quiet desperation are filled with mindless, meticulous activities that are zealously performed, for what else is there to do? Or as the speaker sums it up in ‘A Life’ when a character pins three outdated and cutpriced calendars to the wall: ‘He is in the grip of energy. This year,/ he says, no day, no week will escape without someone in the world/ noticing its complete insignificance.’ It’s a world in which you could play ‘let’s pretend’ to avoid its timetabled insignificance but, ultimately, ‘how/ easily we are found out’ (as in ‘Inflation’). No matter what, these people are losers, mainly because they are, willingly or unwillingly, true to themselves. In contrast, real genius cheats, it thrives when it’s got something ‘to push/ against’ (as in ‘The Prodigy’), but that is something which most protagonists of all three sections don’t do, even though they bitterly resent others for trampling over them.
The second section focuses more on the younger generation’s insincerities and mostly mute unhappiness: ‘The Engagement’ prophesies disappointment by stressing the staleness of the previous generation as the father’s breath permeates the cupboards with its beery smell and the boy’s mother reduces the girl to tears – ‘she hates other women/ in her kitchen’. ‘The Engagement, Part Two’ pushes the demystification of marital bliss even further by reducing it to shopping around for a priest who could slot them into his diary. The mystery’s gone. In ‘Calligraphy’ we hear, ‘We’re not a couple, she says. We’re/ a double entendre’: the same word divided by two meanings.
In the third section the ‘I’ is most prominent and also furthest removed from the claustrophobic kitchens and backyards of the previous sections. But again, travel entails airports populated by ‘unkind/ eyes for details in their fellows’, cab drivers who are rip-off artists and campus slum lords as in ‘Mr Bachelor’. The most moving poem in this section portrays an American creative writing professor who’s a wheelchair user, who doesn’t read poetry anymore but has a great deal of mediocre student writing to go through. One evening, he sends for a book, and after reading some bits, he stares into the night:
The trees out in the black. The grass waiting there.
Animals, he guesses, in their nocturnes. Oh Christ, what’s that
ringing – and this is the image he kind of likes and stores and will
rehearse in class if they have time and they will since he is a
tyrant, reducer of what is solid to its near and lighter neighbour – tears
At isolated moments, briefly and reluctantly, studied indifference is cast aside for admission of vulnerability, for ‘false starts, beginnings of wild alliterations’ (‘My Father’s Stutter’).
Wilkins uses words skilfully and graciously. He balances between baroque description (‘a baked desert-coloured brownish/red’) and deadpan statements (‘Dad would have said that’). These poems tell stories, but I’m not sure about how to read them as poems. At times I wish that more was left unsaid (as in ‘A Life’); at other moments I could do with less cryptic lines that trigger yet another potential story. In ‘The Prodigals’ – a retelling of the prodigal son in reverse – the lines are taut and sinewy, but the last stanza seems to turn all the previous stanzas into the opening paragraph of a short story. The delicate words (patio, timpani, cicada), the retelling of Chekhov’s stories in ‘The Brother’, the precarious preciousness of it all is probably, to some extent, the point of the poem, but for me it’s a bit too much.
At the same time, I enjoyed the experimentation with a variety of approaches, the lack of a consistent, unified poetic voice. Wilkins’ poetic voice is not set in concrete, even though many of the characters’ lives are. The poems I like best in this collection are those that show in short, crisp lines, as in ‘Illinois’ (which reminds me of William Carlos Williams’ poems). The ones that move me most are short stories in disguise, like ‘Fall Menus’. Some poems convince right away; others affirm that ‘it is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem’ (Wallace Stevens).
Heidi Van de Veire is a lecturer in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington.