Tuesday 24 June 2014

For Real — Ben Wilkinson

I’m willing to bet my entire collection of ‘antique’ Polish fountain pens on the fact that the copy of Ben Wilkinson’s For Real (2014) that I’ve been proudly carting around with me the last week or so is the only copy in the whole of San Bernardino county. Hell, I’d also bet anyone who’s seen this handsome book, oddly resembling its author as it does, slim and nattily dressed in Liverpool-red jacket, was curious about its contents.

Photo credit: Jan Michelle Andres, Instagram - @Jnmndrs 
The publisher smith|doorstop have really outdone themselves with the ’13/14 series; tall-lighthouse’s are nice but the quality of these proper 5 x 7” pamphlets even outstrips, in my opinion, Faber and Faber’s distinctive New Poets. Faber and Faber opting for their customary left-aligned 32pt plus names and to number rather than name the volumes puts smith|doorstop ahead as far as I’m concerned. After all it’s the title that starts to set the terms, the title being first point of contact, of engagement. 

In the coming poetic inquisition Ben Wilkinson is likely to be strung up for trying to get one over on us for his title. Sure, the real, the concrete is here by the bucket-full; John Barnes is here with plates of biryani, the DeLorean of Back to the Future with cassette tapes, and a Staffie and place names aplenty. And though a glance down the eighteen titles on the contents page reads like an excerpt from Nouns, Nouns, Nouns what dominates this book is a return—again and again—to the disorientating, to the slip away from reality and, as such, it is ‘phantasmagoric’ reimagings and dreams that dominate For Real

From the outset, from the trippy ‘The Nightmare’ where the protagonist ‘dream[s] us on that stretch again’ right up to the penultimate ‘The Beach,’ where ‘Again, the dream comes …’ and we are trapped in ‘this dream-in-a-dream’ to the final ‘portal between two worlds’ of ‘The Door’ this book is permeated with the surreal. We are ‘wandering’ in ‘The Leash’ or ‘stumbling’ in ‘Bearing’, invariably at the whim of a force that threatens to ‘plunge us / into darkness’ as it does in 'Lights Out'. 

So if the title suggests a healthy distancing from the ambition of getting at the four-square what are we left with? Thinking about it got Outkast’s ‘Ms. Jackson’ going around in my head, the long croon of, ‘I am for reeeeeeal…’ So that’s how I ended up reading these poems, as dedicatory in nature, as pledges and, essentially, about love. (Interestingly the word ‘pamphlet’ is linked to love poetry through its etymology.)

The epigram from Shadowlands (‘Why love if losing hurts so much?’) and the overtly love-themed poems (‘The Beach’, ‘Rooms’, and ‘Bearing’) aside it is the direct mode of address, to a ‘you’, that's insistently sought throughout Wilkinson’s work that convinces me. On occasion this repetition of addressee feels a touch programmatical, the limp meditation of ‘Rooms’ springs to mind, where the pasty protagonist reflects: ‘the clues that, / pieced into some sort of sense, / would make our later rush / seem selfish, or strangely selfless. // Let’s say it was both.’ However, if this criticism is fair then it also has to be said that 'Rooms' represents the B-side of a set of voices that are the traction and torque behind such enviable poems as ‘The Catch’. In that poem, which functions as the hook for the book, direct address accelerates the reader through the full-rhymes of a sonnet without you even realising it’s a bloody sonnet at all. The speaker addresses the intimate 'you' of an attempted suicide, "for taking pill / after yellow-green pill, the black-blue / taste the price you paid to kill." 

Then there's ‘The Beach’ that, despite having heard the word one hundred million times on Game of Thrones, still manages to make the word ‘cunt’ shockingly intimate. Wilkinson’s preference for the subtler rhetorical and sonic strategies such as pararhyme, parallelism, and internal rhyme give these poems a convincing impression of organic cohesion. Though it’d be a bit of a truism to say Wilkinson’s all-or-nothing lyricism has come about through profound immersion in his craft: Wilkinson's all-or-nothing lyricism has come about through profound immersion in his craft.

These are poems that represent, in the words of a recent fiction review in The New Yorker, “a hybrid construction pretending to be an organic material.” Though it is of novelists James Wood is writing, the same can certainly be said of poets, that “we enjoy watching … [them] … play the game of truth-telling.” This is a game Wilkinson clearly loves to play too and he's particularly good at the dead-pan, the I'm-writing-a-poem-but-I'm-not-look. It is his dedication to the in-fiction world of poetry, his playing along, that ensures no book of his will disappoint in terms of its reread value. 

'Chameleon' is my wild-card favourite. A neat thing modelled on the same Wikipedia counter-factual inspiration of Helen Mort's 'Twenty Two Words For Snow' in Division Street (2013) and Wilkinson's own 'Hex' from The Sparks (2009). Looking forward to seeing more of these mini-genre 'debunking' poems in the future.



Remember CDs? Remember furtively getting the latest home and almost severing a finger with The World’s Sharpest Knife to get the bloody celophane off? Imagine if, having diced with death, you discover the only thing remotely like songs are the little tiny words printed in the little tiny booklet. Ok, my frustration with poetry publishers not cottoning onto simultaneous mp3 releases isn’t quite the same thing but seriously, come on! It would be so cool if poetry books came with a link to downloadable recordings. Even if listening to poetry isn’t your thing (I have to remind myself it isn’t for loads of people) then wouldn’t you at least cherish the option? 

1 comment:

  1. That's a great review for a book that deserves it! Lots of other terrific reading material around here too!