CUTBANK REVIEWS: Swamp Isthmus by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Review by Caitlin Cowan
You might call Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s latest book “minimalist.” But you would be wrong. The slim volume and its trim, precise, untitled poems certainly take up little real estate, but the lines contained therein shine and shatter in unexpected, exhilarating ways. A kaleidoscope of figures that are by turns menacing and elegant, Swamp Isthmus investigates chilly panoramas of longing in a way that urges us to question both who we are and who is on our side.
Swamp Isthmus’ title calls to mind either a small strip of stable, dry land connecting two swampy marshes, or a twig of land that ought to safely connect two larger that is mired in muck and reeds. Either interpretation proves fruitful, for marvelous couplets like “pissing off the bow into / the salty lake foam… wanting the shoals to phosphoresce / so bad my spine twists to rope” interrogate the prospect of becoming what you need on life’s long voyage. This notion permeates the collection, and points ultimately to a kind of stolid self-reliance that Wilkinson’s poems prize. Even the book’s subtle resistance to interpretation suggests that you, yourself must become the isthmus that makes connections and holds things, murkily, together. The reader is, as is the case more often than we realize, the poem’s connective tissue.
The book itself is a meditative maze. Comprised of six sections of unnamed poems separated with asterisks, Swamp Isthmus feels, at times, like a collection of chapbooks, and rightfully so: both “Cold Faction” and a portion of “I go by Edgar Huntley now” were initially published by Further Adventures Press (Chicago) and DoubleCross Press (Minneapolis) in 2009. But this is not to say that the sections feel disjointed. Quite the contrary—if anything, the chapbook-like show that Wilkinson is pursuing a rich line of thinking in that they share formal and thematic similarities. The book is the second in a planned series, Wilkinson’s “No Volta” pentalogy. This alluring concept aptly defines the unflinching gaze that characterizes the speaker’s voice in these poems. Five books will necessarily preclude a sixth, the book in which a “turn” of some sort would be expected. Instead, we will be, at the end of the remaining three-fifths of the series, offered a penetrating, singular look at contemporary life. No conciliations will be made, no sense of looking at the world from a different or more generous angle, just five probing books which delve into life’s aloof hallways, or as Wilkinson puts it in one poem, “a corridor in its smock of / don’t come all the way in.”
Delineating the so-called “subject matter” of Swamp Isthmus is a tricky prospect. A younger poet, Wilkinson seems to speak to his own bereft generation when he wonders, under the threat of authority:
but what can they
want with us
a hamlet of
sitting their own exams
cleaved off from
This last image, that of accents divorced from their letters, “cleaved off from / any history,” is particularly apt for the climate of the times. In our supersaturated, hyper-connected world (and we may as well be talking about the world of poetry here, too) it has become easier than ever to find oneself adrift, as Wilkinson writes in another piece, “knowing [we] keep / asking the dead / the wrong set of questions.”
The collection becomes slightly (only slightly) more narrative as it goes on, and it might be my own damnable penchant for narrative that drives me to this declaration, but the story-like moments of the collection shine brightly and brilliantly against the more ethereal, abstract atmosphere of the collection as a whole. One of the poems near the end of the book, “[this girl maybe seven]” is exquisite in its empathetic tug that pulls us in at just the right moment. When the titular child lifts the speaker’s brindle pup “to her small ear & says // I can hear something / in your dog,” we’re gifted with an affective moment that grounds Wilkinson’s collection and keeps us reading in moments of dazzling uncertainty or perplexing ambiguity.
Overall, the surety of Wilkinson’s pronouncements is both disturbing and exhilarating. At the McSweeney’s & Black Ocean off-site reading at AWP Boston this spring, the end of each of Wilkinson’s poems was punctuated with grateful shock: nearly every audience member would turn to their friends and companions, mutter the words, holy shit, and take another sip of their cocktail before diving back into Wilkinson’s haunting, gorgeous world. Spare couplets and short lines such as “their fables no longer what’s / used to keep us here, // we are used to keep us here” and “now the sky get’s blacker / because that’s what it’s made of” pack an aphoristic punch—reading Swamp Isthmus is like taking a boxing lesson, then coming home and slumping into bed bruised, smiling, and grateful.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson was born and raised in Seattle. He is a poet, editor, professor, and filmmaker living in Tucson, Arizona. His works include two book-length poems: Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (University of Iowa Press 2006) and Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms (Pinball 2005), as well as The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (Tupelo Press 2009) and Figures for a Darkroom Voice, with Noah Eli Gordon & Noah Saterstrom (Tarpaulin Sky Press 2007).
Caitlin Cowan’s poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in Nimrod, Faultline, The Mississippi Review, Poet Lore, Fugue, and elsewhere. She has been the recipient of The Mississippi Review Prize, The Ron McFarland Prize for Poetry, and an Avery Hopwood Award. She holds a BA from the University of Michigan, an MFA from The New School, and will complete a PhD at The University of North Texas, where she is currently a teaching fellow.