Mark Allen Jenkins
Review of Notes From the Journey Westward by Joe Wilkins
Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press, 2012. 112 pp. $16.00. paper.
One pleasure of writing book reviews is to call attention to a writer who merits more attention and readers. Joe Wilkins is one such writer. I first encountered his poem, "The Gospel According to Kelly, Night-Shift Manager, Forest City Fuel & Foods" on Slate's website a few years ago. The careful details and persona made me want to read more. When Kelly admits, "I do not understand but understand this night you need/ a jackknife, a box of condoms, No Doz, Nyquil" I wanted to know more about this unusual voice and setting for a poem, something that should happen more often in poetry. This kind of portrayal is a common occurrence in Wilkins's work.
Wilkins is influenced by James Wright. His poetry's consideration of place and nature especially bring Wright to mind as the titles of some of his poems might imply: "On the Beginning of Water in Some Lost Industrial City of the North River Country" and "The Old Ways Fade and Do Not Come Back." Love and loss are some of the book's other main themes. Other poets that have influenced Wilkins include Robert Hass and Robert Wrigley who also regularly include nature in their poetry.
In poems such as "Hayrake," "Drought," and "Bread over Butter," Wilkins makes a connection between labor and earth. In the latter poem, an unnamed man shovels gravel as "Dust, sunlight, ghosts in my mouth." The ghosts are his ancestors and he uses his "thick, shoulders/ some grandfather gave me" that he passes on "to that slender, sky-eyed boy." The work itself is purification, "the good sweat on my skin feels like scraping meat from the hide." Along with the ghosts, it sustains the speaker: "For lunch, I eat dust, chew ghosts. And they fill me" The speaker is from a working class background as are many speakers in Wilkins's poems. Wilkins comes from a farming family. His father, a farmer, died while he was young and inhabits many of his poems along with other roughnecks ("Theodicy Envoy," "Anniversary," "On Various Examples of Manhood, I Observed in My Prairie Youth"). In "On Various Examples…" he admits, "Plain and simple, I preferred/the drunks—all stumbles and smiles." At least here they're portrayed as mostly harmless, if not a little sad, while friendly to the speaker.
Just like Wright spent most of his life away from Martin's Ferry, Ohio, Wilkins writes of places with distance like Texas, Mississippi, and Montana. Westward: "Route 7 Outside Nacogdoches, Texas" "Waffle House Parking Lot, Yazoo City, Mississippi." "Now That It Has Been Many Years, and I Have Moved Far from Mississippi" is a collection of images from a memory, perhaps false or at least a "broken bit of story I've taken for memory." The poem opens with a kind of self-negation from the speaker:
Say when I stepped onto that dirt road,
Blackbirds did not lift from trees like flung rags
Say there were no snapped branches of wisteria,
No white blossoms ground into the gravel.
What then to make of the image of a euthanized cat, "with the fly-bitten face, strangely angled neck?"
I suppose it was just old,
I suppose it was just its time,
or maybe it was only some strange image,
twisted minute of a dream?
It's not clear to the speaker or reader what happened: "you simply began// to believe" that something happened but the place where the memory occurred has changed: "I wouldn't find anything, /even if I went back." This physical vanishing mirrors the mental vanishing of this memory, too.
The prose poem "Anniversary," addresses someone the speaker befriended in high school as a fellow outsider: "See, I read too many books and couldn't hit a thing from anywhere on the court. And you were too kind to girls who weren't pretty and spent most of your days sharpening new pencils down to stubs in the special-ed classroom." The speaker stood up for this "you" at a party and once, smoking cigarettes together, "you told me not to worry that they called me a faggot and book fucker." Wilkins' depiction of their relationship manages to avoid cliché and sentimentality. While away at college, the speaker manages to keep in touch with his friend as they exchange letters. The surprise in the poem's narrative comes from the last meeting when the speaker returns to their hometown: "you came by to meet my wife… you were even heavier, your arms, sun-dark, the backs of your hands, all cut-up and scabbed" Mid-conversation, he falls asleep. Later when he wakes "You blinked, licked your thick lips. ‘I don't know what the fuck I'm doing here.' " This is where their casual friendship shatters both for the reader and for the narrator: "We were looking at each and not looking at each other. I had thought there might be something between us. An understanding, maybe. That was vanity." This turn is painful and surprising as the speaker realizes how little the two now have in common and that whatever kept them going after high school has extinguished.
Wilkens's poetry is inhabited by working class figures he lets speak for themselves. What makes me want to reread Notes From the Journey Westward and Wilkins's first book Killing the Murnion Dogs again is his ability to breathe life into this rugged and often heartbreaking world represented in his poetry, something that doesn't always translate to the page.
Mark Allen Jenkins is currently a PhD in Humanities student at the University of Texas at Dallas where he serves as Assistant Editor for Reunion: The Dallas Review. His poetry has appeared in Memorious, minnesota review, Muse & Stone, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere.