'chirrup, chirrup, chirrup'

John Wilkinson, Ghost Nets

Omnidawn, 120pp, $17.95, ISBN 9781632430267

reviewed by Jack Belloli

I’ve long got stuck on John Keats’s line, in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, about wanting to be ‘a sort of ethereal Pigs, [. . .] turned loose to feed upon spiritual Mast and Acorns’ as he read Reynolds’s poems. It’s one of those moments when an attempt to describe how Romantic poetry should work ends up overreaching itself. I can appreciate the thrust of Keats’s point, inherited from the German philosophy of his time, that beauty is most fully registered when our sensuous and intellectual impulses, the earthy and the ‘ethereal’, are brought into harmony. But any attempt to sustain thought about what such harmony might feel like gets lost because the business of imagining myself with a snout and trotters and, presumably, no imagination, is ethereal enough in the first place. 

Allusions to Keats, and Shelley, and to the longer tradition of English lyric that they inherit, abound in the short poems and sequences assembled in Ghost Nets. If John Wilkinson locates himself in a Romantic lineage, he does so by inhabiting those moments when its philosophical ambitions for poetry exhaust or overreach themselves. In these poems, claims about the physical world bleed uncertainly into metaphysics. A poem called “Rainclouds” ends up caught on its subject’s ‘airiness’, their capacity to be both gas and liquid, meteorological news and vehicles for dreaming. In the opening stanza, something spectacularly comes from nothing, as a host of ‘real and physical’ attributes are left hanging together, in a sentence without a subject:

Steel-plated, copper-bottomed but reflecting low
Activity, heaves a gouting cloud for this bestowal –
And in its thickening, in its involutions growls
Then pads, all too real and physical.
Mere matter is already beginning to matter in these lines, in the sense of acquiring the kind of characteristics which make it worthy of our critical attention and evaluation, even while the poem presents no conspicuous human speaker to make those judgements. Whatever it is is already heaving, bestowing, and reflecting activity – and bears the mark of its military and culinary applications. Where so much poetry that claims to 'show the world as it really is' disavows the strategies that it uses to make this showing palatable to its readers, Wilkinson gains moral authority by emphasising that exploitation of each other and the environment is, now, etched into the fabric of the world. A longstanding interest in Buddhist philosophy has influenced the composition of some of this volume, and its final sequence, ‘Green Tara’, was inspired by Wilkinson’s visit to Tibet. He restores a self-emptying, destabilising quality to practices which the West often frames as gently therapeutic: compassion properly practised would involve attention not only to the ‘butter smoke’ honouring the Buddha of the sequence’s title, but also to the ‘vainglorious flags’ and ‘forced settlements’ that constitute the real and physical signs of Chinese colonial violence. We are, ethically speaking, still in the pigsty: this is poetry less about discovering our lost kinship with rocks and stones and trees than acknowledging our continuing complicity in fracking and pornography and state-sanctioned torture. (While many of the poems range fleetingly across such matters of concern, one of this book’s revelations is how gracefully Wilkinson’s style can still generate moving elegies for specific people, without surrendering its abstraction or diffuseness. There are poems here named for the Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan and the Sandy Hook massacre victim Victoria Soto – although 'Schlummert Ein', for his sister, sadly remains uncollected.)
Why, however, does all this need to be conducted using poems – and poems that are so delicately musical – in which flourishes of phonic and rhythmic patterning suddenly surface within otherwise free verse, apparently for their own sake? (The line ‘facing the face of the earth scapegraces’ seems to exist as it does simply because it’s nice to sound like Gerard Manley Hopkins.) It seems crass to say that these moments either make manifest the poems’ exploration of political violence, or provide a balm against it – but perhaps they offer the potential for both simultaneously. Drawing on his long career in nursing and mental health services, Wilkinson has compared his poetic practice to the treatment of metastatic cancer, in which tumours spread pain throughout the body but, once identified as such, clarify the nature of the body’s suffering and provide a basis for care. The word ‘felt’ recurs insistently in the most recent work in Ghost Nets, used both as the past form of ‘to feel’ and the material which absorbs feelings of shock. 'Crown of Nettles', a demanding pastoral which is probably the book’s finest offering, opens its fourth section with another telling pun:
Included with the number
whittling number,
some rough patch,
teasel of hermeneutic
decode, patch that weeps
at any contact,
breaks out in a rash

Both a comparative adjective and a noun, ‘number’ binds the sequence’s worry over sensation and its loss – developed here through the rashes and weeping rough patches – to its investment in how to count up, and account for, the elements in an ecosystem without leaving them ‘boxed for use’: elsewhere, the sequence flits between assigning larks ‘integers’, or a ‘traffic ceiling’, and finding ways to incorporate their song (‘chirrup, chirrup, chirrup’). The poem’s four-line stanzas invite us, given the long history which that rough shape carries, to find details that would smooth it down into something like a hermeneutically decodable fixed form, only to frustrate that desire at every step. Is ‘rash’ introduced here to half-rhyme with ‘patch’, at the same position in the previous stanza? Wilkinson’s compassionate music tolerates our urge to bring our experience into order, even as it acknowledges the ethical risk of acting on that urge. It allows me, in various senses of the phrase, to feel like I count.    
As my pun implies, some ideal democracy is faintly traced in these poems. If it is the fate of every human subject to be caught painfully between thinking and feeling, or the world and its projection of it, the best that Wilkinson and I can do is to acknowledge the tension and identify how it is felt by others. ‘I can’t get out of my mind a / strawberry completely filled my mouth’ are lines that I can’t get out of my mind precisely because I know that the words will only let me hallucinate that fruit between my lips – but I also know that my experience is the exact reverse of this speaker’s, who feels instead that something has passed too rapidly and forcefully from mouth to mind. A similar half-recognition is established in the final lines of ‘The Whole Deal’, in which the ability to ‘conceive’ hovers between those witnessing to wounded faces and the owners of the faces themselves:

survivors queue at the dressing station,
blink as though conceivably whole,
behind their crusted faces
   pass conceiving.  

Gestures like these make for a rigorous politics in which social harmony is scrupulously imagined, but never realised. Sometimes this feels too rigorous to be useful. The poem ‘Unicorn Bait’ feels, at least to my reading, like a critique of those moments when the spirit of collectivity lapses into mere connectivity: all its talk of ‘faces’ and ‘I-faces’ smacks of a certain social networking site; lines like ‘There is no I except the I I will allow.’ and ‘I and you will make a team, triumphant team’ seem to mock the slogans of special interest groups. Such an attitude doesn’t leave much space for those for whom feeling allowed to express themselves as an ‘I’ is itself the mark of political struggle. One imagines that the survivors at that dressing station would write very different poems from Wilkinson.
This is, however, a concern that ultimately lies beyond the poems themselves – and Wilkinson makes no claims for his poems as the promise or consequence of an ethical programme that is itself free of damage. ‘This inky pacifical finger, / how shall it break the earth?’, ask the final lines of this book’s first poem. Should we trust the fingers of a poet who insists, like any self-respecting alien invader, that he comes in peace? When he breaks the earth, he might bring up ‘gold’ or some ‘autochthonous spirit’ – or he might join us in tearing it apart.