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Andrea Brady

Brief Notes on Reverses

by John Wilkinson (Equipage, 1999)

This piece is three thousand words or about ten printed pages long.


Challenged by the alert and entangling substantives of John Wilkinson's Reverses (Equipage, April 1999), encouraged by the intimacy of its invite and the violent light of a May Day, I wish to reverse his attention to writing. Wilkinson, born in London in 1953, grew up in Cornwall and Devon. He read English at Cambridge, passed a year at Harvard working on the poetry of John Wieners, and thereafter trained as a psychiatric nurse. Perhaps his poetry at times reflects the occupational hazards of the East London and City Health Authority where Wilkinson is Head of Mental Health and Assistant Director of Public Health. Barque Press recently collected his early writing in Oort's Cloud (1999), while Flung Clear (Parataxis 1994), Proud Flesh (Délires and Equofinality 1986) and Clinical Notes (Délires 1980) make available his other chapbooks. This review will attend to one of the uncollected and most recent pamphlets.

John Wilkinson
John Wilkinson

That my notes in the margins of error may reveal more about a 'harkened light' than about the work's true face, is anticipated and forgiven by this book itself. Reverses strenuously and gently invites its reader to scrub-out the 'truthful mien' (of the poems, or of a figment of a personal desire): to clean, erase, violently embrace it: in imitation of the gradual reflexive recognition that is love's requisite. Yet from its first poem, Reverses makes clear that connective interpretation is not a kind of fellowship, however constructive the reader's impulse may be:


You fill the gap, you cross the barrier, bridge the divide;
& what became of the fond rift, did it too smooth away
like milk bellies, spoiling all with comprehension, rapt &
briefed beforehand with the stone of its slotted parents?
Top-down, bottom-up, no firmament confounds nor does a deep.
Critical practice damages the 'fond rift' of creative errancy by stabilizing or fixing meaning efficiently. The critic is kitted out in protective gear which stops her senses, so that she can resist the seductive ebb of poems which would wreck her on their shifts and varieties. At worst the new critical edifice she builds is an entertainment complex (a 'rink'), at best a museum, a contrived space where the poems' 'lost sayings' are displayed in civility and common usefulness.

So critical construction imitates the industrial overlay of asphalt on the sopping grounds of the poem's resourcefulness: quickens the route from here to here. Yet the susceptibility of these poems to such a penetrative, acquisitive understanding seems more in doubt with each re-reading. The poems' cross-logic, their book-logic, refuses to unfold; individual poems seem dispersed into the thousand possible tiny objects and arrangements of a writing spree:
Brushes & gangs crocodile, hands reset his hunched shoulders.
One wall has been blocked in shade, to gasps a telephone
rings the desktop squat colleague, its used-light overflow
will stoke sweet cars, one egg will suck, & grinning the mouth's
sweet cascade down like chrisom oil, will whiten his clothes.

('Means/End Readiness')

But as a dogmatically sensual response, or no response without total orderly comprehension, would just repeat the 'mere measured | silence' that greets the incision of hysteria into the trunk of power, and as Reverses demands the respect of immediate and protracted attention, I begin in love.

In 'The Little One Has Its Day,' Wilkinson greets that 'silence' with the imperative:

We must, combing the hysteric,
redeem this intellectual property

fell away like a store of love kept back.
Something has been torn
out, completely arrested...
Opening the 'store of love' may 'redeem this intellectual property' by inviting other consumers (than a rarified reading coterie) to spree themselves through the poems, but this generosity does not change the essentially proprietary nature of either love or intellect. Similarly,  Reverses cracks open a plaintive intimacy (that haunts the repeated, distressing exhortatory 'O's), whilst retaining as their 'barcode' and 'badge of distinction' the familiar antagonisms that culminated recently in Wilkinson's nearly illegible Sarn Helen.

The poems may deny this capacity for intimacy, deprecating the 'little object I' as an emotional amoeba which doesn't respond to stimuli, and fills up those 'O's with food and fluid;
                      Take the colourful antidote
to irony, the sexual check on starvation, shuttles of
feverish remedies would swerve through roseate water
plump the little object I which wallowed & withered

& wallowed again on the lam like an ECHO virus; take
that ragamuffin seeds & multiplies, cursed to remain
orphaned ever within its own likenesses -- it is clear,
it is not, it is not, it is not, blue heaven sweats.

('Attention and Interpretation')

In fact, the poems' capacity is proved by their constant care for care, and attention to care received. Nonetheless, all confessions of need and affection are kept in quotation marks: because poetry's ability to redeem or make sincere a universally replicated, 'complacent multicore' sentimentality without slipping out of self-criticism is, as one would expect, rejected.

Instead, an implied expressive interiority is kept behind the screen of a desirably inventive, evocative and available surface: as, for example, in 'Unbidden',

Devout as the ace of spades I too never flourish corruptly
too tried to fray the strands of complacent multicore
boost anonymity as their calling card like sleek legs cross
How could you do this to me, where is the simple repeat now.
The texture of 'sleek legs cross' is picked up later in the 'instrument that no polish | needed' (a reed, the poet's organ among other things). It becomes disturbing how randomly the poetics of 'slip generatives' congeal in the objects and inventions which flow over the surface. Reverses seems to catalogue and circle its (sexual, material, and ontological) desires in order to defuse the readerly desires or urgencies that normally accrue over the course of a book. The absorptive narrative 'I' follows the current of Reverses's effluence. If this is a politicized description of subjectivity, it's fairly clichéd -- as is this my political necessity of imposing, by close reading, critical determinations on the poems' disarmingly accidental effects.

That subjectivity contemplates evolving into a vertebrate's skeletal articulation (e.g., a fish whose 'stripped spine' is reclaimed triumphantly by science on the beach, as a relic of what escapes scientific knowledge in the dark fathoms of the sea; a piece of meat shared as a meal, the consumed self feeding the bonds of love and marking 'the family limits'; a bone whose private suffering is ripped away gratifyingly by the 'simple facts of love') from the 'undifferentiated' homogeneous flesh which can be distributed without any part losing the identity of the whole. These two identities -- articulation and inarticulation -- are synthesized by love.
So what she dispenses also were the simple facts
of love which is incontrovertible but unproved
It coats the heaving, the inner articulations,
returning to gently wrap her face in brilliance.

('Tit Clamp')

Love encloses in silence the 'heaving, the inner articulations' and reflects its own genius off the surface it produces. The complicity of the object of love in its own enclosure (or limitation) is visible at the poems' many 'unbroken surfaces': the topos of complex, regenerative and various subjectivity, for example, is rarely pierced by polygonic narrative episodes. That paradox of an expressive reticence, which demands in lyric overplus the silent gestures of intimacy, is this poem's final breathless wish:

But I feel the fine sufferance rip away from bone
stricturing my body with a long soft sigh, do
this undifferentiated, never leave my mouth or
break surface, this would be too hard a gloss.

Nonetheless, recognizable lyrical goals remain.

          flesh of my flesh wherever
saying to endure me, creased & woebegone,

starve me into new fat, clamant fastness:
That is where who'd meet halfway
the blossom's impossible promise
O its glissando, make swell cross-ribs

reaching the far with stars on our arms
of whom put flesh on my flesh scales full.
Their self-filled holes, wildly longing
dangle in the consortium's grip.

('The Little One Has Its Day')

As the flesh of arms that reach for the distant and 'impossible promise' of the blossom of beautiful veracity is cut into star shapes, so the surface of the text is mutilated by images of truth for which it strains. The text is starfish, its arms cropped and damaged in the depths of silence and privacy of the sea; the reader collects what washes up on the beach, the limit of sea and land, border where those depths and the flatlands of rationalized discourse and control erode into each other. And the damaged limbs of starfish can regenerate, to trace their 'faint nebula' 'over repeated sand': to mark the border with an image of the birth of a star, in its own image. Reverses extends a hope for veracity in the ability of objects and texts to regenerate continuously, even (although) inside the 'consortium's grip'.

Another hope lies below the surface of an ocean of meaning, which eludes positivistic identification (especially to the poet who repeats 'hovering over this vent in the ocean's shelf, aquaplaning'). But to reach it, one must cross the beach 'bounding lane' -- a third way where such meanings are fished out, admired, eaten -- that is mined with dangerous deficiencies between promise and 'reach'. The ministerial ear is patiently tuned to hear a discussion within the beach's

bounding lanes the deficient lip & reach accord between

the eggbox burrows & the lumpy waves in conference:
Mountains behind were scalloped through opencast & gape.
Danger. Unexploded mines. Abandoned workings.
Firings. Loose rock they crushed on-site for road-metal.

A mine has been made safe & painted for a collecting box.

('Three Cliffs Bay')

Here, reach is not a hopeful embrace but acquisition, detention and control by a present government. Wilkinson diagnoses two failures of national benevolence. One, the bureaucratization of care (as 'The Star's Predicament' and 'Planned According to Outcomes' indicate) that attempts to resolve its errors by endorsing their causes retroactively. This reversal maneuver fails by intervening curiously, weakly, in the process of dissipation: applying its magic finger to the exposed artery. The second, invasive care, interferes recklessly in general domestic disaster, its winged rapidity and efficiency swooping over the kitchen table in 'Development Agency (Black Country)':

By half the fabrications pinion, half they indicate,
meting out their skies, skirting from board to pallet;
penetrate a living-room, involve where children sup.

This kind of care re-locates organized, placid human relations to the worksite, where collectivity just speeds up the impositions of access and discipline.

Choose!  Choose!  The industrial estates were in occupation
by ten in a single room who smoke, play cards, drink coffee.
My life is a planned project. I hope I might yet achieve
the person I am before the biologist has been appointed,
flourishing the stripped spine of a big fish on the beach.

('Planned According to Outcomes')

The objects of both kinds of care are 'knowledge's creatures' and must be known to be controlled; but, Wilkinson specifies, real knowledge of these subjects escapes even the most efficient national systems of information control.

These are knowledge's creatures yet cannot be known to one
holds his pieces, mashing them through his million fingers.
A barcode I have to stroke that its perfume might assist.
Badge of distinction, flapping gongs, & tear-off stigmata

flatten those all-knowing.


Against the informational capacity of an efficient bureaucracy, and the luxury of assessment ('that velvet actuarial bag') which it passes for understanding, Reversals points a probate attention at heterogeneous, individuated precious memory as that which resists recognition.

          By rote against the stream, look to their profit
Stone by stone the cairn of the past which hardly weighed, is
made off by heartsearch. They live at the angle of fracture.
Their ghosts lay stepping-stones on the swamp & walk chilblained
with the hot little numbers, stones applied from a seething pot.


Not wishing to occupy memory's reclaimed trust land with episodes from its own narrative recall, it instead franks a general and covert dispersal of the stone 'cairn of the past.'  That this dispersal is the work not of governmental 'agents of a prudent reckoning', but of those within their system whose only possession may be their memory -- that Wilkinson refuses to elegize -- is contrary to expectations, and to an easy justification of public writing. But Reverses complicates the claim to the past. Here, memory is not sentimental; it recoils into finitude and imprisons subjectivity in the 'numbered boxes' of shared experience -- sex, for definitive example -- so that those experiences can later be deployed, like carrier pigeons, to express (and misdirect) a terse version of subjectivity. For the state, memory serves a diagnostic function. Pillaging the cairn for stepping-stones to lay across a malarial swamp which has already infected the bureaucrats of care, may make memory actually useful to its possessors; but do the ghostly pedestrians escape or walk straight into peril? (The morass of the metaphor gets thick and sticky.)

The swamp is an over-saturation, an unhealthy breaching of the flow of inland underground water. Though it is the opposite of the dry, man-made 'asphalt inland sea' which suppresses or displaces the water table, it also stagnates the flow of water. The water table is a basic vital consistency that engenders general and generous growth -- like dazzling cat's eyes. But the suppression of natural growth by the unlimited bounty of rape seed, whose

                      fine yellow
hegemony spreads, in pollen unconstrained but keeping
usurps on organic manifestations of the water table; this genetically modified, agro-business crop is capable of total proliferation. So is its ability to proliferate an example of an organism escaping its artificial limits, or a metaphor for a dangerous prevalence of technology and industry? And how much credence can we give to the hopeful smatterings of those 'damaged ones' -- plants not genetically modified, and therefore more liable to pests and extremes of weather -- that possess the 'mitigating pollen' and its 'possibility of change' within their own structure and growth cycle, if they must wait for better weather to express that? Similarly, the development of subjectivity is seminally dependent on the absorption and retention of what is in the water -- but the water is monopolized by a crop 'close to oceanic' in its generality, like the post/industrial management of human resources. Subjectivity is therefore 'cursed to remain | orphaned ever within its own likenesses': unable to cross-pollinate, child of scientific process not procreation.

This puts pressure on speech as the yellow crop puts on the eye 'varnished | with the day's embrace'. The truth table is perceptible only to the clear vision of the sovereign eye which can gaze without blinking or weeping on dessicated blazing moral landscapes.
He is the non-lover, surfaced in these vagaries comport
over a face facing he who faces truth with a truthful mien.
A spring seeps, but not from the eye which is varnished
with the day's embrace, it sings in its buried channel
always before his seat they approach tearfully & lidless.

('The Truth Table')

The truth table as another demagogic form of knowing, a liquid actuarial table, renders this sight -- its lack of compassion and its attraction of 'lidless', tearful, damaged pilgrims -- predatory, catching (in its reflected beams) the water and animals that 'scuttled underneath' the ground. The eyes of the prey, reflecting that light back off their tapeta, bounce like 'loose little shreds of fear, crazy dots' over nocturnal landscapes. Random, hunted motion revealed by reflection is imitated here prosodically. No model remains for private veracity in this state.

Why should it then be alarming that love 'wreaking yet more order' on the vagaries and fond rifts of an indeterminate life, directing routes -- engineering the overlay of inorganic road surface -- imitates the rationalization of the world by industrial process?

A spill scatters but wouldn't I know my road
brought me back to drop was the road
I took faced like pebble-dash will soften

rodent into a rocky-road pie, & such cement
beavered away by tricksy insects & moss
makes something of what's not yours is latent
Organic, ground-level activity renders love's transports unrecognizable on the return journey: 'tricksy insects & moss' re-soften the surface, returning latency and porousness to human work and relations. But justice and love are included in these latter categories. Each time a model for redemptive or elusive action is suggested by rifts in the poems' determinable meanings, an oversaturation of metaphor (the surface meaning which encloses polymorphous intention) breaks that model into its own opposition. Order is both love and domination, a perversion of organic and natural processes as well as the suppression of violence inherent in those processes. The volatility of these poems, individually or as a group, is not a victory against static, authoritarian political metaphor or representation, but a replication of their ubiquitous collapse, dispersal and secret regeneration.

The bower, 'dappled niche' of temporary regenerative reclusion erected by love and especially love in poetry, might be suggested as a medial retreat from the contradictions of bureaucratized domestic space and desire's dispersive, spontaneous locus amoenus. But Wilkinson rejects this half-way house in more ways than one.
Where is the mock Jacobean brickwork? That star-
burst fades into ghostliness leaving a neat wall.
Its 'mock Jacobean brickwork', the product of a willful lyricism with a constructive temper, would write its own anecdotes on the landscape's indeterminacies, memorializing a private relation whilst blocking minute histories of suppressed memory and unjust fates.


You can read five poems by Andrea Brady
in this issue of Jacket


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