Ben Wilkinson, For Real, Smith/Doorstop, 26pp, £5
Whenever I read Ben Wilkinson’s work I find myself admiring his craft. It carries a precision of thought and expression that’s hard to reproduce, in a syntax which is natural and a voice which is easy to hear, yet the poems abound with subtly used devices and effects. So natural is the tone that, when you hear him read, you can easily miss the fact of a carefully crafted sonnet or perhaps some clever variation on one. As for example, the opening poem ‘The Catch’, is a fourteen liner pseudo-sonnet with its own rhyme scheme, not built from iambic pentameter but rather, I think, a four-stressed line with uneven unstressed syllables. Wilkinson disguises his full-rhymes with enjambement, so the audience experience both form and ‘natural flow’ at the same time. He’s always conscious of form, but rarely lets form dictate to him.
In a similar way, he slides between registers, mixing vocabulary that’s urban, urbane, technical, literary and colloquial to clever effect. So, for example, in ‘The Nightmare’:
a thunderbolt, throwing
us forward through time
with the dashboard dials spinning;
making a DeLorean out of your Yaris.
The windscreen warps with scenery,
a zoetrope at full tilt.
Here’s the cultural reference of ‘Back to the Future’ in the DeLorean and, perhaps, Star Trek in ‘warps’. We’ve the mundane everyday contemporary of the Yaris (although perhaps there’s a glimmer of etymology here, as a yari is a traditional spear, appropriate for a time-travelling car or a warping spacecraft, not so far from the crossbow bolt of thunder). We’ve the colloquial ‘at full tilt’ pitched directly against the educated antiquarian of ‘zoetrope’. We’re in a film and out of it. We’re in contemporary life and out of it. We’ve fragments of the past (films of the 80s, Victorian optical toys) in a fast-forward move to the future.
The care of his craft appears to be supported by scholarliness of reference. It’s not thrust down the reader’s throat, but it is very evident. The small collection offers poems after Verlaine and Eugenio Montale. I’m reasonably well read, but I couldn’t claim to know Verlaine that well and I’ve never read Montale at all. That same erudition emerges in some of Wilkinson’s lines and sentiments. Whether you’ll be irritated by lines like:
Like the chameleon that changes
colour to fight
or attract the attention of a mate
(not as the myth runs,
to match its background
in nothing more than coincidence)
probably depends on whether you think such notes are pedantry or fun, and the ‘proper’ province of poetry, whatever that means.
Undoubtedly the intelligence being wielded in these poems builds pieces which exactly do the job they appear to. His precision also leads him to some excellent images and excellent lines. For example, in the poem ‘Lights out’, about a blackout and the consequent immediate sense of losing humanity to animal darkness, where the technological insulation from chthonic chaos is lost, he uses Tennysonian phonetics to reinforce the point:
of illumination, the TV’s hum,
seems inhuman, sends us
back to something further -
sketched outlines of faces
the pulse of our hearts –
how we once saw the nights
as animals ...
The ‘m’ sounds here unite the disparate concepts, that ‘absent’ hum is heard in ‘illumination’, ‘something further’ and ‘animals’. Each of these reminds us of what we cannot hear, but which returns in darkness. To be animal, to be night, to be not-human is not to hear what humans hear – the TV, the technology of communication. Instead a different hum is heard, the pulse of hearts, concealed by a mere outline of faces.
Not that I think the poet necessarily works every such detail consciously. I think such effects simply come to him as apposite. But I do wonder a little if his skills and craft sometimes stand in place of getting to grips with exact emotion. Whilst many of the poems are about relationships, few of them tell us what those relationships are, or what feelings exist within them. Instead, emotion remains remote – hinted at, understated, concealed, unclear. Emotions are referred to, but rarely presented to us. In ‘The Door’, for example, which ends the book, we’re faced with a door which leads through to somewhere ‘like a portal between worlds’. Whilst the poem ends with the encouraging:
Let’s say all we felt
stood there, all we’ve held off. Let’s walk
through that door, love, and never look back.
there’s no hint of what these feelings might be, merely that there’s a strong desire to go back to them, or through them, perhaps an escape from the world as it is. It’s as if the world Wilkinson finds himself in is, ultimately, a puzzle beyond his solving, a world which is perhaps even ‘empty / as all we weren’t saying, but thinking’ [‘The Door’].
When Wilkinson can find a world which excites, it remains beyond articulation. He is ‘Dumbstruck’:
And I want to tell you the world
we find is a glorious one,
paradise pooled in light,
but I can’t.
because it’s a dream.
Dreams appear in several of the poems, generally as a frame for an account of a relationship: in ‘The Nightmare’, ‘The Beach’ and ‘Rooms’. Where there’s no dream, there are images of partial awareness, of not quite seeing or knowing, which provide the same separation from encountering emotion directly. It’s as if there’s a tension in Wilkinson’s work between the precision of intellect and the uncertainty of experience. He wants to know, to use intellect to control or encapsulate emotional experience but finds he cannot, in these poems at least, so settles for reporting the fact of its inarticulation, albeit in striking, powerful ways:
... Funny how you
can find yourself lost in the world,
lost in another’s arms, like finding out
all you thought you knew was wrong.
climb downstairs half-asleep to find our furniture
something else edging closer, the way water will.
[‘The River Don’]
it’s no dog but a phantom,
fur so dark it gives back nothing,
Perhaps that’s where we all are: our poems rise in emotional experience but reach a plateau of the only words available to us, no matter the extent of our learning. Ultimately, perhaps, poetry merely expresses the limits of our inarticulation.