May 2006

David Kieley

poetry

Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms by Joshua Marie Wilkinson

Egon Schiele worked fast. Before his death at 28, the artist produced several hundred paintings and close to 3,000 drawings and watercolors. He grew quicker and more precise as he aged, achieving in some of his late sketches spare, nearly continuous lines that could capture a subject’s momentary expression and posture before they passed.

There is therefore a quality of history to Schiele’s portraiture -- a fragmented history of moments, of unheard exchanges between artist and model, of warming and cooling relationships. Those fragments are the point of departure for Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s debut book of poems, Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms.

Wilkinson, the introduction tells us, “has traveled to Egon Schiele territory.” The author went on a ghost hunt of sorts, tracing Schiele’s path across the terrain of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and ending up with an exploded narrative analyzing his exploration into the lives and work of both Schiele and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Heavy stuff, as the librarian who checked out my background reading attested, but the little research you may need to navigate the book’s wheeling landscape of times, places and speakers is well worth it. I promise.

Wilkinson’s poems render beautifully the collision of our personal experience with our cultural inheritance; he records the work we must do and the psychic spaces we must generate and inhabit to access history. As we search through “Schiele’s gone rooms” and the “toppled buildings upright” of a reanimated past, the language becomes disorienting, mysterious. Mattresses and sofas are dug through, envelopes steamed open, people get on trains, objects are stolen.

And yet what’s the big secret?

Our mundane longings (“Couldn’t I come home with an armful of groceries/ to find you in the bathtub?”) aren’t so far off from those which turn Schiele’s lover Wally into a saleswoman carrying “gouache sketches of herself/ to the cafés for Egon.” And when we first encounter the intimidating Wittgenstein, he’s flying a kite, “Whistling/ Schubert exactly/ & muttering/ the pack horses of Iceland into/ arithmetic means.”

But the fact that you, me, and the most scarily incomprehensible philosopher ever all enjoy kite flying is kind of a given. If we had nothing in common, if geniuses weren’t trying to work out problems that also essentially plague the relatively dumb, we wouldn’t bother looking to them for answers.

The narrator asks of Wittgenstein: “If there is a single equation/ to rid me/ of my longing/ & if I can summon its spell/ then will the confession outlast its confessor?” It’s a sassy question to put to the logician who thought his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was the silver bullet that answered all the questions of philosophy.

Of course there is no answer. Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus” failed and he returned to philosophy years later in an effort to correct his mistake, and Wilkinson is the last poet to claim possession of any actual secret.

“It’s just as you said, the phone is a trick,/ an echo of your body in the moment you’ve hung up./ That stapled-shut silence.” The poet can reconstruct, can play out scenes, but just as the telephone provides only a fraudulent intimacy, the poetic construction offers only an image of history while the reality remains suspended and inaccessible.

Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The efficacy of Wilkinson’s book rests, in a way, in its silences, in what it knows better than to say. The poems are content to depict our struggles to make sense of things -- the means by which we engage art, ideas, the people around us -- without feigning resolution. With admirable craftsmanship, Wilkinson shows us not what we’re looking for, just that it’s a good thing we’re looking.

Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Pinball Publishing
ISBN: 0972192646
88 Pages