Selenography by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
When Graham Foust asks “What is the poem” in his book, Leave the Room to Itself, the question asserts the current American dilemma in poetry: not so much where the poem comes from, though that’s always up for discussion, but also what the poem itself should actually be viewed as: a documentation of feeling? A record of the movement of thought? A mere “text” for the critics to dissect?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Selenography (the word from the Greek, meaning the study of the surface features of the moon) seems mostly to emerge from the stream-of-consciousness model, echoing verse back at least as far as William Carlos Williams and trending upward through the nebulous emotive pieces of George Trakl and Paul Celan, at last settling into what we expect from a writer of Wilkinson’s unique stature: a barrage of images both loosely and closely associated, held together by a whispering rhetoric of emotion and response.
In his latest we are charting out the surface of Wilkinson’s thought, with all the attendant mystery and depth that the moon mythically implies. Just as the Renaissance writers found a nomenclature to attach to the rifts and ranges of the moon, the poet finds a common thread in words, however tenuous, connecting the peaks and craters of his thought.
Which hearkens back to Mallarmé and his idea of all a poet’s work being a part of one great poem; thus there are links of words and images connecting the five long poems in the book: hands, woods, the messenger girl, rabbits, and most interesting the idea of connection itself, evidenced by words like “hem,” “seam,” and “darns.”
To read this book, one has to act on the image that closes the first poem, “My Cautious Lantern”: “voices get locked / in the threads & felled light / uncovers you / you drift out.” And so you must let go into the flow of the poems, following the contours of the landscape, making sense as you go (imagining, perhaps, William Gilbert in the fifteenth century, mapping the moon by mere naked eye observations).
But there is much that is memorable in this collection, many lines that carry in the mind for both their music and their heft. This, too, from “Lantern”:
I know my
photograph doesn’t match
the scene it is
a good song played
in your lungs
An interesting thought, considering the photographs that accompany the poems, but also honest in what poetry is: an imperfect representation, but one that must never be withheld.
Or these, from the concluding poem “No Clumsy Moon to Chalk Up the Doorway”: “no memory can pull down the wind / but one,” and “I have a fold I / follow no followable paths.” Indeed, the line breaks are significant and insistent here: grammar and syntax are jarred and then refitted with a seam only to be jarred again. The logic of the poems is present, hovering like a ghost within and above the words:
the jaw & our message
from the meadow
finds out this secret so your
job is to hide in
is thick enough
Multiple meanings and angles are contained in these organizations, casting light as a multifaceted jewel might.
“Wolf Dust” stands out here, if only because of its familiarity (early though substantially different versions published in elimae and as a video on Wilkinson’s own Rabbit Light Movies). Its lines are beautiful, intriguing: “what light comes / between / your nightgown & you?” or “I // happened / to myself in these very woods,” or, as in this segment,
of speech scored
into the bathroom
door revolved stars dropped
& we are forever here a child
the dressmaker’s dummy’s cupped hand
again which way not
It must be mentioned that it is not only poems that carry meaning in the book, but the Polaroids of Tim Rutili that face each page of text. Sometimes the photos veer close to matching the text, other times they are completely independent. In all, they add color to a book already carefully and deliciously designed; the book as product stands above many published today. This is a fine and loving design that gives justice to both the poems and photographs.
Selenography is a rich book, offering the best of Wilkinson’s style. “we live inside the // seam of the wind” he says in “Wolf Dust,” and this book expands upon his earlier work to expose that seam, to give music to the wind.
Selenography by Joshua Marie Wilkinson