Thursday, 18 July 2019

Book review: Belief, Les Wicks (2018)

If I was still in the game and trying to publish poetry, as I was a decade ago, I would use the label “dun school” for the kind of irony-driven, flat-toned poetry that Wicks produces in this collection, which is very small physically but which is ambitious poetically.

The basic unit of meaning-creation in this book is the line, but there are also competent – even expressive and brilliant – narratives such as what are found in ‘Hopeland LA’ (about Los Angeles), ‘Go Fish’ (about an unsuccessful suicide), ‘Birthed’ (about childbirth), and ‘A Nike Size 5 White Jogger Beside the Pacific Highway’ (about a discarded sneaker lying by the side of the road). In these poems pathos is the dominant theme and the forward movement of the story in each case is strong and confident.

But what I thought about after buying the book in Glebe as I was walking back from the cafĂ© where I had eaten lunch (which was a haloumi sandwich made with pesto that came with chips on the side, and an iced tea), having read a few of the items in it, was a cactus. A type of plant that survives on little water but that can give out beautiful flowers. A cactus is not lush as Wicks’ language is not lush. Often it is aphoristic and it is always precise. The line “decay eats the awful eternity of its rhythm” was especially memorable.

I think that the kind of effect that Wicks achieves in this collection has value. Certainly, this is better poetry than a lot of what is (optimistically) published in Australia. Did it move me? I felt as though I had come across someone who has spent a lot of time trying to achieve minimal effects with a careful, caustic brand of language. I also thought of Tennyson and Rexroth.

The causal reader can find good things in this book but most people don’t bother with poetry. Possibly Wicks might do better to try to use the narrative form more and rely on the cogent line less. Stories remain popular and bookshops are doing quite well despite the ravages of Amazon.

The things that stood out for me apart from the four poems named above are the ones about military personnel. In these poems, Wicks shows himself able to reach out beyond the narrow concerns of the Australian inner-city elites and find poetry in uncommon places. In those verses, he reaches a point that is a kind of justification for the whole collection.

With many of the poems in the book there is a payoff that is foreshadowed, and if you can reliably deliver this kind of experience then you deserve to be read. On the other hand I didn’t really understand the book’s title, nor the section labels.

No comments: