By: Carey Scott Wilkerson
Reviewed by: Jeremy M. Downes
New Plains Press, 2009
One of the central poems of Wilkerson’s attractive first book, Threading Stone, unravels the title’s mystery, as the Greek hero Theseus is challenged to follow the thread (the gift of Ariadne) through the great stone labyrinth at Knossos. Even for Theseus, this is much harder than it first appears; not only is there the monstrous Minotaur, but the very act of “threading the stone”—through using language, through creating narrative—is called into question by this book’s “rhizomic world” where every thread appears to lead in multiple directions. More, Wilkerson invites us to consider our own involvement in Theseus’ plight as he spells out the hero’s name, “These Us,” and as he characterizes him chiefly through negation:
You will not have been conjecture or song or
something aporetic in the causal chain, plural
synthesis of apriori singulars.
These features—the multiplicity and insubstantiality of identity (and hence of pronouns), the endlessly sprouting delights and infuriations of unstable rhizomic syntax—run through much of Wilkerson’s work, and make for a challenging reading.
As with much postmodern work, we are encouraged to embrace these challenges and (provisionally) assemble meaning for ourselves, but at times the diction—theoretical, abstract, and polysyllabic—is off-putting, and I have to admit that I am not always persuaded by the music that underlies Wilkerson’s lines at their more abstract, even when I find the thought intriguing. Similarly, the optimistically named Felix Omega, a cipher more than a persona in the middle section of the book, remains distant—often funny, but too self-reflexive, too limited in the poems we see here. (I was happy to see that Polylogue, Wilkerson’s recent chapbook publication with E-Ratio Editions, brings us a more persuasive, more well-rounded version of Felix.)
The book—one of the first from New Plains Press—is attractively published and a pleasure to hold, with only a few proofreading errors marring its pages. The organization of the volume, too, is a pleasure, its three divisions well balanced to satisfy the reader’s desire for forward movement; each section has particularly strong poems. “Late View of a Mill Ruin” and “Olson in Montevallo” (which imagines the epic projectivist transplanted from Gloucester to where “the clay . . . spackles his trousers” and where “everything–even Jacksonville, Florida—is north of Alabama”) show Wilkerson adopting a voice that is more credible and less ironic, taking its postmodernism as a given rather than a debate. The delightful closing poem, “Mountain Logic at Tallulah Falls,” finds similar strength in the local and the familiar. It is in poems like these, or in the really remarkable meditation on kudzu, thought, and language in “Rural Routes” that Wilkerson really finds himself, and fully engages the language, the music, and the reader. Showing us not only the inchoate, uncertain origins in the “rhizomic root-ball of desire, love’s wet roots,” and “our native tongue in bitter pulp,” Wilkerson goes on to show how this kudzu of language can bring forth the poem itself:
. . . my poem’s splitting pods and redolent blooms,
a truth of kudzu in the binding of my books.
These are by no means easy poems to read, but they are carefully crafted, fully engaged poems that make the volume well worthwhile. July 2010
Jeremy M. Downes writes and teaches at Auburn University.