(Black Ocean, 2013) 
In the same undressed lyric of Selenography, its predecessor, Swamp Isthmus is the best volume so far in Joshua Wilkinson’s pentalogy No 

Volta (we have yet to encounter the remaining three books). The poems of Swamp Isthmus provide narrow landing strips that guide us through a bog, a backdrop for the body’s ability, such as it is, to adapt to a landscape in constant flux. Wilkinson prepares the reader for an apocalypse that has already happened, is happening, and will happen, all at once. His is a habitat of remnants, of “a little blood on the underside / of a toilet seat,” where one uses

                         a trapdoor to show
                    how these levers work


                    or work against us
                    soft snare beats


                    click at the window
                    grinding us out
                    as through a sieve


The friction generated from Swamp Isthmus’ stub-short, unpunctuated lines forces textures and sounds to subduct into the white space of the page. It is treacherous to use polysyllables in a world rendered into shards. While trapdoor and lever have endured, they cannot be trusted; even the window cannot shield the body from a sieve. In this unstable (and at times violent) geography, nothing remains long enough to exist as it once had—there are “mice in the engine / & maggots at the cornmeal.” Of nature, Emerson said that “it is fluid, it is volatile,” that we “partake in its rapid transformations,” but here the environment is transformed into a negative of itself, without the involvement of man. Wilkinson is adept at revealing the duality/duplicity of objects vis-à-vis fractal syntax and pixellated image. His is a macrophotography—of flesh, of blade, of pore—in which we witness quiet moments of “listening to our wrist blood / as if it were birds in there”; and the “first dust scritch / before a diamond needle / tricks into the groove” is auteur cinematography at its purest (Wilkinson is also a film-maker). If Swamp Isthmus is the place of familiar-turned-foreign, of deprivation, it also harbors rare moments of yearning where the speaker “want[s] the shoals to phosphoresce / so bad” that his “spine twists to rope.” But in “Upholsterers’ Moon,” he tells us, “you know where to find me // here in the signature made small / spilled into shadow.” These intimate admissions are the emotional well of the book, a well from which Wilkinson takes care not to draw too often, if even a handful of times, though we need more of its drink. In other moments where the speaker uses first-person, Wilkinson abruptly cuts to deploy other pronouns (or lack thereof) as if he were a lion tamer snapping his whip to disrupt the lion’s attention lest the lion think about attacking: “he asked me to / hold the payphone receiver // while I was standing with my dog // what song drifts into you . . . .” And how could we blame a speaker hesitant to open up amid a dire landscape such as this? Apathy pervades this book as though its viscid flood somehow drained the world of feeling and warmth. At times, the tone briefly slips into coy flippancy, e.g., “hiding in the dumbwaiter / for ten minutes or a week,” before again leaving us as bereft as the surroundings. Even though Wilkinson’s world can also be defined as in a film, through sound and light, these gradients are wholly impersonal. Most of the sounds are not signifiers but noises: whistling, ticking, “inaudible ringing . . . . .” In Notes 

 on Cinematography, Robert Bresson says “what is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear. If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear.” Wilkinson alternates between tremendously wonderful images and sounds, yet the problem is their lack of affect: how can a reader be won over with apathy? It is undeniable that Wilkinson defies ephemerality by summoning the unseen to a perceivable realm and by urging us to be attentive. “Your noise is here // but where are you?” the speaker implores, because the world has gone into the gutter. In “this fucked up town now bored,” Wilkinson is purposefully apathetic; I am unwillingly apathetic. But I can remedy my situation with a bite of pineapple. 

                                                                                           —Diana Khoi Nguyen 

 

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