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Wood Circle by John Wilkinson (The Last Books)

Wood Circle by John Wilkinson (The Last Books)

This is a book, I might say, that is both challenging and highly accomplished. Wilkinson gives few concessions to the wavering reader without compromise. To take the opening poem, ‘Download’, this starts out,-

                        Unruffled by the breeze, water holds steady state.

                                   It must soon be shook, which mind is

                        shattering from black, white and brown,

                        into a leaf-fall flurry, green, red and gold:

                                                 yes, in time, understood       (‘Download’ p9)

Plainly, syntactically and semantically there is a lot going on here, and the phrasing is edifyingly rich even where it might be elusive. The first person is missing, we have the ‘it’ of water, but also the veiled omission of a prospective third person who will ‘shake the water’, presumably. The ‘mind’ mentioned initially plainly retains to the water also, but can be picked up. The understood in time notation seems quite apt, this is the kind of writing that benefits from rereading and commentary. A first reading certainly brings a good amount of sense to it, and the linguistic dexterity of it is unmistakable.

The writing in a sense is plainly not transparent; it is quite thickly elaborated. One can’t help but wonder if this is part of the show or shine of well honed syntactic delivery, not at all giving much easily away. How often, for instance, does anyone speak of water being in a ‘steady state’? It is a matter of rhetoric and affect. 

Another poem further along ‘Burnt’ p21, has an intriguing formulation,-

                                               Draw back, chilled or burnt,

                                                the threads of destiny entangle,

                        hot wax drips on them and cools to affirm

                        simply where we are, each one their personal seal.   (p21)

This is highly indicative of Wilkinson’s style. As for ‘each one’ plainly no one is writing quite like this, not even, say, Keston Sutherland, with whom one might find some stylistic parallels. The use of language again is highly condensed. Wilkinson it could be said is highly economical, little goes to waste. Another citation that tends to bring out Wilkinson’s assertiveness is ‘This /cannot fit, must not…We own it all deniably.’ (p59) of ‘Stop-Out’.

With Wilkinson’s strong sense of rhetoric it is this that I take most from the poem, its apparent uniqueness in this regard. The poem includes a number of ‘Impromptus’ that are in a brisker, more effusive style, which makes for some contrast. Nonetheless the density of the language and its elusiveness of referent in places does tend to make it a difficult read. 

I can’t help but feel, however, that Wilkinson’s ‘personal seal’ tends to move to an inaccessibility and coolness to the writing that somehow uninvites reconsideration. Partly of course this is down to personal style. Wilkinson I think essentially is a highly assertive writer, should one suggest much more the expressionist than the impressionist, which is perhaps where some differences in my reading preferences fall.

That said, the craft of the writing is undeniable, and Wilkinson plies his syntactic originality and versatility with much flexibility and finesse. A question that remains is whether one must write like this, with an attendant density and elusiveness, or whether more transparency is at all possible. And equally if the density reaches certain levels, one wonders if the pay off satisfies the expense. There needs to be some kind of way in for the reader rather than simply marvelling at the verbal acrobatics. So, this is undoubtedly a book of considerable rhetorical fluency and really I suspect does send language use out to limits, less reflective and more of assertion and conviction. 

Clark Allison 9th June 2021

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