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by Julie Swarstad
Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of five books of poetry, including Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk (2005) which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and Selenography (2010). He has edited two anthologies for University of Iowa Press, including Poets on Teaching (2010), and his first feature-length film--a tour documentary about the band Califone--has just been completed. Wilkinson is an alumnus of the University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA Program. He lives in Chicago where he is an assistant professor at Loyola University.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson will read at the UA Poetry Center on Friday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. along with fellow UA alumna Kate Bernheimer.
Joshua Marie Wilkinson's latest collection begins with an epigraph from Graham Foust: "Each song / is a room / in which I'm not allowed to vanish." In Selenography, the five long poems do just what Foust's songs do: each poem is a room where Wilkinson continually has to face himself, where he cannot vanish but instead must explore the surface features of his life. The five poems of the collection are paired with Polaroids by Tim Rutili, the singer, guitarist, and keyboardist for the experimental rock band Califone. Together, Wilkinson's fragmented verses and Rutili's blurred images create a strange space where the reader has to surrender to the internal logic of the collection.
Even at first glance, Selenography is simply a gorgeous book. Wilkinson's text on the left-hand pages is always accompanied by a Polaroid from Rutili on the right-hand pages. The Polaroids seem to capture images from around the world, ranging from Venetian gondolas to posters of Mao Zedong to the Elysian Grove Market right here in Tucson. Rutili's snapshots of dogs, decaying armchairs, and a gorilla statue sometimes clearly echo Wilkinson's text, but they often don't, seeming instead to tell their own bizarre global story. The story is one of a world that is disjointed but strangely connected, where images of very dissimilar things become connected by their similarity of spirit, by the sometimes abandoned nature they seem to exhibit.
Selenography is the study of the surface and physical features of the moon, and in a similar way, Wilkinson's collection runs along the surface of his experience. "Our eavesdropping is what / stuns us / awake," Wilkinson writes, and it sometimes seems that eavesdropping is exactly what the reader is doing with this work. The five poem-rooms that Wilkinson builds up are strangely private yet completely anonymous and sometimes unreal. The fragmented text is constantly shifting, one idea suddenly becoming another in a world with "a storm like / thousands of locusts / listening." No image is quite what the reader expects it to be.
Wilkinson's imagery can sometimes be a bit baffling, but his text is ultimately inventive and in some ways coercive, re-appropriating familiar things and jamming them together into new ideas. "Our breathing split like / a peach," he writes, and in the fragmented world he creates, we seem to know what that means. Selenography is rich with imagery and ideas used in unusual and exciting ways and paired perfectly with Rutili's Polaroids. Wilkinson's work provides a wonderful example of the possible interplay between text and image, and of the possibilities of imagistic language within a text.