Swamp Isthmus, by Joshua Marie Wilkinson


Swamp Isthmus, by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Black Ocean. 88 pages. $14.95, paper.

Illuminated by “lampmatch,” Swamp Ithsmus is poems of the inevitability of fleeting encounters in a foggy suburban landscape. Though assuredly more subtle than the way I’ve articulated it, all the women in Ithsmus have already stood from the bed by the time I discern their silhouette, and it is in that space between two people separating that I am absorbed into a foggy philosophy towards proximity which studs me with degenerating dreaminess while reading this collection by Joshua Marie Wilkinson:

we put our clothes
back on

slowly before

our laughter turns us
into somebody else’s

Train cars, thieves, lovers, librarians. Swamp Ithmus has discernable place and time, and the detritus of the poem-collection, the grizzly rug of the poem, the bog of the dream-read of the sleepwalking poem, the poetry’s “little blood on the underside / of a toilet seat” renders place as past, where perhaps one can be more methodical and objective in regards to image. Again the suspension of emotion in proximity to the object, or lack thereof. “Loss is a feature of what you’ve / failed to divide yourself from,” Wilkinson writes, and he is laser-focused on the details of loss, fiction-focused on the rendition of a haze called past, but not desperately, airily, with the softness and detachment of person as lens.

His preoccupation and hierarchical ranking of past reminds me of the pleasure of reading (maybe unfairly, through obsession) Ray Bradbury: I’ve never lived in suburban Illinois, but I know the realness of Bradbury’s fascination with trains, dandelion wine, and the scrapes and cuts of playing in ravines as a 1930s boy-child without ever having experienced anything close to that kind of past. Similar to the way that past ignites and engages me, I float through dumbwaiters and tarantellas, rectors and truants, in JMW’s tangible backdrop for his nostalgic detachment. The lines that caused me to steep extensively in this collection of poetry, however, occur as just a little spittle of lines in the first “chapter” of Swamp Isthmus:

what we are
forbidden from

startles the fence

These, my favorite lines, caused me to snap away from the book and fix to the outer front window of the 8 bus after discerning a philosophy (or anxiety) that aligns with my own way of crapping through earth: that the fetish of proximity operates on possibility, but to graduate through and arrive where the forbidden actually meets the possible is where loss begins. The speaker’s tone is resigned to stay where they are, at the fence that divides them from whatever desire. As the “aspirin uncoils in soda water,” in familiarity careful observation is possible. Like in life, objects and people static into new forms, then “swallows gather up in the air again like / a bushel to pull the cartoon curtains shut.”

Swamp Isthmus at Amazon.com.
Swamp Isthmus at Black Ocean.


Ally Harris is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in Poetry. She’s recently had poems appear in Agriculture Reader, Sixth Finch, Tarpaulin Sky, CutBank, and BOMBLOG, as she was a finalist for their 2012 poetry contest judged by Ben Lerner.

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