Getting By Not Fitting In by Les Wicks
Island Books, 2016
Is Les Wicks afraid of love? Yes, Les Wicks is afraid of love.
I start this review with a swift homage to Charles Simic (1975) because of the feelings, affects and question marks I was left with after first reading Les Wicks’s Getting By Not Fitting In (2016). These lingering associations invariably brought me back to Simic’s self-deprecating text ‘Further Adventures of Charles Simic’ (1975) which begins with the question ‘Is Charles Simic afraid of death?’ and proceeds to explain why ‘Yes, Charles Simic is afraid of death’. If this seems like an unlikely connection, please read on, reader, for Wicks and Simic have a lot more in common than first meets the eye.
Getting By Not Fitting In is Les Wicks thirteenth book of poetry. In the last poem set in Thailand, ‘The 6th intersection’, Wicks writes in a footnote: ‘Six is a number that is not considered lucky since the Thai spelling of the number is the same as to “fall”’ (94). Death is here deftly deflected. Having no knowledge of the Thai language, I can only hope that thirteen is a lucky number, for this is a wonderful collection. It’s a wry and often funny work in which each poem weighs against evasiveness and prevarication, occasionally pulling a mighty punch. As I write these words, it occurs to me that this may in fact be the trademark of Island Press, the ‘oldest still-operating poetry press in Australia’ founded in 1970 by Canadian poet, musician and academic Philip Roberts, now a co-operative run by a bunch of poets, and possibly fighting for its life in print.
The collection is arranged in seven parts. ‘The Company of Women’, ‘We are just Men’, ‘Narrative’ and ‘Location’ introduce the reader to Wicks’ human microcosm and explore related themes such as the relations between the sexes, communication and miscommunication, location and dislocation and all that which complicates the above. As one would expect from the titles of the next sections, ‘The Difficulties of Matt Kovacs’, ‘From Ms Tess Manning’ and ‘What Ends?’ follow the tribulations of Matt and Tess while charting the failures and limitations of love and desire in their relationship. The embedded narrative of these sections, with its quixotic undercurrents, is the driving force of the collection. ‘What Ends?’ aptly reflects on the characters’ journey and also functions as a coda to the collection. There are no resolute statements here. Instead, ambiguity and irony come into play to gesture to wider themes:
Scream in the streets, make newsprint nests in the corners of your intellect. Forget ambitions of wealth we realise too late we are the sum of those we’ve touched. Each approaches understanding as they share & shed. These two recognise the schism. then part amongst the traffic spilth – almost in love once more & never to meet again.
There is often a deliberate flatness to Wicks’s language, but the use of odd juxtapositions rescues lines from the weighty and tendentious, as in ‘User Manual – Men’ which attempts to show that men are not all they are cracked up to be by disrupting clichés. Indeed, the first three lines announce the poem’s sentiment, but lack clarity: ‘The trick in all this trickiness / is to deceive the nasty inner thing lodged / under our not-so hardy skins’. This awkward beginning followed by the obligatory reference to ‘tools’ is redeemed by the statement: ‘Painting houses & epiphanies / there is always the excuse wrapped / in a criminal shrug’. Elsewhere, the flatness of statement builds up dramatic directness and a shift in point of view. This results in highlighting Wicks’ inimitable perspective on human affairs. It is self-aware, debonair, generous, weary, even despondent, yet never despairing. Here is an example from ‘Tony Mixes Me Up’:
This dream is an assault & hey he brags No hands. Across the room from each other staring at waterstains on the wall we’re cryptologists in the babble of tough despairs.
Here the poem builds through a moment of suffering and pain and moves on to some generalised statement that overrides the impending gloom at the heart of the noun ‘assault’ and the denial obvious in the off-hand authorial comment ‘hey he brags No hands’.
In poetic company, Wicks sits between Ashbery and Simic. Ashbery for the decentred narrative perspectives, flowing rhythms, open-ended questions and startling line endings. Simic for the sardonic tone and counter-intuitive statements, especially as regards the theme of existential dislocation. But unlike Ashbery and Simic (as I read them) Wick forgoes variety for reiteration; musical prowess for evenness of tone. While this gives unity to the collection, it also makes the book solid in its emotional range. There is no postmodern trickery here. No metaphysical conceit. This is brick and bone and beer poetry, with ‘[L]anguage … just another flavour’. This is also ‘history & precious stones’.
Finally, there is something quintessentially Australian in Getting By Not Fitting In. It’s not just the cocky assuredness in the handling of the vernacular paired with the wonderfully grounded imagery. It’s not just the theme of dislocation in old and new contexts, both literal and metaphorical. It is in the attempt to articulate a sense of mute confusion in the encounter with the other sex where love and desire get mixed up. In Les Wicks’ poems, this attempt to find the right words to separate them out goes hand in glove with clumsiness, powerlessness and empathy. This is dramatised and highlighted in the Matt and Tess sections. Here the characters are burning with desire, but run away from love to stave off the experience of their own separateness. Yet desire persists. What desire makes of the other person and of the couple in the end is a caricature of each other’s needs dismissed by a ‘noodle smile’ [that] says ‘No worries – / the Australian pinnacle, the prize’ (95). What lurks behind this whole collection is the belief that no matter how hard one tries, one is bound to fail. This sense of connection in the face of what is perhaps life’s most baffling enigma makes Getting By Not Fitting In a very powerful read. I can’t speak for other women, of course, but I felt moved by moments of helpless clumsiness as much as I did by moments of exhilarating joy.
I bet most readers will want to linger on and go back to the final poem, ‘The 6th Intersection’. It is a fine coda to the book.