Matthew Hall reviews Les Wicks

24 August 2009

The Ambrosiacs by Les Wicks
Island Press, 2009

In Les Wicks' The Ambrosiacs visual and tonal senses, shown through a series of relentless escapes and endscapes, create a striking depiction of the poet's perceptions and observations. The fundamental basis of Wicks' collection, and the manner in which the reader is encouraged to approach them, is as an elegy: a series of memories and dedications aiming for the preservation of the instant, even if the instants are acknowledged as fleeting. The elegiac is not only the thematic directive, but plays out an effect of the visual, referenced from the first glance at the obscured palm trees packed densely on the book's cover. The ambiguity produced by the image on the cover references a loss to see clearly, and elides the demarcations between the trees and the sere, as the temporal space between them vanishes into the depths.

On the book's title page, there is a Leigh Rigozzi print from The Leviathan, a Hieronymus Bosch-like image of a great fish stuck open to reveal a multitude of smaller fish spilling out of its stomach and mouth, in a cycle of consumption and ingestion. This and the cover image are the first indicator of the depth and natural edifices which Wicks embodies in the poems, and is strongly indicative of his focus in this book. The trees on the cover are themselves a point for hypnotic gazes, distant reflections, a loss of certainty, the site of change and the reception of outside forces. If the rainforest represents the loss of a significant and life-giving portion of our natural environment, then Wicks' collection sets out to suspend and preserve the ambrosial, affirming portions from his memory and life to recreate this experience for the reader. The natural is presented as a liminal zone which the reader must occupy as a means to establish a position of presence and perception.

Wicks creates poems which argue that significance is no longer available as perception, but a want and a yearning for that which has past. Remembrances are guided with quietude and elegance, the real has been replaced by a simulacrum. Sounds hold thinner than palm fronds wavering in the distance, silence and tensions fall in unifying phrases, tones surface in fleeting waves of the forest canopy's undulations, as traces of the everyday fall from overhead, burrow in the soft humid soil and begin a cycle of re-growth, as a memory, a thought, a poem.

In unifying descriptions of natural ecosystems with capitalist, commercial and suburban experiences, Wicks creates a secondary system for the discussion of both the marginalisation of the human, and the destruction of the natural. To me this is reminiscent of an idea from Edward Dorn and Jeremy Prynne's correspondence, and the creation of a metonymic system depicting the landscape as the entire condition of the human body. While Wicks steers clear of such an overarching manifold and prefers his poems to work metaphorically, he insists on the same points. His is a unification of the landscape and the human. In 'If I Stayed A Little Bit Longer-' he writes:

My body
the vertebrae beneath
rough-woven grass.

Is it too soon
to talk about miracles
in the hush
when the mind stops talking
and life is going nowhere?

Here at the edge
of insight
or concession.

Wicks' rootedness and his singular attention to historic and cultural consciousness surely equates with protecting his sense of loss. In 'At the Edge of Town' Wicks reiterates, 'What's lost is what's left,' as he drives past big box stores of suburbia and into the heart of the city centre. In a looming sight, extending out over the eastern coast, the world of new cars, realty investment and opulence, faces the natural. Contemporary man flails away at life in modern culture, utterly disconnected from the natural world which would have once guided him and given him strength. He retains fragments of this chthonic knowledge in recollection, in wonderment, in a continuous search for answers. The natural, at which Wicks grasps to reclaim, is held captive in a state of remembered permanence, to be investigated and wondered at, beyond mere initial perceptions.

In 'What Rhymes with Injustice' Wicks hauls the reader back to Olson's modernism and the questions of will. Olson's ubiquitous 'What does not change is the will to change' is paralleled with Wicks' statement, 'The one thing that cannot change is everything we have or want'. Determinates of the will have been replaced with capitalist desires. The cessation of want and a return to the Olsonian nature-based ontology has been fundamentally altered, and one cannot escape the artificiality and dislocation of the capitalist model.

Throughout the book Wicks works to create scenes in which the duality of the natural and the modern are expressed in polyvalence. He works with the resonance of the scenery to express the coastal as imbued with mechanical constructs, as in the cyclic sounds of 'Three Headlands':

A blue crane prowls the seething surf
by a rugged-up Presbyterian Church
Belief here rests upon a predictable progress, always
within the imperative of neatness
Fresh sawdust beneath sober swing
fluoro green cakes in the urinal trough
capital gains from capital works

On this scale anyone could believe
the habits of our graze. A well-satisfied pelican flies past.
stirring reluctant, late-winter air.
We cling to the coast,
our days and designs.

The idea of wind and waves are also of fundamental importance for Wicks, as in the above poem, the reluctant wind is stirred by the satiated pelican – 'most barnacles endure/ as the next wave makes ready' – and one is revealed as living in a constant struggle. The tempestuous scene is juxtaposed by the want and efficacy of home. Staring outwards at the three headlands, there is a certain 'clarity stretching eastward,' coming down from the peaks of the great divide, and bustling through the ferns, the palms and the humidity of the tropic rainforest, enswathed in the force and the pull of the ocean. 'Three Headlands' ends in temporality. It is an extension of the symbolised, spectral world, brought back to the personal, for in The Ambrosiacs there is no escaping the personal.

The loss of which Wicks speaks, is not the degradation of the natural; it is a loss of conception, orientation and sanctity once offered to us through our connection with nature. Ecopoetics, as with modern pastorals, are determinately set on accentuating the continuance of this loss. For Wicks the instances, memories, recollections, and elegiac patterns are that which must remind the reader of the need for tenderness, thought, and time with our families. Throughout the work Wicks challenges the reader to truly gauge what the ambrosiacs of their life are. Nearing the end of the book comes one of my personal favourites, 'Ascent', a poem which I thing encapsulates Wicks' philosophy, and is indicative of the strength and direction of a good portion of this collection:

I am waiting
(some steps closer to empty space)
for solar flares, epiphany/
a collaboration of cockatoos.

Or the southerly change to send me
Crashing back to flesh.

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Matthew Hall

About Matthew Hall


Matthew Hall is working on a dissertation on J.H. Prynne and Violence at the University of Western Australia and a series of poetic essays that pertain to the radical pastoral. His poetry, occasional prose and criticism have been featured in journals around the world. Hall is Editor of Cordite Scholarly.

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