Indeed, the blurb to Wilson’s Free Will and the Clouds describes the poems as ‘risk-taking’, and the poems do show a poet willing to take chances and to rely on his readers to follow some jagged moves. They are also poems that are tightly disciplined, and the collection as a whole has a solidity and consistency. Wilson is a writer of striking lines (especially titles), and the connections between these lines, and even more so between stanzas, progress more often in leaps than by steps. The movement of these poems is vital to their effect: there is a frequent tendency to strong stanza divisions, abruptly shifting the images. The poems often hint at a narrative or a line of argument, but the arrangements work more as progressions of harmonies and dissonances between ideas. Take, for instance:
They Can Put You in a Box The best way to explain it is they can actually do that and you just have to hold still. When a giant walks by on television, the screen shakes to signify his magnitude. Everybody’s screens are shaking here and it all boils down to they can and will put you in a box and close the lid. You may either stay awake forever or sleep forever. I’d like a decision by sundown.
A fragment of a kind of narrative can be extracted from this, but it isn’t really the point: what matters more is the sense of threat, of being at the mercy of something unpredictable. The abrupt shift in the final sentence, and the mock imperative tone with which the poem ends, both appear elsewhere, for instance in the last lines of ‘The Battle and the War’: ‘Sit around and listen to Chopin / and flip that fucking coin for once.’ The dream-like quality of these poems avoids turning to mush by keeping a sense of anxiety and loss. The loss can be both nonsensical and real at once (‘The part of your heartbeat will be played by / a smooth grey stone / high on a dark shelf’) precisely because of the poems’ oneiric tone. The roughly sonnet-like shapes of the poems, their humour and rapid shifts of voice and image suggest the influence of Berryman’s Dream Songs, though with even less obvious narrative drive than Henry’s death and resurrection give to that long sequence.
There are a number of recurrent themes and images in Wilson’s poems: humming machines, cameras, missing and dead (possibly murdered) people, boxes in which to be shut, ghosts, machines, coin-flips, holding breath. A few poems put famous names through absurd transformations. ‘Dante Poem’ opens:
The real Virgil is still long in the tooth, a gun salesman, he went down south to pray and came back part of the canon.
The joke on guns and can(n)ons (unwittingly made in about a million undergraduate essays) is done lightly enough that it works, and the fun is really in the poem having nothing much to do with Virgil or Dante. ‘Bella Lugosi We Love You Get Up’ hangs a little closer to its named subject, opening:
Instead of coming to suck our blood, the bats bicker over fruit trees and we are with them in spirit.
It continues in mock-gothic (probably the best sort); I’d like to think that the title is partly a tribute to Bauhaus’s song ‘Bella Lugosi’s Dead’ as well as to the definitive screen vampire himself. There are frequent circles in Wilson’s poems, where the title returns in the poem’s closing lines. ‘Look at the Camera!’ only comes back to the topic of film in its final three lines, and ‘She’ll Be Apples’ spirals back to apples in its closing stanza.
From the dedication to the final poem, an overall circle encloses the collection, too. The book is dedicated to Benjamin Frater, a fellow poet who died far too young in 2007. Wilson had assisted Frater in publishing his collection Bughouse Meat and edited the posthumous 6AM in the Universe (the first collection published by Grand Parade Poets). The epigraph accompanying the dedication is the Latin proverb ‘Poeta nascitur non fit’ (a poet is born not made), and Frater was by all accounts a poet with a strong sense of vocation. The final poem in Free Will and the Clouds, ‘Poets Are Born’ returns to both the epigraph and to Frater (‘BJF’ in the poem’s dedication). The repetition and the circle it draws around the collection emphasise that this sense of poetic vocation is an important idea for Wilson’s poetics. Such a romantic notion of poetic mission, however, escapes sentimentality here in a couple of ways. Firstly, the instability of any sort of self in this collection prevents a sense of ‘I, Wilson, poet with a mission’ (that way lies bardic bullshit). Secondly, there is what the blurb calls the ‘for-the-hell-of-it’ mood of the poems. Wilson’s mix of wit, impersonation, half-joking and half-serious turns invites readers to laugh at the pose. There is, certainly, a seriousness underneath that pose; as with Wright’s collection, it will be worth seeing how the ideas underlying these poems might be confronted more directly in later work.