Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Meadow Slasher is a transcript from the abyss, the fourth of five titles in his No Volta series. I have not read the previous volumes but assume they generate a similar sense of menace and depict endless threats to one’s body and psyche in a relentless descent into damnation. If any poet today deserves claim to the title of poète maudit (cursed poet) — should the moniker be brought back into usage — it is Wilkinson, trembling hands down.
Composed of lengthy sentences with the character of confessional notes, the text reads like a cross between a fever dream and a quest narrative whose single goal is to uncover why the narrator is being haunted. There are many agencies responsible for imperiling him in the course of this poem — the world is, after all, a terrifying place — but the ultimate culprit is the poet himself: “Am I so afraid of being alone with the selves I was?”
All sorts of sights and sites of trauma are splayed across these pages, expressed in many references to cuts, nicks, gashes, rips, wounds, bleeding, cutting, and of course, slashing. The violence inflicted on the body, real or imagined, experienced or anticipated, has its ontological counterpart in Wilkinson’s question: “What did you so want to become/that rent you back to becoming?” Questions, both exasperating and engaging, are littered throughout Meadow Slasher. Wilkinson studied in Ireland; perhaps the spirit of Yeats rubbed off on him a wee bit, as each poet poses rhetorical questions that enthrall and entice the reader to answer the unanswerable.
I understand the title as a mutilation of the notion of the pastoral, the literal and figurative field of vision and activity progressing from the image of nurturing nature into endless precincts of nightmare. Interweaving quotations from Shakespeare and Flann O’Brien (another Irishman) and references to Roberto Bolaño, Wilkinson takes us on road trips through U.S. cities whose momentary coordinates may be Atlanta or Louisville, for example. However, these destinations soon become befogged by eerie interludes and recourse to classical mythology, as well as constant detours into new planes and places. Myth and geography have a disorienting effect on the poem and each other, unsettling the contents and reader. This technique by a lesser poet’s pen would be no more than a pretentious attempt at willed indeterminacy. Wilkinson pulls it off again and again without a hitch on his hike. What makes this book particularly exciting and inventive is how seamlessly it moves in and out of its multiple discrepant territories.
Meadow Slasher would be morbid if it were not masterful. It brings to mind another Irish reference in terms of general philosophical sensibility. Think of Murphy’s Law: the notion of an individual being perpetually doomed and ever confronting impending crisis (a mindset to which I am deeply sympathetic) are riven through the Celt creed and the green demesne of Meadow Slasher. For Irish wit or Wilkinson, memory is masochistic and tinted with elegy, regret, or unease.
But let us forget Irish conceits, parallels, and echoes. Also forget essentialist focus on nationalities — with one exception: the German Rainer Maria Rilke, who found terror in beauty and beauty in terror. Late in Meadow Slasher, Wilkinson sums up the state of affairs of his thinking and the operative stance of the entire book: “What’s beauty but a little death retracted?” Though death is constantly waiting in the wings, with this question the beauty of Wilkinson’s representation of impending disaster and death prevails amid terror. Beauty, death, terror, and wings — think of angels. One turns to Rilke — a companionate voice of Wilkinson, a guiding, if not guardian angel — from Duino Elegies: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are briefly able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.” I shall now track down the other titles in the No Volta series and look forward to more beautiful terrors.