Equal parts nocturnal labyrinth and philosophical investigation, Meadow Slasher, Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s fourth work in his No Volta pentalogy—preceded by Selenography (2010), Swamp Isthmus (2013), and The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal (2014)—metabolizes a wealth of texts and references, yet remains, adamantly, a work of art unto itself. Meadow Slasher takes several literary traditions—epistolary, pastoral, romantic, confessional—as well as the dramatic form of the soliloquy, and, quite simply, turns them on their heads. Robert Frost’s adage that poetry is language under pressure is deeply relevant to this controlled burn of a book, a hallucinatory soliloquy that haunts the reader with its probative flirtation—and, ultimately, defiance—of death.
Images of the abject are here interlaced with the images and sounds of mastery. “Sometimes I get down on the carpet// & my dog comes over to see if I’m dead”; “What is desire but// some pleasure in careening.// & yet it depends on how you// like it to cadence.” The syntax of this fervent meditation/surrealist love poem is routinely disrupted, in ways that foreground and bring alive the glorious heart of the text: indeterminacy.
“Blood, intestines, sacks of bile. All that.
Eternal offices of the sore throat.
Indeterminacy is a given
so you needn’t start there—
That strangler sure is good at finding abandoned buildings.”
Yes & very good.”
The voice, throughout, is equal parts slangy, clinical, lyrical, playful, and combative, the latter quality brought about by a near-constant questioning, often of the book’s reader or interlocutor. This is a reader- and other-haunted text, but the questions are just as often rhetorical: chilling, even, in their poetic brilliancy. “Am I on the phone because I can’t end this near a bed or a desk or// anything stable enough to fuck on?// Whiteout. Cold coffee.”
“What’s the right way out of here?”
“What did you want to become/ that rent you back to becoming?”
“You wanna cry?/ Cry./ Just don’t try to clobber me/ with your shitty poems.”
“You think/ we didn’t know/ how to find you?”
“What if you don’t ever slow down now?”
“Am I so afraid of being alone with the selves I was?”
The book’s stated influences, on the acknowledgement page, include Marvell, Mandelstam, Catullus, O’Brien, and Shakespeare. But the in-text references are far more vast. If a text without questions can be likened to a speaker who never inquires after the listener, what can we make of a text that is rife with, even centered around, the act of questioning? Edmond Jabès’ luminious The Book of Questions might bear on this discussion, but Meadow Slasher stands alone in its radical re-imagining of the trope of call and response as well as the poetics and politics of engagement with the other. And yet this remains a book that is fundamentally strange—not uncommunicative (au contraire)—but strange. Nearly every page of the 56-page continuous, untitled sequence contains raucous imagery coupled with rhetorical elisions so swift yet discombobulating that each page demands re-reading; the artful ambiguity is achieved not only by language but by stark and surprising enjambments.
The speaker in this text begins as an unidentified stranger, moving through the cities and towns of America, and ends as a possible extenuation of the original speaker, yet one intent on editing the text being put forth (“I crossed out so much there’s/little left to work through”). Rife with allusions to undressing and unconcealing, particularly in relation to the stranger’s fantasy life, as well as keys and maps, the stranger appears to be both composing and deconstructing the self and the self’s narration at once. The title Meadow Slasher (referenced halfway through the book) is placed in conjunction with “motel drifters/ out on the city’s lip, lisping,” and seems to refer to the book’s project as anti- or at least post-pastoral; the act of slashing, or editing, as well as the twin tides of both dispersal and drift (here, “colleopterous scattering”) and search for what turns out to be a kind of myopic purpose and order, in life or aesthetic form. “The rain, no breaker. No turn, no volta, no nothing.// Another long thread to pull at in wonder of what it’s attached to.// Trying to set down what before I’d carry across into anarchism.”
“What’s your angle?” the speaker asks, slyly, in the book’s middle; in keeping with his ventriloquism of various voices, he responds, “None to speak of/ standing.” Like Faust wrestling with his soul, a sculptor, his marble, or a poet, his muse, the central conflict of this text seems to be the precarious tipping point between hallucination and reality, and lyric possession and mastery, in a world where geography orients but doesn’t necessarily ground.
The grounding, not surprisingly, comes from the book’s pathos, which is both cryptic and tender (“Wet little pigeonheart// inside me thudding”), in a manner similar to Dickinson’s best poems about madness, which have the power to disorient, move, and haunt (particularly “I felt a cleaving in my mind”). The speaker’s unraveling yet lucid mind is fascinating to track, as it both toys with temporal sequencing (“categorizing your wounds”) as well as complete oblivion.
“How was it falling all the way down?” the speaker asks (down the ostensible abyss).
Kind of like, one would imagine, reading this book, portal after portal, dimension after dimension—a book whose indefinite premise and resolution compel all the more, being true-to-life, which is to say real.
Author of a poetry collection, The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018), a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017), and two chapbooks, including That Tree is Mine (dancing girl press, 2018), Virginia Konchan’s critical and creative work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Believer, Boston Review, and elsewhere.