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Contrivances consists of four constellations of poems. It is characteristic of John Wilkinson’s writing that each poem can be read either as self-sufficient or as interdependent with other poems in its group. Readers of his earlier books will recognise the precise resolution of these poems at a point just short of the fully-revealed.
In ‘Saccades’ the routines of bureaucracy, commuting and consumption invade the body and psyche. The poems in this constellation interlock, engage in small local machineries, and mill unrelentingly, although spasms of malfunction permit moments of joy before self-righting functions reinstate the poems’ unnerving synchromesh.
‘Signs of an Intruder’ consists of more informal, open and sensuously-responsive poems, although even the Tuscan landscape where several take place is invaded by forms of surveillance. The poems stretch and play between benign and malign surveillance, pleasure and regret.
‘The Still-Piercing Air’is the smallest group and the most conventional in its poetic procedures. Harmless parks and public amusements, flowers and water features, lines from Shakespeare – turn malevolent as the occupants of a consciousness forced into reflection through isolation.
The final group, ‘Case in Point’, was described by Wilkinson in introducing a reading as ‘neo-baroque flummery’. This describes an elaborate diction and an element of Hispano-Catholic grotesquerie acknowledged in one of the poems as ‘after Richard Crashaw’.
John Wilkinson’s poems are intellectually ambitious, but this description of Contrivances does not convey how directly involving they can be. This may be due in part to a unusual cadence which is at once absolutely urgent and reflexively hanging. Contrivances may be his most demanding book, but it has much to offer the unfamiliar reader.
‘On ‘Effigies Against the Light’: “This book by one of the most intellectually demanding and politically engaged of contemporary English poets, suggests that the differences between some versions of modernism and postmodernism might be nil. The political content of Wilkinson’s work distinguishes it from the xenophobic high modernism of the English tradition. The section “Chalone” at the start of the book begins with an examination of the continuing legacy of the plantation system; where some moderns mourn the coming of modernity, Wilkinson (in “Reserved”) admonishes us to “watch things spring apart, &/ know with a blank chill/ they ought to.” Yet Wilkinson also refuses a reactionary postmodernism that simply spits capital’s fetishes back at it: “Here is amber, here is pitch to smear your arms, salve lips,/ tallow to stuff resounding ears. You stand like flypaper./ You hold a trowel & with it you daub every lost saying.” Though bombarded, linguistically and otherwise, Wilkinson’s speaker continues to self-construct, rather than destruct.”’ —Publishers Weekly
‘On ‘Effigies Against the Light’ “The speed of this writing, its kinetic movement “like a run-time virus”, derives from the extraordinary scope of its inclusions. This is not the low-risk inclusiveness of semiotic playtime, but the propagation of strings of significance among the resistant data of moment and location. Difficult of access, but no less difficult of egress, the poetry in this volume makes unflinching demands on the reader, demands that repay slowly but in abundance. Reader, I was crushed and exhilarated.”’ —Jeremy Green, Chicago Review
‘On ‘Effigies Against the Light’: “Some of Wilkinson’s poems still seem to me like white noise, like information rapidly and promiscuously flooding my attention; but I do not believe that they will necessarily continue to. Others do offer me precisely that sense of the bearing, the bearable and the beautiful; and although, for good reasons, that state is almost untranscribable, and not automatically reproducible in identical fashion for every reader, it is something one looks for in art, and is privileged to encounter.”’ —Robert Potts, The Guardian