Carol Jenkins reviews Getting By Not Fitting In by Les Wicks
Getting By Not Fitting In
by Les Wicks
Reviewed by CAROL JENKINS
Getting By Not Fitting In is Les Wick’s thirteenth book. As someone who has arrived at poetry latish, thirteen seems a lot of books. What would one have left to say? Plenty it seems. I came to Getting By Not Fitting In, after reading Sea of Heartbreak (Unexpected Resilience)(Puncher & Wattmann, —a good place for readers new to Wick’s work start. Getting By Not Fitting In (GBNFI) possesses the same Wickensian kaleidoscopic concision, wit and dexterity as Sea of Heartbreak. There is something Ginsberg-esque about Wick’s range and anti-hero stance, his keen eye for the cultural milieu, we have the Golden Age of Sydney Pub Music instead of The Beats, but without Ginsberg’s grandiosity and neurotica.
The collection is set out in seven thematic sections; the first two look at men and woman in general, and the next two others take up the themes of their namesakes’ Narrative and Location, the following two parts build portraits of the characters Matt Kovacs and Tess Manning, and the last section, ‘What Ends’ forms a coda.
There is a gritty piquancy in Getting By Not Fitting In. Wicks has a keen eye for how society bends people into and out of shape. The title suggests a study of those living on the margins, but in Getting By the marginalised become the mass market—a phenomena we have seen play out in the USA with Trump’s triumph in selling snake oil to the disenfranchised. We find the mass market, and the masses, messy as they are, concern Wicks, in general and in particular. His poem a ‘Brief History of the Mass Market’, is pulled into focus by the mass media — movies, TV sitcoms and Facebook, as the poem skips from Annie Oakley, through Glen Miller and comes around to the FBI it is constantly nearly making an argument. On one level it is seems lucid but on another just beyond coherence, and so works to deliver a symptom as well as a synopsis, he seems to be saying, take this dose of not-quite confusion, not-quite denouement, our cultural chaos.
Amongst the tea candle economics in the first section ‘The Company of Women’ there is an unsettling sense of living in housing commission high rise on benefits, even when the poem is located in suburban garden, as in ‘Suburban Fabric’ where the characters are scrapping by, even the social-worker downwardly mobile. All this makes for a disturbingly real atmosphere. For those in government that argue we are a classless society Getting By Not Fitting In would a salutary read, showing us as all the greasy perplexities of a society that accepts or ignores those whose lives teeter into poverty.
Something similarly disarming happens when Wicks re-jigs the common slang. He has a penchant for reversals, ‘dodo as dead hill of the king’ in ‘A Staunch Life in Common Sense’ The reframing leaves the reader acutely adrift in the every day language of ‘Common Sense’ where the protagonist’s easy shortcuts act as a kind of social anesthetic— a Novocain for the relationships that a certain type of men have with society. The witty reversals of sets, ‘chicken gum and chewing wire’ gives a visceral churn, a nearly queasy undoing of language that supplies an air of surrealism to what might be a study for a character in an Australian version of BBC TV series ‘Shameless’.
Location brings us Sydney in spades, the kind you might dig a grave for your dog with. Wick is an aficionado of the multi-use homophonic sequence, ‘Oatley Pleasure Ground’ we progress through, leaden, leading, led a little further on to the laconic turn of ‘a new toilet block—/strident stainless steel like Soviet dentistry’.
‘Oatley’, is too clear-eyed to be nostalgic. While the title gives you its temporal setting, so we settle acutely into the park alongside the St Georges river. While Oatley was not one of my youthful haunts, it could easily be Woy Woy or Ettalong, with its sunburnt lawns and inadequate trees, and of course that telling toilet block. I came back to the Soviet dentistry simile a number of times when I read and reread this poem — like a wobbly tooth you can’t stop wriggling— there is a jab of painful accuracy to it, a stab of recognition, which strangely gives an odd sense of ownership to this piece of Oatley though I’ve never been there, and the poem is an invitation not to, but I might as well have been there, so closely does it evoke its period and hanging out at the beach or waterfront. As with many of these poems, we are connected, and, as he counsels on the final page of Getting By Not Fitting In, that interlocking might just be the point.
In ‘The Sydney Problem’ Wicks tweaks the old Tinsel Town tag to Trinket Town, while skewering our collective lack of determination to preserve ‘historic clutter’ — the deprecation of history to clutter, suggesting both an authorial complicity and culpability in this problem, and so deftly avoiding what is one of the most annoying postures in contemporary poetry, ‘eco-piety’, to steal Peter Kirkpatrick’s elegantly coined term, though here it the subgenre ‘preservo-piety’ would be more accurate.
In the fifth and sixth sections we find first Matt Kovacs and then Tess Manning, two people in overlapping stages of drug fueled downward spirals, each new opportunity a new chance to demonstrate their penchant for destruction. These two parts and final coda might be a crazy storyboard for a TV series, Wicks’ writing here is filmic, an evocation of place and mood. These sections work something like a mini-verse novel and there is drive to the storyline that is more top-less grunge than bodice ripper. When we get to the seventh part , ‘The Sixth Intersection’, where Matt and Tess, our characters, briefly intersect, both asking the other ‘Are you happy?’ and go their ways, leaving us to ours, and giving us something substantial to ponder.
CAROL JENKINS is an Australian writer and publisher. She lives with her family in Sydney, near Balmoral Beach. Coming to poetry from a career in chemical regulation, her first poem was published in 2004. She has two collections of poetry Fishing in the Devonian (2008) and Xn, 2013 both from Puncher & Wattman. Her most recent book and silliest book is Select Episodes from the Mr Farmhand Series. In 2007 Carol launched River Road Press, which has recorded and published 21 audio CDs of Australian poets. She has a blog Show Me The Treasure (www.showmethetreasure.blogspot.com.au