Sea of Heartbeak by Les Wicks reviewed by John Upton
by Les Wicks
Reviewed by JOHN UPTON
Before you open Les Wick’s latest collection he’s already playing with your eye and your mind: the title is a joke and an admonition: it’s “Sea of Heartbeak”, not “Heartbreak”. A sentimental cliché becomes a warning – take nothing for granted.
Inside is much serious intent and more jokes, but the most immediate feature is Wick’s striking poetic technique, developed over 35 years of publication. Consider this:
Feed the stairs
roll the corridors like
your last smoke at this edge of lamps. Someone chose
this wacky orange for the waiting room.
An “array” of tests (military language).
Cancer is coming. Cancer has gone.
Moles bloom on atom geography.
Amidst a darkling fever
Double barrage, his cinched levis.
Our bones aren’t a cage.
these constructs our words have mortared-in around
the pledge of mortality.
No-one would vote for this
but it’s ours.
A visit to a doctor’s busy waiting room is deconstructed and re-cut, slightly askew, so that we remain aware of the elements as well as the divinity of the whole. Wicks’s obliqueness makes us search for meaning. (Though one must admit this chopped reality sacrifices the elegance and sensuality of a long, voluptuous line).
Wicks’s style loves a different image in each line:
Silver whistles slept.
Trains had abandoned
that brittle underlife.
In the empty waft of untapped electricity
he was somewhere up the way
in my plastic-bucket-blue uniform
(‘The Hinge’ 13)
This is the opening of the third poem in the book – the situation is set rapidly, there’s dramatic involvement for the reader, but each line is a separate idea, its build is subtle. An employee in the railway underground, perhaps Wicks, is sent to find a vagrant sheltering in a tunnel. A common situation made uncommon by the illuminations. This poem is a long narrative, unique in this collection, and it catches another important element in Wicks’s work – his sympathy for those marginalised and fighting for urban survival. Sympathy for the dispossessed links arms with his suspicious disrespect for authority, the same disrespect captured by his aggressive, choppy style that jiggles your elbow for attention. His poetic is personal but manages to wear its heart on its sleeve without being mawkish about it. Towards the end of “The Hinge”, the narrator finds the NFP (someone with No Fixed Place of abode) and brings him back to the railway office, where the police are called:
He was put
down on a stalwart vinyl chair at the security office,
a bent & filthy hope. The police
smashed his head
into a matching grey desk.
All our days are numbered
moral failure impotent vicinities.
Rills of snot,
NFP leaked scared & crying –
the constables thought they had a simple solution,
No point laying charges with fuckin’ NFPs
YOU will never (bash)
come to Central (bash)
Another moment caromed past,
into the linger of weight
like stone above air, late shift lives on lines.
Still or in flail,
our culpable hands.
(‘The Hinge’ p 16-17)
Violence occurs elsewhere in the collection, but it’s never as explicit as here. That exploration is of a different kind – of perception and reality, of morality, of the emotions. The world is glimpsed in vivid flashes, sometimes from lightning at night, sometimes from passing cars, or in glimpses in harsh daylight from the corner of an eye. The flashes are then edited into sequences that are sharp but puzzling, familiar and yet disturbing, dramatic but amusing:
Leaving the apartment block, note
Barry has a buzz on, a brim.
He sings & howls seamlessly. Down the street
a couple whisper like wire brushes, their love is a nail.
Later, on the train two troubled blondes
from a wooden part of town
exhaust what credit they have on the phone.
Some graffiti – Acpopulus Later. Yesterday, I was served by an assistant
in Islamic scarf & Santa hat. I fit in here,
this country when it works … no worries.
At Rockdale the promissory Black Garter Escorts
sits patiently beside White Lady Funerals.
(‘The Necropolitan’ 18)
Wicks works his ideas through images rather than argument. The poems are visceral; each shaped towards an emotional experience. As a technique for examining history, society and art, postmodernism excels; as a form to illuminate feelings and experience, it can drain the essence if poorly applied. Wicks understands that.
A different aspect of his work is his attitude to words. He’s as exuberant as James Joyce with a spray can and a wall. He plays the punster funster, having a ball: “we are a crowd of trees, awestruck / a crowd of fleas, hungry fleeing / crowd of pleas, more”; “eulogies of eucalyptus”, “lantana manana”, “plucked the snake out of sass”, “suit yourself or suture yourself”, “sprinkle wrinkles”, “[a cop] blocky blond and aerated with action”. His titles include ‘Magic Nihilism’ & ‘The Problem of Splendour’, ‘The Necropolitan’, ‘On The Nature Of Wickedness And Plums’, ‘Ted Near Dead & the New Lyricism’, ‘Flotsam Ahoy’. He’s like a biblical prophet caught doing stand-up, who can’t believe his luck.
But mostly his eye is quick and exact:
The desert wind wears a blunt dust
from the deaths
of the snub-nosed Silverton buses all
cut like raw opal
pressed into a humiliating servitude
windbreaks for camels.
Punctuation of crows
affixed on air.
(‘Aeolus at the Mulga’ 49)
One reason his postmodern re-cutting works is because Wicks does a neat line in aphorisms. They’re scattered throughout the poems, but in “Secret Saids – Everything I Know” he piles up three pages of them, heaped like strawberries: “Certainty is fickle”, “Your dreams will wake you up”, “One can find truth in a bottle / but the light’s a bit distorted”, “Money isn’t everyone”, and my own reflexive favourite, “Nothing belongs to us all”.
Wicks has an aggressive and striking technique but what, ultimately, is he on about? Well, can you evangelize secular humanism? Wicks believes so. But he implies rather than lectures, his vision accretes through poems and instances, in nourished glimpses rather than a steady stare. And though the tone is knowing, cool, a bit sad, it’s also alert to fecundity and wonder. World-weariness is still a few drinks away.
Usually, though, wonder is understated – ecstasy isn’t cool in these back streets and corner pubs so the verse doesn’t soar –as, say, Murray can – but prefers its urban irony.
Wit is on the prowl, however, and can be warm, sly and cheeky or savage and judgmental: an evening railway station with “scratchy girl-less gangs / with all the hate that Saturday / had thrown up all / over their denims” (‘The Hinge’ 13)
Although the voice is vernacular, the intention is literary, sometimes mysterious and deliberately difficult. ‘Healed and Hurt’ opens:
I blame you and the island. There’s an electronica,
that I wear like a lei. Feint complaint
from our hearts, all the uniforms are bleached.
Wearing tinnitus “like a lei “ is good, but I don’t know what the rest means. Which island? “Feint complaint”? Over-compression can reduce a poem’s impact, like a clarinet heard at a distance, where the melodic line comes only in phrases.
For the most part, though, exuberance and wisdom shine through, as in this celebration of the annual migration of bogong moths:
Small deaths serve simply to mark the way
another diaspora pit stop
on this acne-string of peopled coast.
Bogongs are fooled by trashy suns that humans make;
our floodlit, foodless acres of town.
But they leave this bleak cover
the lightstained indigo of evening.
Throughout this book, a sharp poetic eye works with practised skill to celebrate newness in the everyday.
JOHN UPTON’s poetry has been published in SMH, The Australian, Canberra Times, Quadrant, Cordite, Best Australian Poems 2014 and many other literary magazines and anthologies. He has had five stage plays produced and has written for more than 20 television drama series. His political comedy Machiavelli won the Australian Writers Guild’s award for Best New Play.