June 15, 2012

Andrew Purcell Reviews Caki Wilkinson's Circles Where the Head Should Be


I first encountered Caki Wilkinson's work in The Atlantic, which awarded her poem “Bower Bird” the first prize in poetry for their 2007 Student Writing Contest. Her insouciant rhymes, deftly jounced meter, and sure but playful command of diction leave the reader craving more of Wilkinson's work, but those left voraciously wanting had to be content to track down poems and online recordings.

That was until the recent release of her first book, Circles Where the Head Should Be, winner of the Vassar Miller prize in poetry out of the University of North Texas, itself a somewhat unexpected font of wonderful poets. Blurbed by MacArthur Fellow A.E. Stallings, who rightly praises Wilkinson's virtuosity, Circles Where the Head Should Be showcases the aesthetics of constraint, favoring constriction over release, poise over flow, the self-correcting over the self-obsessing.

Few living poets, aside from Stallings, possess such undeniable fluency in combining the mind and its sometimes staccato turns of thought with rhyme, meter, and clever turns of phrase. Wilkinson nods toward classical ambition, opening with a poem entitled “Cosmogony,” which, in a cute (if we can set aside any of that word's dismissive connotations) yet remarkably agile way imagines the first cause as a cat setting the world, a ball of yarn, in motion. This is no internet meme cat, however, nor the spinster poet's cat; rather, she evokes the cat's deeper, truer nature, an animal quite at ease with mischief-making gods.

In “Lares and Penates,” Wilkinson demonstrates her familiarity, her comfort with the classical realm, while buffing away any trace of stuffiness normally tarnishing such approaches. Her humor, a universal solvent, leaves behind a brilliant shine, and her double-jointed tropes transcend amusement to showcase something absent in much contemporary poetry – true wit:

     Still, every spring our porches spawn
       insects we can't identify
       and ferns turn freeze-dried octopi.
       They spill into the arid lawn
       with diasporic fliers, clover
           and choirs of woebegone

       house sparrows whose incessant cheeping
       recalls the gloomy Ubi sunt,
       our soundtrack to the nightly hunt
       for whatever is downstairs, beeping.
       (As if the sleepless needed some
           reminder they're not sleeping.)

But the greatest degree of emotional movement, the plushest pathos occurs in “The School By the Zoo,” a sixteen-part poem, rich in genuine self-effacement that drills into the halting action of the mind with an Audenesque precision.

           ––her mind
       racing to keep her place–– works constantly,
       fidgets, deletes, and realigns, resigned
       to making notes for notes she ought to keep;

Somehow, though writing about collegiate life, the alchemy of Wilkinson's masterful end couplets elevates her material above the banal. The extreme compression and the clever overlaying of the lofty and the lowly can perhaps best be seen in the poem's eighth section, “The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead,” where the closing couplet reads:

     So locomotion's neither here nor there:
       the axis mundi is her rolling chair.

The intelligence underlying Wilkinson's poems is as inviting as it is undeniable, compared, for example, to the unapproachable pretense of Ben Lerner's boisterous braininess. It is her restraint, often most obvious in staccato, two-word phrases like punctuation marks, that is most arresting. Reinforced by the strictures of meter and often rhyme, her mind pulls against that “silk-ribbon bondage” as A.E. Stallings refers to it, the tension arising as a palpable and satisfying sensation.

Wilkinson reaches her peak when she addresses the bathetically domestic in the face of a muted but all-enshrouding aether of mortality, similar in this regard to Larkin, Levis, or Hecht if he’d loosen his tie. From the sleight of hand in “Svengali Deck,” where a parlor trick motif disguises brilliant ars poetica, to the more straightforward but no less devastating “Assisted Living,” superb aural composition and readily comprehensible (yet hardly obvious) mental leaps make for a book of poems you'll likely find yourself wanting to read aloud to a friend.

Some may find the poise behind these poems too artificial for their tastes and the degree of construction, along with the plethora of Latin phrases, too intellectually indulgent. But compared to the overabundance of workshop poetry – poems that demonstrate safely competent aesthetics married to flat, predictable, and substance-free material – Wilkinson offers the musings of a vigorous, thoughtful mind captured and displayed through a kind of formalism that is clearly looking forward, not back.

Reviewed by Andrew Purcell

Circles Where the Head Should Be by Caki Wilkinson
University of North Texas Press, 2011

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