Reviewed By Mollye Miller Shehadeh
- Black Ocean (2017)
- 72 pages
Meadow Slasher begins as a book about a vagrant with questionable motives and turns into a meditative book about an artist questioning his responsibility to edit. “Slasher” in Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s title refers both to “editor” and “criminal,” maybe the most violent among us.
The title and subject matter also harken back to seventeenth century lyric poet Andrew Marvell’s series of pastoral poems on mowers. One such poem, “The Mower’s Song,” reveals a character who, as he mows the grass and pines for a lover, draws himself into the landscape, repeating the refrain, “What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me.” Basically, Marvell questions how what he’s doing (cutting, trimming, slashing) is also what his thoughts do to him: cut him down to size, shred him, make him other than what he really is.
The experience of reading this book, of going on this weird little journey with a stranger, feels illicit, like it should not be done. If this man is a murderer, a rapist, a pedophile, a violent predator of any type, by letting him walk down the street unquestioned, are we somehow complicit? Am I (are we) an accomplice to his crime? Wilkinson’s drug-addicted stranger narrates an odyssey through American cities and college towns. We learn about him through his brief and busy glances at suburbia. In the opening poem, he describes his condition:
In my underwear & slippers with just my dog in the street.
Wilkinson lays in more bizarre details and ingredients to the scene, like adding sawdust and coffee grounds on top of an otherwise edible fudge sundae:
I want to get under the empty tables
of the sorority house dining room & huff on some sterno cans
til my head throbs like a stream.
This is not your suburban neighbor out to walk the family dog. This stranger, whoever and however he is, is a drug addict, probably not where he is supposed to be, naked outside of a sorority house. While I don’t care yet about the character—Wilkinson has not developed him in any real emotional way—I notice that I wonder about this stranger. That stimulation of wonder seems intentional by the author, and close to home. Is this stranger someone I know? Is he a predator? prey? Is he an unhinged version of me, or you?
This curiosity defines Wilkinson’s artistry: the poet doesn’t hand us facts. Instead, Wilkinson describes the stranger through the locations he is in, and the way he chooses to describe his world. Here, as the stranger continues walking his dog at night, he paints a picture of himself, a kind of self-portrait under the stars:
some stalled junky in the evening summer
alight under factory lamp blossoms?
These cryptic-romantic lines mimic the strained inner life of the speaker. By choosing to describe the streetlights above him as “lamp blossoms,” Wilkinson wants readers to see that this guy isn’t just creative, but is actually losing touch with reality. Is what seems real all a trick, a factory-made existence? We also learn the stranger is some kind of writer. He begins to talk to himself like an editor:
How much noise did you take in?
I crossed out so much there’s
little left to work through
With this admission, the reader sees the stranger is undergoing a kind of metamorphosis in the form of a relentless editing session. He’s taking in the “noise” of the world—what he hears, sees, tastes, feels, touches—but he slashes every experience away from him to isolate himself. The author-editor here becomes an enemy. As he cuts out all the BS, what’s really left?
It sounds often in Meadow Slasher as if the poet is describing a man with multiple personality disorder. On a few occasions, the man talks to himself as a counselor. When an event or interaction is confusing or confounding, he expands himself, like a fan, to defend against a predator, whether that predator is himself or not. He asks:
What if you don’t ever slow down now?
You ruin out all the directions.
That sounds serious.
It’s serious, pal.
I love the use of “ruin” as a verb here. And overall, these lines—and voice-parts in general—have a John Berryman-like and Pyschomachia (war of the soul) sound to them. It’s interesting how Wilkinson’s narrator seems at odds with himself, just as Mr. Bones, a friend and kind of inner-character in Berryman’s The Dream Songs, defies and defines Henry, the main character—“Listen, for poets are feigned to lie, and I / For you a liar am a thousand times.”
But moments of honest self-reflection and boundless thought like this grab me just as much:
Each squashed cat or skunk on the interstate I see
I think, what’s before us is already done getting itself here, right?
This flavor of nihilism is crucial to Meadow Slasher’s logic and the character we are learning about. Isn’t nihilism, or a rampant disregard for human life, whether yours or another’s, the thread connecting all violent criminals? It’s appropriate given the stranger’s detachment from reality and what’s around him:
How like a bulb of cold glass
you snapped off into the muck.
You thought your soul careened
You thought so?
This poem is gorgeous. It’s also one of the few that I think can stand alone without the “story” of the book. What causes a person to ask riddles instead of questions? Later the man asks, “What’s pleasure but a wilted drifting toward excess.” This beautiful question sinks in your stomach. And without even gracing us with a question mark, it defends itself as a statement more than an inquiry.
Mollye Miller Shehadeh is a poet and photographer. Her poems appear in Prelude, Paperbag, and Stop Sharpening Your Knives (S/S/Y/K). She lives in Baltimore. instagram.mollyemiller11/ mollyemiller.com