One could call it Middle America, the Heartland, Jesusland, or any number of other monikers ranging from pejorative to complimentary. Caki Wilkinson lands on the politicized “flyover” country, which she uses as the backdrop and central character of her third collection, The Survival Expo. Wilkinson, a Tennessee native, writes about her home with a fluid nuance as the speaker navigates her return to the region, and the echoing remembrance of it in an elusive before.
In the first poems of the collection, the speaker is placed within the context of remembering: high school basketball games, hazy backyard parties, and Hope—a scrappy and loveable cousin. Here Wilkinson’s focus on sound is striking—from the “popping purple gum” in “Jocks” to the “thongs and bong hits” in “Rite Performed with the Aid of High School Exes,” Wilkinson creates a snappy and audible memory. Wilkinson’s ability to imbue poems with rhyme and rhythm is equally noteworthy in producing a sense of musicality and life, even when conjuring events so distant from the speaker’s present. This can be seen in “When We Were the Queen,” where Wilkinson’s speaker punctuates memories with full-bodied rhythm:
Wherever we went,
we sexted shepherds.
We hedged the best bets.
We pretended well
when we felt regret.
Wilkinson doesn’t shy away from the emotional aspects of memory either—she embraces them fully, acknowledging both excitement and frustration in a quirky and understated way. In “Hope and Neoliberalism,” the speaker, with an edge of disillusionment, writes “While I was reading Mary Wollstonecraft, Hope picked up shifts at / Wendy’s.” Though the poem is not boiling over with lamentation, the subtle tonal shift here betrays a central thematic point: opportunity is not always kind to women. While the speaker may have escaped the pull of gendered expectations within her community in order to pursue the gendered expectations of formal academia, Hope, an equally endearing character within the same sociopolitical circumstances, has not. Despite the quiet rage of gendered norms in these poems, Wilkinson refrains from either disparaging her community or defending it completely. Instead, she mythologizes her home state, and to a larger extent the South, in what ultimately becomes a map, a love letter, and an apology. Instead of a direct line from memory to the present as in earlier poems within the book, the speaker moves toward a continuum between past and present, blending them together into a multidimensional whole.
A key feature of this shift is the use of anagrams, something Wilkinson masterfully employs as a method of understanding and reframing social conditions. While it may be easy for readers to define the South in shallow terms, Wilkinson actively combats that through subversion and rewritings. The collection features a series of poems about oracles in which Wilkinson employs a form of single anagrams reshuffled in every line. In changing the grammar of poetic forms, she also changes the key by which we understand the South, subverting our expectations and recontextualizing her home. This series, too, allows us to share in the magic of language and what it reveals to us. Through the shifting landscape of form, these poems act as oracles that speak to us directly, revealing complex messages about the nature of home and memory. These fortunes feel most salient in “43 Sonnet,” in which Wilkinson uses anagrams of the first line of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” to explore the memory of a relationship:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. autonomy 2. elective howl 3. showed teeth
Ultimately, The Survival Expo is an attempt to grapple with where one is and where one thought they’d be. In “Animal Husbandry,” one of the final poems in the collection, we see a glimpse of possibility as Wilkinson writes:
but this is why I haven’t given up
on reading the book, in case it sheds some light
on the sort of person I could still become
in the space I’ve made, with a little care.
There is not a simple resolution to this story—the speaker does not find a method by which to escape the world’s power structures or a way to create a unified schema of her home. Instead, with the awareness of her ever-evolving memory, she survives in the most honest sense, resting in the basin between many worlds.
About the Reviewer
Kate Wilson is the managing editor of TERSE. Journal, an interview correspondent with Half Mystic, and an assistant editor with Alien Magazine. Their work can be found at Entropy, Poets.org, and Parentheses Journal, among others. They cannot do a somersault, but they can be found online here.