Les Wicks’ fifteenth collection Belief dives into what belief might be, and how to attach a positive value to beliefs. Why is it that with all the
knowledge available so many of us cannot act for the good of the planet, or even for the good of ourselves? But readers won’t find
definitive answers or ideological solutions here. The book is not cynical, rather it is sceptical in the philosophical sense that
knowledge is uncertain, especially the knowledge the body and desire carries with it.
This is a timely volume in the age of Facebook, fake news, and the rise of new right polemics. Certain belief is needed more than ever, if only to test the lies of tribalism against questions about the ethics of action, of going or not going to war for example. We are warned of the danger of cynical inaction and indifference. Belief is needed to transcend pointless anxiety.
Stop the fretting fight the war.
We repeatedly pick them up, those contentions.
I’ve seen bloody words shed over
words, language. There were
prayers vs a poem.
Here, Wicks is clear that any proposition is a language act prone to a very Australian ironic treatment, with a deliberate and playful misuse of
words so that we might reflect on what lies behind these words. For Wicks poetry and prayer are adversarial modes of expression, one versus the
other, but both prayer and poetry can move us, and perhaps compel us to act. Wicks’ anti-lyricism explores dark corners of the self but not for
self-indulgence, but to understand human self-delusion. If a poet can pray it is to no God or idol. Nor does he pray to Mammon. This is why Wicks
can write strong poems like ‘The Euthanasia workshop’, and ‘On Living Tomorrow’. These poems are laments and (again ironic) celebrations of the
Western middle-class with all its delusions — and its inability to reflect when it comes to worldly issues like the war in Syria and refugees.
Wicks’ poetry is both dark and funny in the way it deconstructs and unmasks society’s nonsense. The titles of earlier collections Stories of the feet and Getting By Not Fitting In hint at life as a primary existential condition of survival and alienation. Belief affirms Wicks’ affirmative and resolute atheism but borrows the lenses of Freud and Jung. For Wicks’ human faith and conscience is someone compromised by both capitalism and the organised mass religion is a victim of its own globalised celebrity culture. In a poem Wicks portrays the Dalai Lama (call him “Dal”) and those who participate are offered sponsorships. Wicks portrays a successful upwardly mobile friend who chases prizes and has
money plus a social conscience
which sits pristinely unused in her drawer
For readers committed to it the book shows that capitalism is really steeped in ecobabble — markets, sponsorship, shares, negotiation, and
“Money gets orchestral” and “Nothing is too much when it comes to GDP” (‘All about Accounting’). Not that Wicks can offer an alternative, which is
why these poems are essentially anti-lyrical. They offer no dreams of escape, though they console.
Belief is divided into parts with loosely thematic unity, for example “Territory” contains poems about war and conquest; “Wastage” concerns ecology, the economics of Consumption, and the death of friends. Many of the best poems are micro-narratives, and portraits — my favourites include ‘Wind Instruments’, a dramatic monologue in the character of a has-been celebrity musician. Another funny poem is spoken from beyond the grave, from a commodified and anodyne version of Heaven, where a couple get to choose their own TV programs, and for most it’s “more Serepax than seraphim” (‘Big Dig Gig — Live to Air’). Some poems verge on being grimly unsentimental, but movingly, and many of the portraits are affectionate tributes to dying contemporaries whom the poet partied with in his youth. Perhaps it is the reality of approaching late middle age that compels poets to write more often about illness, suffering and death. Certainly, there are excellent poems about childhood, and schooldays, but rather than nostalgia, these poems are acutely observed. Having had himself a life that began in Sydney’s less privileged Western suburbs, a life that hasn’t been a cakewalk, Wicks has the ability to describe and to elegise difficult circumstances. But because his eye is withering and direct, Wicks gives his subjects a dignity and specificity that many a contemporary Australian novelist would envy.
Given Wicks’ disinterest in narrative or poetic formality and ambition to describe “the noise of life” I found myself wondering at times what some of the longer poems were focussed on — certainly not ‘a message or a homily’. The best long narrative is actually told in reverse chronology, and concerns a girl killed in a hit-and-run on the Pacific Highway. Holding the poem together is the girl’s white tennis shoe, which becomes the centre of interest for a spider, a dog, and a young bored boy passing by in his mother’s car. The final dramatic monologue section captures the voice of a truly damaged young driver, and offers some sympathy, but avoids didacticism.
But I realise that my own lingering nostalgia for beautiful ‘form’ or orderliness is irrelevant to Wicks’ aesthetic. As a previous reviewer noted, Wicks’ style serves content. Another successful long poem is ‘Pillars’, a series of allegorical monologues in the character of a navigator, a merchant, the mother of nations etc. Each figure is a postcolonial giant, complicit in war, conquest, slavery and capitalism. The “Mother of nations” declares:
Having invaded the temples
found just money.
Slaves worked meticulously on the tapestries,
though in the end the concept of liberty
was the proposition that put out their eyes.
If not funny, and very acerbic most of the time Wicks can sound slightly bitter:
We’re all meat in the herd
driven to market
stinking of shit & optimism.
(‘From the Academy’)
But the collection addresses this reflexively and gestures towards the ways negative emotions might be held at bay if the poem achieves a certain
detachment from the subject. The overall effect the poems achieve is a state of Nothingness with the poet holding to a negative capability by
perceiving the world at a distance.
The style is most impactful in live readings, and Wicks’ rhythmic assertions add to the effect of a strong voice:
Not much happens quickly,
there’s a gradual escalation.
the snake will avoid.
fingers can’t be still.
The snake will arch, But we’re all hardwired
to poke, inquisitive.
the snake will nip.
Wick’s poems can never be said to conform to any generic expectations. With poetry serving as a vehicle for reflection on the nature of human self-belief, the belief in ‘soul’, insight, and self-awareness, Wicks quotes science in conditionality and contradiction. In a fascinating poem about the neuroscience behind belief and impulse , Wicks’ demonstrates a favourite rhetorical operation: paradox or self-refutation.
We’re mostly lethal to ourselves
our old & damaged, new & selected.
… certainty is a kind of lunacy
(‘The Compassion, Rut & Self Proposition’)
So the damage is done, but the poetry is in some way consoling, as damage is balanced by creativity. It is the ability to hold these contradictions in dynamic balance that has served Wicks so well in his exceptionally productive writing career.
Adam Aitken is a London-born teacher and writer who migrated to Sydney after spending his early childhood in Thailand and Malaysia.
He has published five full length collections of poetry: In One House, nominated in the Australian as one of the best poetry
1996; Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles shortlisted for the John Bray South Australian Literary Festival Award, and runner-up for The Age Book
of the Year poetry prize; Eighth Habitation (Giramondo Publishing) shortlisted for the same award in 2010, and most recently Archipelago,
shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Award for 2018.
His writing shows a deep interest in contemporary cultural issues, especially issues of Asian-Australian identity and cultural hybridity. His work has been translated into French, Swedish, German, Polish, Malay and Mandarin, and is published internationally. In 2010-11 he spent time as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Hawaii, and Poet in Residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris. He co-edited the Contemporary Asian Australian Poets anthology (Puncher & Wattmann) in 2013. His creative non-fiction work includes One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Press 2016).