Swamp Isthmus by Joshua Marie Wilkinson

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What is it like to read Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s poetry?

It is like being caught in a flash mob of fine language and finding yourself swaying along. It is like twisting a kaleidoscope and watching the images swirl together, then split apart with deliberate and deceptive grace. It is the way I imagine it would be if I found myself suddenly lodged inside a snow globe, just as some gentle hand begins to tilt it upside down, and then all at once it is snowing, and the whole familiar world is made strange again—unsettled, unhinged, and perceptibly more beguiling.

I have been reading Wilkinson’s work with great interest and admiration since lug your careless body out of the careful dusk won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2006. Wilkinson went on to publish The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth (2009) and Selenography (2010), both of which extend his meditations on the nature of movement and light. His poems are epistemological inquiries and epiphanies presented in fractured, lyric form. And what better way to convey how little we actually know than to accentuate the absence of a more comprehensive knowing. Instead of long lines or dense blocks of text, Wilkinson’s poems in his latest collection, Swamp Isthmus mirror the way our knowledge actually grows—in tiny fragments, in bright, rare bursts of enlightenment.

He tells us,
what’s known
fits into a single post office
in the heart of a small city

What to make of so much uncertainty? Clearly, for this poet, the answer is rooted in the very word poiesis, the making of poems that reckon with and embody our uncertainties, the fraught relationship of the human being to time, matter, memory, and the larger world.

we stand in
for the moon

this collection begins, and already we are metonym. We represent other things more easily perhaps than we can present ourselves. We exist as

diacritical marks
cleaved off from
any history

and thus history sticks like a record needle, destined to repeat itself.


what we are
forbidden from

startles the fence

Fence-straddlers full of longing we are, every one of us, grappling with the binaries that separate us from others and divide us against ourselves. The grass on this side looks greener, then that side, then this…

Tell me, who hasn’t been here, in the existential lonely, the existential regret?

I can’t keep

without knowing
what exactly for

Yet, at the same time, the blame juxtaposed:

saying we’re not sorry
it had to be exacted this way

To be human is to be torn between a notion of free will and a notion of fate—how much agency do we actually have over what may happen, how much culpability for what actually does? Perhaps as a precaution

we copy out a long apology on
paper towels from a latrine

as the sky marks a truce
with its soft insides

To be human is

knowing I keep
asking the dead
the wrong set of questions

but not knowing what the right questions are.

another code fathoms forth

Joshua Marie WilkinsonThese poems are not the decoder ring; they are the magnifying lens that helps us examine the code more closely.

To be human is to belong to a school of

unschooled truants

singing choruses
sitting their own exams

It is to be

as superfluous chatter
with coins heavy over the eyes

We don’t see clearly, and what we say is often not what we mean. For instance:

I talk too long on the message machine
[and] forget what I really wanted to say.

Wilkinson observes,

truants do their listening
through the pads of their feet

Think of the ways we are always moving, perhaps most often to distract ourselves.

He posits, in the book’s lone prescriptive phrase,

we should learn to listen
with the palms of our hands.

I hear in this line a return to the “making” that is the root of poem, a call to our most diligent engagement with our senses.

There is so much light in this book, so much questing after illumination. I love in particular the image of our speaker holding [his] cell phone as a lantern as he travels through the dark.

There is wariness, too, of misleading light,

gimmicky light

footpaths marked by
false stars

But there is not much about swamps, or isthmuses for that matter, only this:

between swamps crossed

to pikes
as if on an isthmus

It strikes me that the pithy poems-within-poems-within-poems that comprise this collection likewise comprise the metaphorical isthmus Wilkinson evokes here: “as if on an isthmus,” he writes.

The swamp of uncertainty surrounds us. It is low-lying, uncultivated ground overwhelmed with water. Perhaps we are treading through the swamp with our tall boots on, our hats with the mosquito veils pulled down.

Or perhaps, more likely, we are the swamp, the way we are so often swamped, deluged by our own biases and emotions, our own rapacious desires and needs. Perhaps Wilkinson is showing us that art is the only narrow strip of land that can save us. Art is the only isthmus out.

I read his poems. I listen as he tells me a “little story/ with no yarn/ no doorknob.” And I believe him.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →