“Wynona Stone is having trouble broaching. / She’d hoped to float. A stiff swig usually / appeases. Not today, though, nosireee,” Caki Wilkinson describes the title character from her new collection, The Wynona Stone Poems, winner of the 2013 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books. In poems that phantasmagorically imagine, then reimagine, Wynona’s plausibly mundane existence in the fictional town of Pleasant Bluff (not unlike, conceivably, the New Carthage of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl), Wilkinson has accomplished one of the most innovative collections I have read in years.
Though Wynona muses on her memories as perhaps just “surface, surface, surface,” Wilkinson has taken those bound here — of the domestic and suburban, of anxiety and apathy and appropriately, rebirth — and recast them as quiet epiphany. In “Set Plays,” we find a young Wynona on both her school’s basketball team and the precipice of some greater revelation: “even Wynona, once so full of drive, / a dynamo before the season tipped / towards loss.” The loss, it seems, is one that faces us all — doubt folded into melancholic resignation — but one that is rarely as well, or as humorously, explicated as it is through Wilkinson’s adroit hand. In “Almighty Vast Etcetera,” Wynona pens an epistle back to the creator:
Envy’s good as gone
for good, and when in doubt I’ve found
examining my cellulite
at night while singing My Sharona
really puts a damper on
the schadenfreude. See? I’ve grown.
______________Lost cause my ass,
Here loss (and humor) exist alongside, or within, mythology, both personal and pop cultural. Wilkinson joins a literary tradition in this melding, reminiscent Wayne Koestenbaum’s essays, but rarely seen, and even less rarely successful, in poetry.
Comparisons of Wilkinson’s Wynona to Berryman’s Henry of The Dream Songs may be obvious. But if Berryman’s Henry is self-loathing, often unbearably so, Wilkinson’s Wynona is self-aware and further, often co-conspirator with readers. In one of the collection’s finest poems, “The Hiatus,” Wilkinson heightens one of our communal senses — the simultaneous frivolousness and necessity of our humanity — to the level of Lacanian symbol theory: “She’d been a noun rehearsing prepositions: / against a cliff, above a line; in planes, / on buses—always pining for the stop.” At a time in American poetry where we are often labeled pretentious, Wilkinson is able to show there is a key difference between pretense and intelligence in poetry, between language that alienates and language which cleverly asks us to think more deeply.
Formal elements, regular rhyme schemes especially, permit, instead of inhibit, this delivery of language which asks us to think more deeply about Wynona’s absurd world of one-sided love affairs with weathermen and museums holding “shark teeth, pearls, a hand-carved marionette, / two breast pumps, and nine rosewood plates—“ in a cabinet where “A placard states / Pretty significant.” Even more astonishingly, the narrative arc of The Wynona Stone Poems accomplishes quite a feat: twinning Wynona’s absurd world with our own, these two worlds much more alike than we may initially think. In a postmodern return to Ginsberg’s neon fruit supermarket full of innumerable enumerations, Wynona explores “the paradox of choice” in her own grocery store:
You can see
why after several minutes making faces
at her reflection in the freezer cases
this afternoon, she simply calls it quits—
to hell with waffles, butter bacon bits—
and drops her basket in the sea of feet
like a bomb or baby. Sure, she needs to eat,
would maybe call for takeout could she spin
the order without going in again.
How refreshing, this, when all of us demand choice, the paradox being choice so often overwhelms and renders us helpless.
Which is not to say Wynona is helpless, and especially not at the fingertips of a poet as masterful as Wilkinson. Sometimes the strength and wisdom of this collection comes in short-lined, hard rhyme, like in “Wynona Makes Like a Tree,” “That is, stays put, / one root per foot, / until, thick-skinned, she sings, / Only a sucker / lets love pluck her.” But often the weight of these poems comes at surprisingly tender moments, when Wynona’s self-(un)-aggrandizing is held at arm’s length. In “Aubade,” Wynona
wishes she could just adjust
the magnitude. But here it is: the world,
flexing its chest, all business, saying Now!
a move two lovers on the other shore
of urgency might manage to ignore.
The soft rhyme of “shore / ignore” couples with the nuanced optimism of lovers one is not apart of, but can imagine, a type of optimism perhaps not apparent, but present nonetheless.
I hope it is not gauche to say, like Wynona herself, these poems undo and redo me. Like now, in the closing lines of “Hibernaculum”—
The rotten weather
is not Wynona’s problem: like a knot,
her heart’s pulled taut inside this self she’s spun,
and, like a knot, what’s holding her together
is the energy she’d need to come undone.
The poem exhibits an acute resignation, perhaps, but if so, it is also resolved to a type of sincerity of being, like Wynona, like the reviewer, like every last one of us, held together through rhyme and meter, through Wilkinson’s attention to detail and ability to weave a world in this collection that is askew from our own, but not unrecognizable. Wynona warns us of “the threat: / becoming extra on a crowded set,” but Caki Wilkinson’s second collection stands out from the crowd, and it is a crowd, of contemporary poetry in poems wildly imaginative, superlatively tailored, and, what a delight one’s poems can do this, genuinely enjoyable.