Dr Fulminare Noctule Bat



Ag & Au
Charlie Wilkinson
Flarestack Poets, £6.50

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reviewed by Charles Whalley

Brummy Jems

The blurb tells us that Charles Wilkinson’s Ag & Au is an “exploration of the history of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter”. Almost every page of the pamphlet is illustrated by a variety of artists using a variety of styles. As with other poets who collaborate with visual artists (such as Chrissy Williams), this works very well. The 16 poems in Ag & Au, nestled amongst their illustrations, typically have short lines with tightly packed syntax, riddling wordplay and restless imagery. To quote an exemplary passage from ‘The Third Footman Leaves’:

opening the shutters
to let in the tall morn-
ing, pace it out, & smile
as if recording, though
an instant & it’s done;
take out My Lady’s Tray:
the same gravitas, open-
in the door; sir-hiss o
how many times a day – His
Lordship always out, he’s
by the herringbone stream
sir: soft sound goes deeper,

These are substantial, difficult poems, great textures of sound, sometimes evocative and sometimes bewildering. The experience of reading them is to sometimes lose the thread; in some I never even pick it up. All poems anticipate their own criticism; Wilkinson’s are determined to elude it, so far estranged from vernacular speech patterns and so involved in the trips and tricks of language as to be irreproachable and self-generative. To give another example, here are a couple of stanzas from ‘A Tray of Gems, Each Stone Reset in Found Material’ (which can be taken to refer to the poem itself):

magen toys,
but also this silver:
delicate sprays & crescents,
fanciful diamond shapes, all of
slender character
jeweller by trade
of St Paul’s & sure
to take part in a touch, rang
muffled bells, memory in
the night air

We are not accustomed to being confounded by the past: it is usually only the present that we suffer as the tortured syntax of poetry, whilst the past is ordered into the calm prose of a history book. To render the past complicated is to thereby make it more current, to remove the distance from which we process it. The formal patterns of Wilkinson’s poems are his attempt to resurrect Birmingham’s past.

In exploring this history, Wilkinson has a time, place and industry to invoke, which provides a lot of raw material. The poems sometimes feel like they are burdened with too much, as the jeweller’s terminology and found quotations can reduce the poems to miscellanies. However, it’s no bad thing for poetry to reach for the scale and breadth that these collages can achieve. The pamphlet’s final poem, ‘Seraph with a Missing Head’, works tremendously, where the graveyard setting underpins the poem’s formal fragmentation and exploration of time and place, history and memory, what has gone before and what remains. For example (without attempting to reproduce the indentation):

the bluebells
wait in the long grass, uneven ground
& beyond the wall, a train
travelling northwards
A Little Bit of Heaven lettered in
white on the carriage, passes these
acres of god once tactfully and
admirably laid out in walks
with ornamental lawns
& shrubberies
, where
Burne-Jones spent many
a fine holiday with his
favourite books
a dark bench from which
to watch the evening fall
later the stars, reseeding thought
in the night the bat’s call

With movement of free association, always coming back to the graveyard in its gentle dusk, the poem provides, at last, some perspective and distance to the local history that the pamphlet is elsewhere resurrecting. It’s a beautiful way to end a pamphlet, closing with:

now this place & sound receding
the vast silence of the Victorian dead

Charles Whalley was born in 1989. He read English at Trinity College, Oxford, and was published in The Mays. He currently works in academic publishing near Oxford and lives in Reading.