reviewed by Charles Whalley
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, archaeological:
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):
Brum 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 today’s 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 deadCharles 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.