Nov 19, 2023 | Reviews

A Review of Time Taken: New and Selected by Les Wicks

Time Taken, the New and Selected Poems of Les Wicks, marks a poetic golden anniversary and samples from some fourteen previous volumes. It is also a highlights reel in the way a Collected Poems is an autobiography. More than these, though, it is a reminder of how pungent, street-smart and inventive his reflections are on the life he has lived and the lives that have milled around him. He is sometimes so whip-smart that he risks but mostly avoids trailing into the smart-arsery of a less empathic writer.

The book is organised thematically, which themes range from the impecuniousness and moods of youth and a penchant for protest (“Hungry” and “Angry”), people he has known or come across and relationships, loves and emotions (“Friends” and “Touched”), to events and episodes that the poet has found especially curious (“Puzzled”), with that word’s fullest range of meaning, and a less desperate maturity (“Peace”), and across aspects of place (“Landed” and “Water Ways”), each with its own aphorism, e.g. “One can find truth in a bottle,/ but the light’s a bit distorted” (p. 11) for the “Hungry” chapter.

These titles struggle to capture, however, the cast of characters that wanders through the pages–Wicks savours our foibles and takes delight in skewering them, but also cultivates an unromantic fondness for those doing it tough or on the wrong side of a heartless officialdom, as in the poor fellow with mental health problems in “The Hinge” that a young station attendant is forced to refer on to the police and who is sat in “a stalwart vinyl chair at the security office. The police/ smashed his head/ into an efficiently grey desk” (p. 19), which leads the poet to conclude that “all our days are numbered/ moral failures impotent vicinities” (p. 20). A concern for fairness and/or justice is almost always the sub-text to such episodes; sometimes this concern surges savagely to the fore, as in “Chain each man of power to weathered wooden benches,/ until the infusion of birdcall subdues their hands” (p. 235) in “Beside the Road to War”. Wicks is particularly aware of the potential duplicity that resides within institutions that are meant or profess to act in our interests–“Walls protect & imprison concurrently” (“The Compound”, p. 27).

Travel also arcs through the collection, be the locations, one assumes, the product of a young Australian’s rite of passage to the old colonial parent (“Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”), poetry festivals (“Chengdu – After the Festival”), journeys across Australia (“Fremantle”) or excursions into the bush (“Jerusalem Track”). The first of these poems is an of-the-moment riff on squats, fractured lives and struggling artistry in the prose poem format, the second a contrast between the forced modernity of a modern Chinese city and the denizens of its backstreets where a street sweeper, for example, “sleeps in the amnesty of shade” (p. 147) , the third a growl against a gentrified harbour town that exploits and ignores its history at the same time, and the last a new poem and reflection on a landscape still smouldering after a bushfire–the resting poet, seeing both a young man assiduously scaling a slope and an “aged man” caught in thought behind him, concludes:

“So we too are seasons.

We too are smoke. Free & inevitable”                                 (“Jerusalem Track:, p. 119)

If there is a unifying element to the collection beyond the pistol shot of Wicks’ imagery and his cut-through language, it is a fascination with and ability to detect and parse the ambiguities, paradoxes, bivalences, co-existent contraries, call them what you will, that abound or so easily avail or suggest themselves in our world. He addresses this directly when he asks, in “Requiem for a Squid”, “Does each moment carry/ these opposing aspects?” (p. 107). Other less direct examples include:

“Her tan linen placidity will not be shaken”                            (“Colour & Movement”, p.69)

“ … this city

with its polished shells, the driftwood desolation

that is a kind of sensuality”                                                      (“The Sydney Problem”, p.155)

“A granite breakwater, that construct built on collapse

is the human pretence of permanence”                                    (“Belief Beach”, p. 188)

“Prudence is sedition”                                                               (“The Table”, p. 201)

There is verbal play at work in such instances but also combinations of simple observer and satirist, social commentator and societal participant, idealist and realist as the situation requires.

This volume is both an accomplishment and an entertainment and, like all good provocations, prompts you to examine your own views. I imagine someone saying what Wicks writes of another poet, “His last word was poetry” (“The Bed”, p112), though I hope such a time is far off into the future and know there is plenty of poetry left in him.

To find this review in its published form, click here.

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