Reviewed by Emma Lee, Ross Kightly and Richie McCaffery:
Jim C Wilson blends anecdote with technical skill. His subjects may not be far from everyday, domestic observations but they read as poems from a writer who doesn’t like over-ornamental poems with meanings hidden behind exotic cloths. Wilson’s style is direct but still with a poetic consciousness. In ‘R L S’ (Robert Louis Stevenson), the writer's childhood is imagined in a triolet:
The garden was unending to the child
but Mr Hyde was there, behind each tree.
A high bright sun smiled down; the breeze was mild;
the garden was unending. To the child
the trees were masts. He sailed across the wild
South Seas until he reached his final quay.
His Eden seemed unending; he was beguiled;
and Mr Hyde was there, behind each tree.
The rhymes are simple and the garden metaphor successfully sustained. The repetition of “Mr Hyde was there, behind each tree” conveys an air of menace lurking in the shadows. A similar feeling of menace pervades ‘What they did on their holiday’:
One star appeared beyond the hilltop;
its brightness pierced the darkening sky.
She cut into a slice of goat’s cheese,
bit into its salty whiteness.
Let’s pay, he said, and chose an olive,
firm, and coloured like a bruise.
The accumulated images of sunburn, the star piercing the sky, the salty goat’s cheese and the bruise-coloured olive carry an implication that things are going to turn nasty. But the reader doesn’t know enough about the couple to care, or enough about the scenario to tell whether it’s just the disappointment of a holiday ending or portent of something darker. The poet is stronger on atmosphere than character.
The title poem, ‘Stations’, begins with the poet spinning a dial on a radio, mesmerised by the sounds of foreign places and ends:
I keep my wireless,
which needs a dust. I peer at its dial
wondering if I’ll ever get to Minsk.
Clearly he won’t since he does no research into the exotic sounding places he finds on his radio dial. Jim C Wilson’s focus is on the journey rather than arrival, the journey a child makes to adulthood, the journey of two people in a relationship, imagined journeys not taken.
I have become too involved with the particular pamphlet to make a pretence of objectivity. But with that caveat offered I shall plunge ahead.
First, as I know from having been at the launch of this publication at the Scottish Poetry Library, these poems ‘sit well with the voice’. They need to be heard aloud, but I suspect that unless you possess a vocal instrument of a Scottish flavour and timbre, they won’t sound as well as they did when I heard them last December from the man himself. Ideally, you need to have Jim C Wilson’s voice to make them sound completely right.
There is a considerable range of subject matter here, a good deal of which is of the kind that comes from the fund of common experience for people like me – and I suspect, dear Reader, like you. For example, there’s Sunday School where the main memory is not of God’s voice that “spake out from a burning bush” but more of the “hell of hard benches for hours” and “a Sunday expanse of wilderness”.
In ‘The Medical Dictionary’ we find the narrator doing something that all us chaps did when we were that age: looking “. . . under Nipples,/ Penis, Pudenda.” Don't deny it. You know you did. In this poem, the discovery that all is “bags, tubes and gunge” nevertheless brings a huge burden of adolescent guilt:
The handle of my bedroom door is turning
will it be Mum, the bogeyman, God?
The range of ‘cultural references’ here is wide. To appreciate how spang-on they can be, I suggest that if you’re fortunate enough to be in Edinburgh, go to The National Gallery of Scotland, stand in front of Velázquez’s painting of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, read Jim’s poem ‘Thoughts of Diego Velázquez’ – and see what I mean. Failing that, get the pamphlet, peruse the poem, and take a look at the painting here.
Finally, the ‘title poem’ (‘Stations’) again brings us to the territory of past yearning: the radio shown on the pamphlet’s cover is the magic carpet that transports the poet/narrator to all the places on the dial: “Sundsvall, Sottens, Allouis, Limoges” and, of course, Minsk.
Like Jim C, I haven't yet reached my own Minsk, but I am still a hopeful traveller. And if you haven't picked up on it yet: this is a beautiful collection.
The poems that open Will I Ever Get to Minsk? serve to root the pamphlet in the Scottish familiar by celebrating cultural figures and poets such as Nigel Tranter, George Bruce and Norman MacCaig and recalling the poet’s humble beginnings where there were:
No fiery revelations; just cups of tea
and a Sunday expanse of wilderness.
However, the collection does not settle easily within the mundane and homely but explodes outwards to America, Venice, Paris and other countries as explored in ekphrastic poems dealing with artworks and sculpture in both witty and moving ways. As Wilson gives voice to Giorgio Morandi, he could easily be speaking about his own craft:
..............And those who see
no evidence of progress in my work
don’t know this ochre jar is nearly perfect,
perspectives eternally changing.
I pour my life into these bottles
but my art, like love, cannot be measured.
And so it is that many of these poems are “nearly perfect” in terms of metre, a successful villanelle and a poem in praise of Adelaide Crapsey, inventor of the cinquain form. The concept of artistic progress also underpins the collection, taken to somewhat existential heights in ‘Stations’, the poem which gives the collection its title:
And suddenly I’m sixty and in the age
of communication; I keep my wireless,
which needs a dust. I peer at its dial,
wondering if I’ll ever get to Minsk.
Arriving or getting there doesn’t matter, the poet ventures out and returns to Scotland in folk-song or ballad based poems like ‘East Neuk’– an elegy for the dying fishing industry in Fife. In other poems, like lost broadcasts, we hear echoes of myth, such as that of Untrue Thomas in ‘From the Hill’:
Time to start down the path again,
hoping it’s the one that leads me home,
far from the hill, and her shadow.
Like his radio, Wilson is centred in communication above all, and these poems are both winning and instantly accessible: no tuning is necessary. It is the simplest of observations that make us sure we are in the hands of a master – for instance in ‘Adelaide’s Garden’:
creeps green across
the leaning fence and takes
each board, slow, into the waiting
One of Wilson’s most striking pieces here is a tribute to the late poet George Bruce, who through his poetry, like that of Wilson’s, defies the onward march of time to make any sort of mental or poetic journey he wants:
.........accidentally dropped his watch. It lay
between his polished shoes, in danger
of being crushed. For a second he faltered
but quickly journeyed on; then, talking done,
scooped up the watch, intact, time still ticking;
time still to gather bright shells from the shore.