Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson 1924-1961

ISBN: 1550651625

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A Review of: Heresies: The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson 1924-61
by Zach Wells

If obesity and rapid peristalsis are indices of health, then Canadian poetry is certainly thriving. But objective quantitative analyses are worse than useless in the assessment of a nation's poetry. What the statistical tale of the tape belies is the sad state of neglect into which some of our most original and important poetry has lapsed, while hundreds of new-and mostly unexceptional-books are pressed.
The story of Anne Wilkinson's poetry is in many ways one of resilient survival rather than musty neglect. Although she published only two collections in her abbreviated lifetime and was, by editor Dean Irvine's own admission, not broadly influential, her Collected Poems were first published in 1968, seven years after her death, and re-issued in 1990, and poems such as "Lens" and "In June and Country Oven" have been widely anthologized. If her following has been smaller than that of some of her contemporaries, there has been a compensatory fierceness to its loyalty.
What has kept her best poetry current-as the upcoming lines from "Lens" will demonstrate-is a combination of taut craft, inventive wordplay, oneiric surrealist imagery, wry wit and, perhaps most importantly, a gravitational pull on the reader's emotions:

My woman's eye is weak
And veiled with milk;
My working eye is muscled
With a curious tension,
Stretched and open
As the eyes of children;
Turning in its vision
Even should it see
The holy holy spirit gambol
Lithe and warm as any animal.

The most compelling of her poems are animated by the "curious tension" of private woman/mother and public artist-roles which conflict, but are nevertheless complementary in her verse. The long version of "Letter to My Children", restored in this edition, is probably the most potent example of this difficult alliance and should, on its own, be enough to secure Wilkinson an audience for years to come:

With winter here my age
Must play with miracles.
So if I grant you wishes three
Scoff and say I owe you five,
Five full and fathomed senses,
Precision instruments
To chart the wayward course
Through rock and moss and riddles
Hard or soft as either, airy
Airy quite contrary
Where will the next wind blow?

Irvine's scholarly edition is by far the most exhaustive and objective gathering to date. He restores forty-six poems omitted by Wilkinson's previous editor, A.J.M. Smith, has written a hefty biographical introduction and provides the reader with a hundred odd pages of textual notes and variants. The bulk of the editorial apparatus will be of limited use and interest to the average reader, but it has been implemented in an inobtrusive manner, so that the poems can be enjoyed without the footnotes. More importantly, Irvine's yeoman's labour has established the definitive text of Wilkinson's oeuvre-the authority of which is predicated on the editor's decision to virtually eliminate his own subjective judgment-for future editors inclined to print smaller selections. And I think it is in more judicious selections and anthologies that her poetry will eventually reside. A good deal of the work collected here either wears its influences (especially that of Dylan Thomas) too plainly, suffers from formal arthritis, or is simply too slight to merit perpetual publication. Wilkinson, for all her gifts, is a minor poet and has not staked the same claim to immortality as other poets of the last century have. The beauty of Heresies is that a new generation of poets, scholars and readers can finally make fully-informed choices as to what survives and what fades away.

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