Go West, Young Man
Notes from the Journey Westward, by Joe Wilkins
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor
Winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize
Notes from the Journey Westward, by Joe Wilkins, reads like wisdom to me. “There’s nothing to be done / about hope,” he writes, in “Hardscrabble Prairie Triptych,” about cracking open mussel shells in search of pearls, and I feel directly addressed, required to examine the persistence and hopelessness of hope in myself, in us all, in the human animal: “We crack them open / anyway, shells bright as a boy’s eyes, / scoop out each stinking handful of meat.” The willingness to shift from “I” to “we” here is a clue to the risk and power of these poems, the great claim that one story can, like a covered wagon, carry many, and that history is somehow alive in the present moment.
Likewise, when the blind grandmother in “Theodicy,” remembering her childhood and the mission school, says, “Whatever it is, / …you must love it,” I know she’s right. “Be sad awhile. / Stay alive.” This book of poems honors the dead, loves whatever is, and encourages us to stay alive in feeling, however harsh or sorrowful.
There’s plenty of joy and, yes, hope in these poems, too. “Moving West” is about a contemporary journey westward, a new start for a young couple falling in love with the landscape on their way. But they’ll see it all in their time, too, their journey westward creating a new past tense: “The land went blue with spring flax, / until the sky turned black near Valentine, Nebraska.”
There’s a beautiful hunting poem called “Then I Packed You Up the Ridge Like a Brother on My Back.” If you eat animals, this is the way to do it with reverence. And if you must lose someone to an awful fate or an early death, “Hayrake” is the way to grieve, to offer an elegy with one’s whole body, and to accept one’s own earthbound woe, “pulling the iron-winged hayrake” across what remains of the parched land.
This is a gripping book. It won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize, as did Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, by Kelli Russell Agodon, another of our EIL poets. So did The Precarious Rhetoric of Angels, by EIL poet George Looney. You can find a complete list of White Pine Press Poetry Prize winners here.
You can find more of Joe Wilkins’s work here at Escape Into Life at his solo poetry feature, and in our mini-anthologies on labor and dogs. His poem “On the Beginning of Winter in Some Lost Industrial City of the North River Country” from Notes on the Journey Westward is here in our World Without End solstice feature. And I’ve written about another of his books, Killing the Murnion Dogs, here.