Joe Wilkins Dreams of Home

As the year comes to an end, I am looking back at some of the accomplishments of our featured poets and hoping you will, too. Maybe the holidays will give you time to re-read or to catch up if you missed anything on our Poetry page during your busy year. So my next few “Poetry Wednesdays” will be here in the Blog, looking at new or forthcoming books and interesting projects involving our poets. First up is Joe Wilkins, a brief look at his beautiful book, Killing the Murnion Dogs (Black Lawrence Press, 2011).

Joe Wilkins is a master of the “poetry of place,” transporting us to Montana, Spokane, Memphis, the small town of Sunflower, Mississippi, Texas, and Minnesota, and always dreaming of home. The book is organized into sections, each beginning with an italicized dream of home. We go cross country in “North Carolina by Greyhound: First Christmas After the Funeral,” seeing Chicago, Ohio, and Wheeling, West Virginia out the bus window. But very often we get to live a while in a town, teaching kids from the wrong side of the tracks, or on a ranch, during a long drought, and see what that’s like.

Reading Wilkins, I had an experience very like the one he reports in this excerpt from “Daybreak, Spokane, September 2001,” about reading the poet James Wright:

I dream winter—wind leaning hard
down the mountains, blown snow

and ice—reading James Wright
for the first time.

How sad and lovely,

because in his poems everything and everyone
was always dying,

yet looking up from the page
I had never before wanted so wholly to live.

The book begins with the gritty truth of life on a ranch, and of the “blood and soil” of life in general, and is biblical in its wisdom, heard as the thoughts of the man “jacketing” an orphaned lamb so it can suckle the mother of a stillborn lamb—that is, placing the skin of the dead one over the body of the living (evoking the way Jacob, wearing a goatskin, received his blind father’s blessing and the birthright intended for his hairier brother Esau). Here, compressed, are those italicized thoughts from “Jacketing”: Blood is mother of us all, and soil, our father. These are poems of hard work and hard truths.

And, in case you are worried about the killing of dogs in the title poem, that’s a gritty truth, too. Dogs kept as pets on a ranch or farm must be shot if they start to kill the livestock, as now they have a taste for blood. It’s a devastating poem, not without feeling for the dogs, still innocent and playful after their bloodthirsty rampage; maybe they don’t know any better, but we do. Still, the killing of the Murnion dogs is not killing for sport, as in “Shooting Carp,” something for which…

…. To be forgiven

we must fill our lungs with cordite
and iron, see the waters

roll with blood.

We must, viscerally, remember. This poem, among others, grapples with the need to remember and the terrible absence of memory, specifically the memory of the poet’s father, who died young when the poet was a still a boy. That memory is like sun or shadow, making a blank: “a white hole in the sky” or a “dark / circle of grass beneath a cottonwood.” But there’s no doubt the father lives again in these poems, in the struggle to remember, and in the world.

My father is everywhere
but memory: He rises with the moon,

his arms the gnarled stalks of greasewood,
his breath the hot wind on the plains.

He is river dust and sheep’s blood
and any sky from ice to water.

Peace and goodwill from Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor.

Again, you can find Joe Wilkins on the Poetry page here at Escape Into Life, or here, at Black Lawrence Press. You can find this art, by Phillip Compton, in the EIL Store. 

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