Free Will and the Clouds
Rob Wilson’s Free Will and the Clouds has already attracted many admirers. “These poems are constructed like little chapels”, says John Hawke. Michael Farrell likens the work to “a cloud in tight black jeans”. Martin Duwell adds “impressive” and “engaging”, while Graeme Miles says the work has “solidity and consistency”.
Tempting as it is to try to find new ways to praise this book, reviewing it for Plumwood Mountain presents a more interesting opportunity. These poems are moving and interesting on their own merits, but considering them from an ecopoetic standpoint—looking at how they approach environments, touch on ecological issues and rank human concerns—is a particularly satisfying way in.
Those familiar with The Red Room Company may have already encountered Rob Wilson in a short video created as part of the “Unlocked” project—an initiative that invites poets and hip-hop artists to run creative literacy programs in prisons. In the video Wilson explains his relationship to poetry simply and frankly: “I just always wanted to write books. I was shown poetry at a very young age and I always understood it.” Wilson goes on to read “Superman Goes Crazy” over the sound of a correctional centre loudspeaker. The poem shows Wilson’s ability to take the apparently mundane and distil it into something with renewed power:
That winter, when he had left his son in the forest,
his wife had been moving furniture late into the night.
It had been a lean year
and she watched the armchair burn in the wheezing dusk.
There were three of us in that house that summer.
And by the start of footy season,
we were all silver bones in the wet forest.
Superman goes crazy
because he sits
and thinks about it in the dark
like anybody else.
“Superman goes crazy” is one example of the way Free Will and the Clouds grapples with the relationship between humans and their habitat. The human characters here are obviously significant—we have a father apparently abandoning his son and a wife working alone at what feels like a futile, grimly solitary task. Then a trio of people become “silver bones in the wet forest” in the space of a few months. So while these characters appear central at first, it turns out there are even larger forces at work—the forest, the “wheezing dusk”, and the dark that surrounds Superman as he quietly loses his mind.
Along with this contrast of human players with their powerful, sometimes malevolent surroundings, Free Will and the Clouds also explores the tension between environments that are “natural” or nonhuman, and those we build up around and against them. “Fortune Favours the Moron” contrasts these two environments in its first few stanzas:
A door swings
a little loose on the hinges
and dumbly flaps back
into its jamb.
ugly like days
swim past you.
Both the door in the first stanza and the mountains in the second carry some sense of inevitability, even emptiness. The door swings in a pointless way, seemingly without anyone involved in opening it. Then the mountains, so often relied on in poetry as icons of strength and reliability, are “ugly like days”—a masterful expression of numb, daily repetition that can sap beauty from even a mountain. This poem’s “you” stands by passively, watching these ugly mountains “swim past”.
“Facing East” is another example of how Wilson explores the tensions between human and nonhuman forms:
In Sydney, you can see the storm
arching high, hunched prone
after riding low up the coastline.
The black-wet streets here
squished thick between
your carpet box apartment and mine.
Again, the human presence is pushed to the periphery, living in “carpet box apartments” on “squished” streets. The storm, meanwhile, travels ominously up the coast before “arching high” over the city, taking over the Sydney skyline.
The poems I’ve drawn out so far might suggest Free Will and the Clouds is somehow gloomy, and I may be about to make matters worse by adding that death is everywhere in this book. When death is not on the horizon or hiding nearby, it is standing in the centre, often intertwined with the foreboding sense that the environment we inhabit is not on our side. Blood, ghosts, sickness, people who have died and people who are about to die all appear regularly, creating macabre dotted lines between the poems. “Sitting Still All Summer” is a particularly frank example that reveals Wilson’s humour:
Everyone goes to heaven. Happy?
Lengths of wire are laid out side by side
on a mahogany hutch.
It’s heaven, but a fish filter hums.
Death in the movies
is somewhat similar
to death in a dream.
You’re falling fast.
You feel your body die mid-air
like sheet ice cracking.
The first line has the same faintly exhausted tone carried by the swinging door in “Fortune Favours the Moron”. The implication is that easy solutions are there if we are silly enough to reach for them, but the accusatory note challenges readers who might be looking for these solutions in Wilson’s work. “Better look elsewhere”, the poem warns. “We’re moving into more difficult, more interesting territory.”
The second stanza shows Wilson’s tendency to interrupt readers’ expectations as often as he can. It takes a few moments to accept that those first few lines are actually talking about “death in the movies” rather than a real death. To further confound matters, this death happens mid-air but “slowly / like sheet ice cracking.” The mind reels trying to reconcile these impossibilities.
Yet despite the tendency here towards difficulty, futility and death, Free Will and the Clouds is actually far from pessimistic. In fact, Wilson has achieved something not many poets grappling with these subjects can manage. His work is actually at its most comforting—and ultimately uplifting—when dealing with its most difficult themes.
The book begins and ends with two elegies, both obviously deeply personal and disarming in their sincerity. Rather than focus on these, let’s conclude by considering lines from the second last poem in the collection, “Tribute to the Newly Dead”:
There’s a kerfuffle in the tectonic plates.
There’s blood on the steering wheel
and black static on the radio.
If you had a map you might find us.
I carried her deep into the soft music of the forest.
Wrapped her face in railroad lantana.
Like many others in the collection, this poem is bracingly honest even as it twists to avoid straightforward statements. And as his language twists, Wilson finds unique symbols to express the senselessness death so often brings with it. Using a gentle word like “kerfuffle” to describe the movement of tectonic plates only underscores their devastating power. There’s no explanation for the “blood on the steering wheel” and the radio has nothing to offer but “black static”. The mention of “the soft music of the forest” is a rare hint of this environment as something more than a dispassionate onlooker, but this moment of coziness quickly passes. Finally, the woman’s face can only be wrapped in “railroad lantana”—a plant that may be abundant, but is never appreciated.
Wilson clearly enjoys rousing readers out of laziness by shunting them between apparently unrelated and often unresolved ideas, but he is not playing high concept games for the sake of cleverness. In finding new language for the things we fear—banality, loneliness, and the fact that our surroundings are completely disinterested—Free Will and the Clouds does something good writing does best. It takes away isolation, and offers ways to express things we hesitate to name.
Rob Wilson, Free Will and the Clouds. Wollongong, NSW: Grand Parade Poets, 2014. ISBN 9780987129178