Lucas Smith reviews Belief by Les Wicks

Les Wicks, Belief. Macao, S. A. R & Maxwell via Bulahdelah, NSW, 2019. ISBN 978-99965-30-9

 

Lucas Smith

 

Les Wicks’s writing embodies a gentle irony: ‘you can’t trust this incident we call being’ (79). Belief, his fourteenth single-author book, ambles through the exhausted modern scene reflecting on elderly liberal indecision, the implications of neuroscience, euthanasia, and in an understated way contemporary politics. Wicks is frequently charming and sardonic, like a distant uncle you actually look forward to seeing in the holidays.

Beliefs, those fundamental things that possess us consciously or subconsciously, loom large but Wicks’s touch is light. In ‘Big Dig Gig’ he ponders the potentialities of an imaginary divine game show in the afterlife.

Reincarnation was not the popular option

but worthy of consideration. You could be smarter

I’m told the truly tired choose Nothing.

No more traffic snarl or nosy bosses.

(17)

‘From the Academy’ is a gentle rebuke of the cult of self-help.

The warlocks of confidence know

we need everything.

(64)

At times his cadence and diction are reminiscent of that other Les

There’s news just in from neuroscience

& it’s not pretty.

By some scholarly criteria we don’t exist

(76)

and, from ‘Man in Hagland’, a reflection on a friend’s marriage breakup

Divorce was major sorcery, poof

all his money was gone. There were rumours

the harridan had recommenced laughing

 

Three years on, he’d chain the covens

to the ovens & the iron. Impossibility is everywhere —

one is now his boss, another ruled the country.

(72)

Wicks hits pay dirt with his musings on neuroscience in the longest poem in the book, the seven-page ‘The Compassion, Rut & Self Proposition’. Someone I read once, I think it was the poet Czeslaw Milosz, a tormented Roman Catholic, said that the last believers in traditional orthodox religions will be the poets and artists, because of the unity of God’s style. Poets, and all creative people, even the most post-modern, whether they are aware of what they are doing or not, resist the incursions of neuroscience and deterministic ideas, whether biological or philosophical. Or else their work is pointless jabbering. For otherwise why create, for indeed creation as we understand it is an impossibility. The arising of art will still happen but will mean something different in a neuro-determined world. Wicks boils down the issue in a pithy phrase ‘no sin, only synapse’. Boom! You don’t have to be religious to see how profoundly this could effect future generations. A brain scan at fourteen and off you go to the scrap heap.

if we’re anything perhaps we’re cabling & fluids

senselessly cooking in the brainpan, bubble’n’squeak

(77)

Identity scaffolds are up

but nothing gets built it’s

about the scaffolds …

(78–79)

But how, Wicks asks, can a brain conscious of it’s own determinism escape an endless reflexivity?

Neurotheology — god is in giggles. It is the hymn

within our Personal Delusional System.

Neuroplasticity — we can sculpt

a future with our laughter, invent tranquillity

or dance with fairies. Irrepressible glory —

I will lay down my life to pretend it matters

 

If it’s all just blips

then that makes our sorcery a perpetual surprise.

There is yet more

sounds like a prayer,

I built my churches about this murmur

(though the conniving cortex would say that).

(81–82)

Belief highlights the contingent, transient and circular nature of all beliefs. Belief is never something absolute, but must be practised. Belief contains some powerful images,

… seabirds, those carnivore nuns,

(69)

and

Meat wanders the pasture

& knows life is a marinade.

(87)

The book is more of a playful philosophical tract than a book of poetry. Most of the poems read as chopped up prose and there is little in the way of conventional music or rhyme to break the monotony of his pacing, though his phrase-making keeps you on your toes.

From an ecological perspective, Wicks is highly ambivalent about technology. The image of air-conditioning pervades the book. Air-con has made human life possible in many places but also has a sedative, stifling effect. It confines as it sustains. Let alone the fuel it burns up.

The non-human is given special attention as well. His biography of an abandoned tennis shoe, ‘A Nike Size 5 White Jogger Beside the Pacific Highway’, asks us to pay close attention to a non-human object without the potential insult of anthropomorphising.

that slash of forsaken white,

an afterthought of shoelace

like a kind of surrender.

 

Hey Mum, what’s that sneaker doing there?

He can almost feel its stories but

his mother is fiddling with her traffic app.

(54–55)

Perhaps ironically, the book itself is physically too small, just one third bigger than a standard smartphone. As a result, the poems are cramped, what should be one pagers turn into two. At the risk of anthropomorphising, these poems need more lavish space to breathe. This is a nice size for a long essay or short novel but there are good reasons why most poetry presses print their books with larger dimensions than trade paperbacks.

Ultimately though, Belief displays an accomplished elder statesman of Australian poetry laying out with disarming agreeableness some of the fundamental questions of the near future. Often playful, sometimes circular, always self-aware in an optimistic rather than despairing way, Wicks makes a fine afternoon of reading in the sun for those content to dwell in questions with few answers.

 

Lucas Smith is a writer and writing teacher based in Victoria.

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