Mary Cresswell reviews Getting By Not Fitting In by Les Wicks

Les Wicks, Getting By Not Fitting In. Woodford, NSW: Island Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-909771-92-8

 

Mary Cresswell

 

Getting by? Check. Not fitting in? Check. The title is a summary, and Wicks ends his book with the same sentiment:

Happiness passes for this

state of acceptance.

She is distracted.

He has forgotten …

 

Nobody fits in, the singular commonality.

Yet we somehow interlock ­

that is the engine of our understanding. …

(‘The 6th Intersection’,  94-96)

The collection – the poet’s thirteenth – is set into seven sections: ‘The Company of Women’, ‘We Are Just Men’, ‘Narrative’, ‘Location’, ‘The Difficulties of Matt Kovacs’, ‘From Ms Tess Manning’, and ‘What Ends?’. On the surface, this arrangement seems to narrow the poems down from the general to the specific, but this book is more of a people-watching manual, written by an observer who is deeply discouraged by the passage of time and of the people he has met through his years.

In the opening poem – ‘In the Tribe’ – the company of women is broken down into the Treaty of the Mothers, the Treaty of their Partners, the Treaty of the Daughters, and the Law of Weeds. The poet’s observations and classification set the tone for the description of women in the rest of the book – with definite echoes (especially in using ‘tribe’) of 18th century poet Christopher Smart’s cat.[1]  Jeoffry, like Wicks’ women, is an attractive but separate species, something to have fun describing but not to understand.

The women are good old girls of the hippie persuasion, unashamed of their bodies, armed with Facebook and Mastercard, keen for freedom and fulfilment:

She dances then goes, arrives

at a new fire that was just so interesting.

Solitude & the best of friends are her current studies.

Her phd watches on like a guitar solo, it fails to mention

the engine of empathy near her heart.

(‘This Woman’, 18)

They tend to speak in the first-person singular, about external matters (their bodies, their jobs, their purchases). They are individuals, girlish forever, but still individual.

The good old boys speak en masse, stomping up to centre stage, eyes cast modestly downward:

We are a problem that is not insurmountable.

Should be managed with tolerance

& vigilance … advised on appropriate clothes or

counselled down to sensitivity (what we say is what we are?).

Lead us to your pleasure.

We are better than cats

for most household camaraderies.

(‘User Manual – Men’,  22)

In the third and fourth sections, we seem to have reached a balance: everyone is equal in face of the loss of their past and the futility of their present.

I try not to let the mind

believe in its ghosts. Struggle to be

filtered, safe & functional.

Still they persist.

(‘Spooks’, 38)

We have netted infinity in words & science.

It is a restless captive, our academics ponder

the wisdom of the catch. But cannot let go:

always they look back there, eyes, chattering, lost.

(‘Metaphysical Naturalism on a Very Good Day’, 50)

Matt Kovacs lives in the then and the now, travelling back and forth in his mind as he and Tess, his new love, travel to Thailand. Once upon a time, he knew that

Freedom’s just another word

for unemployed. Les comes around with a smoke, us two

have everything in common. …

(‘Matt’s Seventies’,  56)

His life has followed a familiar curve of lust, love, loss, fatherhood, estrangement, overseas, politics, ageing parents – and the later-in-life lover, all them subject to Matt’s contemplation.

Tess has questions of her own:

Am I a person? Here, on this doona

late summer lightning tattoos the afternoon.

Matt off working. I look down at my body …

see weather radar.

(‘The Secret Life of Bar Staff’, 86)

Tess’ contemplation centres around her body – again, then and now –the men in her life, what they have done to her, what she has left, in Thailand or in Australia:

Often enough there’s a role for the blond farang …

learnt to run in fuck-me pumps & say wodka

Tomorrow I’ll play a dead Briton

who haunts the Mustang Club.

(‘Featuring Tess Manning – Bangkok Top Media Co.’, 92)

And we leave them there, Matt and Tess, like trapped insects scrabbling inside the glass of a kill-jar with the lid screwed tight down. Much of the book conveys a pessimism born of exhaustion (no call to action), and the poems – both the women and the men – come down on the line of least resistance.

At the end of the day, the boys remember cars, wars, failures and violence; the girls remember boys. And no one holds out hope for much of anything.

 


[1] Christopher Smart, ‘from “Jubilate Agno”‘. Poetry Foundation.

 

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her most recent book is Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) from Makaro Press, Wellington, 2017.

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