Joshua Marie Wilkinson on Meadow Slasher
Do your friends know you well enough to pull you through your pasts?
I cut my face in looking.
Dogs on a hunt for what may come.
I am a looked-through garage window where a dead cat furred an oil stain.
A bright April dashing us to the curb.
A gash is how big? A lesion. A slice, say, on the chin.
One of those bruisecuts that boxers get.
I want somebody to come over here & punch me in the neck.
Am I on the phone because I can't end this near a bed or a desk or
anything stable enough to fuck on?
Whiteout. Cold coffee.
* * * Room temperature room.
& my old fall-backs sucked into air
like so many phantoms, drizzled up.
What if what won't
come back to you
How much more talk
will it take to sever us?
I'm here on the ground.
Spring drifts away and you chase it
waving your hand like a knife.
* * *
Raccoons out, invisible, crunching past.
White heat of late traffic.
I go to the store to buy 150 pillows.
I carry them out to my car, six at a time, three under each arm.
I go from laughing to crying & back
like some stoned, child-weary sitter.
Wearing my quilt as a cape, I'm locked out & it's spring, but freezing.
In my underwear & slippers with just my dog in the street.
I want to get under the empty tables
of the sorority house dining room & huff on some sterno cans
till my head throbs like a stream.
* * *
Tickertape firecrackers, a mayor's bald allusion to teenage trysting.
I want now to get stabbed by the wind.
But it's a city with no dependable way out or back in.
So, how bad—you ask yourself—
do you need to leave?
I want what I carried with me
to be enough for over a week.
If in my Sithe I looked right;
roamed rooms, quarter moon.
Wet little pigeonheart
inside me thudding.
* * *
Up at Olive & Clark with a tea but
Silver Soul is on & I'm back to it
covering my face with a book, scaring some strangers.
I don't yield out for pity
just a question of what we look like to ourselves
from the bit of future
we're lucky enough to endure.
So it's night.
The shore's lapping.
Heartbreak is having the prepositions
pulse with slashers too.
* * *
So then why can't you just gash open a little bit?
A brownout citywide hurricane-grade wind
& I fell in with the chapbook set:
Kassandra's bracketed screams, the ruin
in a so-called net. Well, it unclasps
& I don't want to be here with me either.
What's to learn from what we thought we wanted?
We didn't think we wanted it.
So you've been into the photographs?
What's not desire's aperture.
If the road could stretch out like a blank path under spectral willows alive.
* * *
Or cacti, cactuses—say it wrong with a w
I say, low & behold: crawl up into the black dank earth.
What's waiting for us outside?
Some stalled junky in the evening summer
alight under factory lamp blossoms?
It's the West Andersonville neighborhood gardens
& the thieves get a respite. The trains get a respite.
The rain, no breaker. No turn, no volta, no nothing.
Another long thread to pull at in wonder of what it's attached to.
Trying to set down what before I'd carry across into archaism.
An old swamp's widow works the net at the lit lamp of the messenger girl.
* * *
Are the windows open?
Can't you open them any further?
What scrapes you heals you.
That's not right, but there is a pause before that clippery voicemail beep.
My friends call each at a time
to say, here we are: spent to fire
known to ash, to firetrucks, to the medics looking for something else
to channel up.
What's the right way out of here?
Turn it all up, Dana.
Turn everything up to bleeding.
* * *
To summer sun ablaze on the tarry roof with no stars to taser us down.
Is this what we get when we hold the phone to our face?
What did you so want to become
that rent you back to becoming?
I want the curtain to crush the pretty actor.
I want the sets to grow vines into the scaffolding.
So begins the apology's long drawn chain of blowflies out of the bottle
& a metaphor for beasts to know us quickly, what we are—stranded
snared, indefatigable, etcetera.
This isn't for a book of polaroids.
It's to clock the roads of an errancy. An obsession with—
* * *
An obsession with what?
With the lamp-lit dust an archive leaves the library shelves with—
But what history did you want back inside of?
Little whale on the Gastineau beach won't last long.
The dream out in the miners' wood, trampling on now.
I like the floorboards in here.
Can I stay awhile?
I'm thinking about retreating to
no trapdoor, no transom, alright. I got it.
Your stripling's looking for a door to a path the way out
like a well-wielded scythe laying down a meadow in swaths.
On Meadow Slasher
I wrote the bulk of my book Meadow Slasher in Chicago, seven years ago, when I suffered what I'll call for the sake of simplicity a nervous breakdown. That's a sort of shitty, generic term, I realize. What it looked like was a lot of crying. Intermittent bouts of wanting to cut myself open with a kitchen knife and then, you know, just giggling. Interrupted now and then by pacing around in my underwear to ask my dog sophisticated questions like, "Are you here with me?" and "Can I be alive, too?"
Basically, I was hearing voices. I was fielding spooky inquiries. And I was listening closely to what either was or—more likely—was not there in the apartment with me. Either way, though, I was deep in a hallucinatory fit. There were no pink elephants or flying saucers. There was just—I later identified—the voice of my father, furious with me when I was a little kid. It had come loose in my brain after all these years.
What happened to get this all started? To this day, I don't entirely know, except that I'd just broken it off with the woman I was dating about two weeks before I'd promised to join her down in Athens, GA, at the end of the semester. And I stood idiotically at the front window, where I could no more pack up the car and drive 800 miles in a southerly direction than I could tear off a big swath of toilet paper to wipe the tears and snot from my face.
I do not remember bathing or eating the four days I wrote the book. But I managed to get myself dressed. (Or maybe I didn't get undressed?) Though I had to have fed my dog, I know that—because she'll come over and sit next to you and sigh endlessly if you don't. Somehow I walked the long, single block up Hollywood Ave in Andersonville to this coffee shop on Clark Street, where the barista would let me sob in the far corner for hours as I transcribed the poem from my head onto my yellow legal pads. She played Beach House's Teen Dream over and over again, her entire shift. I guess nobody complained, or if they did, she didn't give a shit. And if you know that album, it's the perfect moody, wall-of-synthesizery-sound for letting fly what you can no longer bear keeping at bay.
I'm pretty sure that hearing their song "Silver Soul" about one hundred times saved my life. And it helped me to do something I'd not been able to do as a writer: catch hold of the voices. To copy down what the chatter and excoriation and goading was telling me. Instead of running from it—or pouring cold beer on it, which still sounds preferable, actually—I started to transcribe it. That invective, I mean. Every passing castigation, every sneering rebuke.
My dad? He wasn't a violent person, especially. His rage, though, could come out of what appeared to me like nowhere at all. And I spent most of my childhood tiptoeing through his house, concealed by my big brother's shadow, and hoping not to gain dad's notice, which might at any moment be a prologue to his wrath.
So, let me put it like this: picture a child sitting on the shore of a pond. It's a nice day, and the child is absorbed by the reflection of the trees and houses and sky on the pond's tranquil surface. Now, a man carrying a rock appears. This rock, it's the size of a big present, let's say. And the man pauses just behind the child, who is so engrossed by the stillness and beauty of the pond that he doesn't even notice the shadow of man with the rock. After a deep breath, the man heaves the huge rock over the child's head and it hits the water, splashing the child's face and body, soaking their clothes. The child gets up and turns around terrified, and the man says, "Why did you do that?"
I did grow up on a pond, but my dad never threw a rock over my head. So, that's not what my childhood was like. But this story is what my childhood felt like. Yet I told myself for three decades the following thing: can't you see how in the story nobody got hurt?
In other words, if you would've asked me what my life was like growing up, I would've mentioned the pond: Rain. Bullfrogs and turtles. Green grass. Jumping off an old rowboat into the water, swimming around with my brother all summer. That's just what I told my wife after we met one afternoon in Iowa City. I said, it was like a nice pond. Lucky for me, she asked again later what it had felt like there, down on the nice pond. And out came the rock. Up came the shadow.
I don't know what happens to a can of Pepsi if you don't open it for thirty years. But I suspect it's similar to what was going on inside my brain. So, here's my best guess: in the can of soda, the bulk of the carbonated fluid's probably vaporized to sticky dust. I'd bet there's a layer of syrup coating the inside of the aluminum. And I'd bet the can's metal is weaker, more bendy, easier to rip. (Sure, I can look it up on YouTube or whatever. But it's my metaphor, and maybe I need to be wrong to be able to make it work.) Anyway, what I'm saying is that my dad's voice is like the sickly syrup remnant in the can. It's not even sugar and water anymore. It's just a shadowy stain of whatever chemicals they've deteriorated into.
And, look, it's desolate stuff—Meadow Slasher's a single, long poem carved into aborted sonnets, eleven lines apiece, with no turn. No volta, in the parlance of prosody. Meaning the sonnets don't twist back and offer the reader some clever witticism about what led there—they just keep plodding through the dark wood, deeper and deeper.
So, what are we doing when we are writing? I do not know. I'm not being coy. I really don't. But it leads me to consider what thinking about the past actually is. Which brings me to a couple of quotes I can't slip free of. Not sure if it was Winnicott or R.D. Laing who said most of what we are doing when we're thinking is talking to other people in our own minds. That still doesn't seem wrong to me at all. And lately I like Charles D'Ambrosio's sentiment that "all thinking is a kind of homesickness." That little gem probably haunts just about everything I write these days, too.
I'd been snapped out of the trance—by getting every shred of the poem out of me, then by reading it back aloud to myself, and, most likely, by blabbing to my therapist Garry about it. Then my old friend Solan came to Chicago for a visit from Alaska, and he let me read the whole thing to him.
Pretty soon, I was like that kid in high school who had finally composed his own histrionic piece of shit opus on acoustic guitar and made you to sit still and listen to it for the longest twelve minutes of your life. Many friends obliged. I should thank them by name, but other than John Cleary and Lisa Wells, they declined to have their names associated with it here. And fuck it, I mean: who could blame them?
Not long after, Solan composed a pretty haunting little banjo score to it and we took Meadow Slasher on the road that fall—for about twenty readings from Atlanta to Seattle—with some poet friends: Abraham Smith, Mathias Svalina, and Jaswinder Bolina.
One night, we performed it in Boise, Idaho, and a young woman in the front row wept through the whole reading. When I recited a big hunk of it in Tucson, the poet Jane Miller cackled sporadically throughout—two hundred other people seated around her were stone silent. These both felt like the moment in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon says to Robin Williams "I read your book last night" and Williams says, "So, you're the one." I had two people who got it. One sobbing, the other laughing. And I mean this in all seriousness: thank you. Maybe Meadow Slasher will land somewhere for you when you need it. For your sake, I hope not. But if it finds you, may it hit the surface a little further out, lest it graze your head.