Les Wicks, ‘Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience)’ in Southerly

Les Wicks, Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience)

Review by John Watson in Southerly, Vol 73, Number 2, Dec 2013

The Ambling Reader leaves the sunlight of Glebe Pt. Rd. Upstairs poetry shelves swim into view. The tyranny of alphabetical order offers revelation. Let us assume for the moment that qualities of the Amiable Reader prevail – that rare creature sensitive to poetic nuance, suspicious of baloney, alert to overbalancing egotism, able to note frissons scarcely registering on the Richter scale.

In the time-honoured method of approaching poetry he opens several volumes at about page 18 and, after reading a few lines (a procedure by which hogwash is often at once detected) returns these successively to the shelves. Towards the middle of this alphabetical array he is troubled, after a similar brief perusal, by pretension or specious self-indulgence. He moves on. Eventually he reaches the W’s, a more fruitful zone including Wearne and – modesty forbids – and at last Wicks.

He takes down Les Wicks’ most recent collection, Sea of Heartbeak, opens it at page 18 and finds these lines:

Eulogies of eucalyptus.
Truly puzzled as the rosellas knit our branch
with territory and blaze.

He is impressed. He turns the page and notes ‘brazen as oxygen’, then, a page further on, rosellas return: ‘that oil slick of parrot call’, and a few lines later:

As another unattended drink was upended.
the diminutive lawn-lord
was full of bellicose glee.

He is intrigued. Turning the page he reaches a small forest of aphorisms with generous helpings of irony reminiscent of Flaubert’s Dictionary. Many are humorous or happy:

Your dreams will wake you up.

People in glass houses enjoy the view.

He reads on. He reads whole poems. He does not (as previously) bend and return the book to the shelf (uncomfortably low down where the W’s are forced to languish.) He feels he is harvesting poetic truffles; line after line seems to have arrived entire.

In his ambling he has been considering William Carlos Williams and the poem The Yachts whose first line begins with its linking verb contends. This seems to him to represent a particular quintessence – the word nestling at the point where language separates itself from the thing it is trying to describe. Might this notion of language cleaving to meaning yet floating and flying like a tethered kite be exemplified in Sea of Heartbeak? Yes I said Yes. In the instances already given we are confronted by sprays, bouquets which seem to have sprung wholly formed from some repository, somewhere (it might seem) just beyond the visible, like the child’s joking picture of an empty sky with the title “Drawing of an Aeroplane Just Out of Sight”.

Here are more: The opening of Give It Another Try (p. 33)

Where’s the railway station, mate?
Just around the bush-nudged corner
Wrapped in the escarpment’s arms
like a winning deal of poker.

The opening of The Immortality Institute (p.51)

is down the hall and just beside
the Smokers’ Lounge.

and later in the same poem:

… Everlasting life
is aspirational like
a red car…

and later again:

Life is a bleach,
one feels designed to fade.

The Ambling Reader has been so absorbed in Sea of Heartbeak, noting conjunctions of aphorism and the pastoral, mixed with the pleasure of the “Life is a Beach” pun, that he has not noticed a Meandering Reader reaching low to another copy of that very volume.

M.R.: “Excuse me, I’m buying another copy of Les’s new book.”

“What a coincidence! I’ve just been admiring it.”

“Yes. I would argue that Les has hit his straps with this book, has in fact unsuspected resilience. It is, I would say, prismatic, even luminous.”

“People in glass houses enjoy the view…”

“Indeed. To which I would add this sub-text: that Les’s poetry is a glass house within which we enjoy the view.”

“Very pretty. And while I am scrupulous in avoiding categoryfoisting, I would say this enjoyment points to his effortless excursions in the Colloquial-Lyrical.”


“And on the question of poems not easily reducible to a prose synopsis?”

“This is as it should be. For is not the arbitrary a component of the lyrical?”

“And of course there are numerous poems whose trajectory is per – fectly clear; I noticed Khun (p. 80), the plane trip to South East Asia, the heat there:

To land in South-Asian humidity is like
folding chocolates on pillows.”

“And later in that same poem,

A kitten has died on temple grounds
Some holy man’s chant is the only breeze.”

“Yes and, of course, often the best things in a poet’s work are byproducts of his main intentions; I mean the flitter, the brief glimpse, the way he seizes the day by the short and–”

“Please! But yes, there are elements of low life here. He is at times offering a sort of Antipodean version of Baudelaire’s flâneur. At times he is almost cruising for a bruising.”

“I agree. This is indeed an unusual aspect of his work – the mixture of prawn-on-the-barbie, stale beer and thongs suburban, with a sophisticated lyricism and openness to nature. Of the first, see:

Later on the train two troubled blondes
from a wooden part of town
exhaust what credit they have on the phone.

and a few lines later,

At Rockdale the promissory Black Garter Escorts
sits patiently beside White Lady Funerals

And in Khun the pun ‘Home and Affray’ is characteristic.”

“And of the second – consider the beautiful Argence. Spring has come:

Dogs forget their bark as data crowds their snouts.
The beach, the broth
laces of lavender, bugle blue
havoc fleece
straw hats.

Or from a page where early autumn presides:

Weather open to the sea, (trust your towel)
combers are memoir, another sax solo that
collapses by design.”

“Yes. Very good. ‘Combers’, a word often used for the breakers by Derek Walcott. Pages 93-95 alone worth the price of the book. The waves as a sax riff which collapses as the wave breaks. Splendid!”

“And what about the heat wave poem, ‘Gauge’, on page 51: ‘All the birds were up early then gone.’?

“He seems to me essentially Australian don’t you agree?”

“Indubitably. Witness the bogong moths lighting in on page 78 at ‘the lightstained indigo of evening’

“That is his gift I would say – a luminous Yeatsian line fleetingly in a context of unified fragments. And I keep coming back to Williams’ ‘contend’, how it engages with the yachts, its subject, and at the same time spreads out–”

“Yes, I know that opening. Not unlike, wouldn’t you say, Les’s lines:

A spur of water skiers
across the fabric of the river.”

Something in the air – perhaps it is the weather – urges purchasing rather than reading.

But the weather is waiting,
it whispers must

So the two Readers, drawn by this prospect, amble and meander back down the narrow stairs and out into the street, remarking that they may meet again when Les brings out his next book.

John Watson

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