The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth
by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Reviewed by Sean Patrick Hill
Over the course of two full-length books, several chapbooks, and numerous small press publications, Joshua Marie Wilkinson's poems have become increasingly fraught with a desire to penetrate into realms that redefine the image and music of language yet retain an emotional resonance. Moving away from the book-length structure that dominated his early work, The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth, his third full-length book, attempts to draw Wilkinson's usual repertoire of influences -- film, theory, art -- into something wholly new. The poems are still organized under titled headings, though, signifying a kind of allegiance to each other.
Take, for instance, the first section of poems, "Jewel Light/Copper Light", and the first poem, marvelously titled "what you wish to return to will not leave you unmarked," a slim prose poem that begins with a barrage of pointed images and declarations: "You will build a ship with pigeons and a city of rope. You will listen with your pockets emptying. What you forget is up to you." Here we find a definitive voice speaking to the reader, suggesting and defining, however strangely, a reality beyond both the reader's and poet's selves. Indeed, these poems are largely explorative, making tracks over unbroken snow for us to follow, however tentatively.
With its theatrical themes and whirlwind of repeated images, if not symbols -- light, messengers, children, film, whispering -- there is a fairly stable path to follow in this book, in spite of the fact that the poems seem, as one of the blurbs suggests, like experiencing the dreams of another. The question is, to what extent are we expected to interpret these dreams, or are we meant merely to listen to these whispery, overheard voices without judgment?
The prose poems in the collection show Wilkinson at his best. "light blew open the hutch and a boy saw it" draws out childlike, mythic dream imagery before asking, "What of this will we remember with our hands? . . . How many stories were you asked to bury and which ones did you bury?" The final poem, "still life with all the animals," opens equally forthrightly: "You will find out what trouble means when you build your own road." These are lines that we can carry with us, pregnant with meaning and relation to our own lives. In the prose poems, we see intimations of ourselves reflected in the ghostly waters, allowing us to inhabit the poem.
The fragmentary sections more resemble Wilkinson's previous releases. These are the abbreviated "Books" of the collection -- The Book of Falling Asleep in the Bathtub and Snow, The Book of the Umbrella, and so on -- each composed of brief images, sometimes self-contained, sometimes related to the sequence as a whole. The power of these impressionistic fragments varies. Some are vivid, clean: "Carry this song / in the hood of your throat" or "Here are the birds -- / what they've / left makes a book of your hands" resonate in the mind like a drawn-out note from a cello. But juxtaposed with images like "Ham hocks and a pouch of turmeric / stapled to your britches" that draw attention to their own experimentalism, the self-conscious play of the poet betrays a distance of voice. It is possible that beyond this emotive stance the poems remain safely beyond interpretation, intentionally impervious.
For this reason, the prose poems feel most satisfying, while the fragments, though sometimes memorable, resist the narrative and delineation that allows them to be carried in the throat as developed songs in which to find commonality and comfort. Still, both modes have their virtues. It depends on whether you choose, as in Plato's cave, to watch the film or what is happening in the projection booth behind us.