The Book of Whispering in the Projection Booth by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
(Tupelo Press, North Adams, MA, 2009)
This book has the feel of a jumble of storyboards. It is populated with vivid images and striking juxtapositions, but I found it difficult to decipher the narrative connection from one poem to the next, and at times from one sentence to the next. There are, of course, many collections in which the poems aren't part of a larger plot, and that may well have been what was intended here as well: after all, what is a "book of whispering"? Is it a binder full of notes scribbled by assorted movie theatre employees to pass the time when the reels don't require their attention? Is it a journal of jottings by a lone man or woman, for letters not yet answered and conversations not yet attempted? Is it a small library of dream diaries? After all, the chapter titles include "The Book of Falling Asleep in the Bathtub & Snow," "The Book of Trapdoors, Thimble-Light, & Fog," and "The Book of the Umbrella," sandwiched between cryptic pronouncements such as "If You Repeat the Names & Disappear" and "An Opening Made You Indelible."
In fact, the use of the pronoun "you" in these titles throughout the book makes me want to suss out the larger stories that these poems seem to be glimpses of. The "you" of the poems is not me, the reader: I am not the "you" who advised the diamond cutter to hold still, nor the "you" about whom the speaker of can claim, "I know the sounds you make sleeping & arriving alike," never mind the "you" whose letter "lured / me into the yard // with / a smudged wind / turning my coat black," not to mention the "you" dared by the narrator of "The Book of Trapdoors…" to open "our lodger's brown trunk." I don't have sisters whose "stolen stockings / sold // for carnival tokens & pistachio nuts," but it sure sounds like the "you" to whom that's addressed has a story to tell. It seems likely that there are multiple "you"s to whom the "I"s and "we"s address observations, predictions, and commands, but there are no names attached to any of the participants, so distinguishing between one "you" and another is a tricky business. The blurry boundaries separating one "I" from another (if they are in fact different "I"s) compound the sensation of sifting through a sheaf of snippets.
In my attempts to piece together the larger picture from which these poems seem to have emerged, I eventually realized that much of the language didn't strike me as whispery as all. It is true that there are allusions to secrets here and there (such as "A box of hummingbirds under the banister. // Your mother's dress patterns hidden / behind a chimney brick" and "How many secrets were you asked to buy & which ones did you bury?"), but the diction and flow of most of the poems didn't come across to me as particularly shy, furtive, or discreet. In at least a half-dozen instances, the declarations and decrees of the narrator(s) seemed to me bold or even bossy -- the imperative tense gets a good workout within this book. Its appearances include:
Hold still, I / need your song / to keep weather off the road.
Please come back with this hammer / taped to your leg.
Apply some pressure with this shovel & I shall use the name you gave the battered-open house in the west thicket.
Near the end of the collection, the prose poems "the thunder makes its easy way into your whole family" and "summer funeral" consist primarily of orders and advice ("You must take the boat on your back & then onto your bicycle" opens "the thunder," and "summer funeral" begins with "You should trick them & wear the charcoal suit with the canary tie").
It's not an unpleasant landscape for a reader to wander around in for a while, even sans map. The surreal, sometimes circus-esque tenor of the instructions quoted above permeates many of the other interactions between the inhabitants of the book's universe. The very first line of the first poem informs its unseen listener that "you will build a ship with pigeons & a city of rope," and the final poem in the collection echoes the hint of fairy-tale forces at work, telling the traveler that "you will find out what trouble means when you build your own road," that "you have one thousand other jobs to finish & you will need tools & several bolts of cloth," and that "it will snow for longer than what you can count up to." Strange journeys, outrageous assignments, peculiar weather are staple ingredients in the brewing of folktales and myths -- as are riddles and unexpected questions, which feature in The Book of Whispering as well, such as "could you take the other / side of this in your mitten // & make a kite with me?"
To return to the storyboard analogy: in spite of poring over the bundles of sketches handed to me, I'm no wiser than before in terms of identifying the master plot or its cast of characters. I'd be useless if asked to shuffle the scenes into order or to pick any of the actors out of a police lineup. I lack familiarity with the author's range of influences, which the marketing copy suggests played a significant role in the genesis of the poems; I would guess that a reader well-acquainted with the cinematic, artistic, and textual sources underpinning Wilkinson's world will find it easier to navigate.
Shortage of in-text contextual anchors notwithstanding, there were phrases and stanzas that resonated with me as soon as I read them -- no analysis or divination required. "The wind too will eat the scars from your face" made me shiver; "the air is burning a soft button into my ribs" is an arresting snapshot of a sensation; "one boy speaks through a keyhole to the others about a shortstop's hex" delights me. These are the equivalent of panels from the storyboards (or, say, single cells plucked from an animation sequence) that I would consider framing on their own. I was happily reminded of old, dark ballads when I encountered
I know six & a half songs & the chorus
to a seventh,
& if my voice weren't inside
my brothers I would sing something
and, ten pages later, I admired this passage as well:
I want you to
from my question
& then I'll
with my hands for it.
I've found this particular segment rewarding to read from multiple angles. It matches the surrounding texts in style and attitude, making it specific to the "The Book of Trapdoors" and its inventory of "rusted padlocks," "potato-sized stones," "rope of ants," "dandelion seeds / in my blood," "calendar with the small moons crossed / carefully out," and other unsettling items. And yet, with just a step back, the request takes on a heartwrenching, timeless universality: it's not the first time I've witnessed someone struggling to maintain a connection by manufacturing a need for it, although the yearned-for exchange is rarely stated so explicitly -- if you're willing to take something that belongs to me, I'll have a reason to get in touch with you. And yet, on a sunnier, less cynical day, the request would present itself to me as an invitation rather than a demand: shall we share this question and the handling of its answer?
"I'll ask you / with my hands" is a phrase that carries extra freight in Wilkinson's world: for his narrators, hands are visibly active instruments of communication. Gloveless hands develop photographs; fingertips seal an envelope containing a paper airplane. At the start of the closing section, the poet quotes Edmond Jabés: "You no longer have hands. You are sleeping" -- someone unconscious being someone who isn't engaged in attempts at interaction. A rejoinder to the epigraph is voiced in "summer funeral," when the newly bereaved is advised, "You should definitely give the speech. Use both hands for that speech."
Postscript: There is a 27-page reader's companion to The Book of Whispering available online and free of charge. I was unaware of this resource prior to drafting the reactions detailed above.
Peg Duthie's favorite films include Contempt and My Neighbor Totoro. She works in Nashville as a copyeditor and indexer, and periodically shares stray thoughts on Twitter @zirconium. Here's a link for her "Reviewers and Contributors" list.