The strongest poems in Carleton Wilson’s debut collection, The Material Sublime, vibrate with the conviction and mellifluousness of an old-fashioned preacher who, like a circus performer, has pitched his tent on the outskirts of town to orate and to evangelize the locals.
Wilson’s diction at times borders on high-flung, but he is playful enough to avoid seeming either stodgy or arch, striking a pleasing balance between restraint and bluster. “Babel” relates the building and toppling of that biblical tower with an air of religious testimony long stacked lines that form a tower on the page. A worker recalls how it “swarmed into the sky, rising above the city’s centre, / a gnomon, its shadow cast across the squat buildings, denoting / each passing hour, streets thrown outward from its axial revolution.”
The rhythm is oratory, the commas suggesting pauses for thought or breath, as “Hammer, pail, chisel—each lost letters, missing / fragments become portents of a monumental downfall,” and the desire to speak becomes simultaneously more urgent and more futile.. “Nirvana” has a similar, testimonial rhythm, this time in the voice of one of the Bamiyan Buddhas, who watched serenely over the centuries until their destruction by the Taliban in 2001. “The fuse you lit to destroy me is in your mind,” it pronounces gently but defiantly. “It smoulders / through you, a phosphorescent snake shedding its / skin, burnt-out husk of greed, anger, ignorance / infesting finally all contemplation within you / wherein emptiness might have been engendered.”
The empty apses left behind after the statues’ destruction become monuments to the Buddhist concept of sunyata (emptiness), creating an idol more powerful and perfect than the one the regime intended to erase. While most of the work in this collection doesn’t take on overtly religious subjects, many explore the transcendent aspects of corporeal experience. Softly but insistently, Wilson asks us to listen to the world speaking.
While he cites Heaney and Keats as influences, the “Junction Sonnets” and the “Junction Elegies,” which respectively open and close the collection, also recall the perambulatory poetry of Wordsworth. Here, it is The Junction, a western Toronto neighbourhood where four railway lines intersect, that the poet explores on foot. Listening to wind and boxcar wheels, the sonnets’ speaker hears “a patchwork of syllable and speech / that bear me inside their language and beyond it.”
The material world is ever whispering about something divine, and Wilson finds rhythms to translate those murmurs. Wilson’s work conveys both a delight in and a seriousness about language, sound, and, importantly, silence. There is a formality about it, but one that isn’t too decorous, and which invites meditation. Some of the love poems, while tenderly expressed,, fail to distinguish themselves, but on the whole these poems, with their insistent music, will sear themselves onto the mind of even the sceptical reader. With the cadences of a charismatic, Wilson draws us into the fold and toward quiet contemplation.
Abby Paige is a poet, performer, and freelance writer whose work has been published in Canada and the U.S. She received the 2011 Editor’s Prize from the Rhino Poetry Forum.