Joshua Marie Wilkinson on “Fortnight’s Insignia”
to endorse the dust
shall not add to your bounty
Go soundly, soft harmonium drag. The temper is a stockade. The vestibule is a spot to get us off if you've been clamped down. Have you now? Come inside to hear of it, but speak clear & slow for the tape to coil you in—I'll need this later for a transcription.
Now to the hinge of memory, the dropper of orange cough syrup, & a flat file for the wall safe. What are your tools & how do you secure them to your person? Clicking one lamp off fastens shadows to each other, but that's the trick you taught me. Lepers Boat Creek, they call it—its apostrophe also wiped free.
So, the little courier grows dud wings & can't lift off. Isn't that how you want it to end? Devoured by a wolf pack after they looked so docile at the river?
The lobby's lone attendant twins to Warhol's Elvis cowboys in the hall's double mirror. Sounds of fucking in room 304 & we're in room 305. So it's gonna be that kind of century. The ducts blasting. The window onto a window onto a supper fight. Snow twisting traffic into a V.
The ocean chopper's hunting for ice on which to land. Now pull the dead pilot's gear off his head. Do we take his wallet, too? What do we hide in plain sight? The worst of it won't sow into broadcasts.
Fledgling pilot, your days are soon to end. The storm's indifference is a vehicle. That funnel is only its shape from a satellite learning your face.
What you see will peel the paint from the dead detective's glass door:
Fortnight's insignia & Twombly's cape shadows dragged across the plain. Birds lift from the cataract, a pool of stars.
A winter month's short door through which to crawl.
Underground now with a heaven of storm water called runoff by the above.
I hold the map up & speak into the forming ice for an echo to crunch back.
On "Fortnight's Insignia"
My dad is not a poetry reader. He reads nonfiction mostly. He's a Timothy Egan and Malcolm Gladwell fan, to name two. But when he came for a visit to Tucson this month, right after my new book, The Courier's Archive & Hymnal, had come out, he read it one morning before I awoke. So when he asked, in curious perplexity, about the origins of the book, the analogy I came up with is through a verbal/visual metaphor: my writing converses with dead poets, sometimes living ones. And filmmakers, painters, photographers, and novelists, too.
If it's not experience-based poetry, readers can have a hard time with it—taught as we are to connect the writing to the persona or biography of the writer. I do it too: I read the bio, check the author photo, do a quick web search. It's a tough convention to avoid. And this returns me to something Thomas Sayers Ellis posted online the other day: "In most cases half the work is already done for you when you write a poem based on an experience you had. Lazy." Yet one definition of experience in my old Webster's is "The sum total of the conscious events which compose an individual life"; and if we render our unconscious lives (surely poems could do this) then what we think of as experience itself expands, and the possibilities for poetry follow suit.
For me, "Fortnight's Insignia" speaks back to Matsuo Bashō's wandering through the Japanese countryside in the 17th Century, documented in his well-known travelogue A Narrow Road to the Deep Interior. My poems—in some failed attempt to bridge the gap of hundreds of years and different languages, cultures, landscapes, customs, and forms—elucidate another chasm, the one between me and my own experience. Meaning: what of my imaginative life, dream life, fantasy life, desiring life am I able to call up, cast forth, and scribble into language? Perhaps that's the work of the poem to me. To summon that tangle of ghostspeak, of long gone memories, of lies and rumors, and of felt (but fled) emotions. And then to exact and embody words for it.
The Courier's Archive & Hymnal is the third book—the halfway point and the way station—in a five-book sequence called No Volta that I've been at work on for about eight years now. This book, in prose slabs, imagines what it would be like if we could track our hero, the messenger girl, through the woods on her journeys, eavesdropping on her observations, as with Bashō's mesmerizing haibun. And if it's prose and haiku for Bashō, for the messenger girl it's the stories and notes of record as well as the songbook of her adventures, it's the archive and her hymnal.
The book takes its epigraph from a short piece by Kafka: "They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers." To sit back on your throne or scuttle through the woods? The latter, indeed.
"Fortnight's Insignia" is the final section of the book, and flirts with a conclusion—wondering all the while what sort of stamp (what sort of sign or insignia) even a relatively short period of time (two weeks, say) leaves on our bodies. In other words, I think this poem wants to overhear how we might be marked by the time we've spent here, while overseeing what the messenger girl might yet think, feel, recollect, say, make, or do as a result of her accumulating experiences—however inchoate, however fleeting.