A publishing friend once told me that one of the real tests of a writer is what he does after his first book is published:
Does he have another book in him, and will it be any good?
Joe Wilkins doesn’t have to worry about that test.
His first book was published in 2012 and, this month, Wilkins is out with his sixth book since then — the poetry chapbook Leviathan. It not only continues his remarkably prolific burst of writing, but further strengthens the case that Wilkins is among the best young writers working today.
In Leviathan, a prize-winning collection published by Iron Horse Literary Review, Wilkins’ voice has all of the passion and ability to evoke intimate truths that defined his previous books. That allows Leviathan, at 40 pages, to pack the punch of a much larger book. Indeed, it is a “giant of a book with big-soul poems,” in the words of poet and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Laurie Kutchins.
Wilkins was the creative writing director at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, until two years ago, and now teaches at Linden College in McMinnville, Ore. Several of the poems in Leviathan are set in north Iowa, yet the more consistent setting of the works is in places deep in the soul. Wilkins celebrates some of those places. But just as often, the book is soul-aching because he explores places or mental states that are bleak, teetering on life or death, or just lives of despair. Yet, what makes Wilkins’ work so strong is that even when he’s writing about misery, he does it beautifully.
The language of his poems at times resembles that of the great Leo Dangel’s poems of life in the rural Midwest. Wilkins is at least one generation younger, maybe two, than Dangel. But where Dangel was shaped by a not-easy youth in not-wealthy farmland in South Dakota, Wilkins comes from a not-easy youth in barely-getting-by ranch country on dry, broken land in Montana. Some strong parallels there. And such backgrounds help lead to powerful images and metaphors, both lovely and grim: skies gray as dishrags, a godwracked man, “day breaking down the blue spine of a brown trout.”
The poems are sometimes interwoven with a romantic’s hope or, perhaps more often, with a realist’s knowledge that hard lives will sometimes stay hard. It’s a low-to-the-ground sensibility and study of both, seeing the dirt and sweat, yet also fully aware that nearly all of us — the great and the regular — have dreams and fears and reach for God or something to give us answers.
He ponders fatherhood and the joy of close-knit family. But he also gets that the world knows ache and failure, and often, death can hit quick — as when a river in Arkansas floods overnight and kills 16 people as they camp.
Wilkins catches the sounds of nature —“an old bullfrog thuwmped,” “the whine and haw of a locust.” Language also shines in the compound adjectives he creates, and often in cadences and phrasing that recall Old Testament prophets who gain momentum in their words by swinging a pendulum of sentences, until there’s a vortex that pulls you in and bowls you over.
In one poem, he starts at a redemption center in north Iowa, where people can turn in their recycled pop cans, beer bottles and whiskey bottles for cash. The piece becomes both a play on the word redemption and a serious musing/debate over the act of Christian redemption. “And I heard / in that awful silence the pure, sad surprise / of what the final reckoning must hold.”
It’s also her second set in the fictional town of Garfield Falls, featuring the police detective Vincent Bishop. (The first book is Bishop to Queen’s Knight.)
Bishop Bewitched starts with the detective getting a pre-dawn phone call from his chief. There’s a dead body to look into.
“Bunch of old women out in a field doing voodoo spells. One of them dropped dead. Paramedics wouldn’t touch her. You go in, see what’s what. …”
Sounds like an invitation, not only for Bishop but for Mills’ readers.