Prose Feature: Doubly Negative: A Review of Caki Wilkinson’s THE WYNONA STONE POEMS (Persea, 2014), by Michele Leavitt

December 4, 2015

In The Wynona Stone Poems, Caki Wilkinson’s second collection, an omniscient narrator guides the reader through a fictional town inhabited by eccentrics. Here, the town is Pleasant Bluff, which is only pleasant on the surface, and the star eccentric is Wynona Stone, a high-school basketball star who, among other things, crafts a robot head as a Halloween costume and continues to wear it “past the party.” Over the course of the book’s three parts, readers follow the narrative of Wynona’s life as she grapples with love, sex, syntax, alcohol, and aging, reaching a late maturity through her own creative process in the final poem, “Arts and Crafts.”

The narrative follows the arc of a bildungsroman, but by telling the story in the heightened language of poetry, Wilkinson places Wynona’s compulsive, obsessive behaviors in the compulsive, obsessive repetitions of rhyme and meter. Wilkinson pairs traditional narrative patterns with traditional poetics, and the result, somewhat ironically, allows readers inside access to a character who delights in deviance. The sonic repetition lulls us into accepting the bizarre experience of Wynona’s story.

But we don’t stay lulled for long. Wilkinson’s knack for working with and against rhymes and metrical patterns, for playing the inevitable against surprising deviations, keeps readers on their toes. We see this back-and-forth between expectation and surprise at play in the poem “Duplex”:

At 6 months in,
and half-unpacked,
the spare room fat
with boxes stacked
like bricks from some
demolished city, home

is where one day
Wynona vows
she’ll hang the hat
or route the cows
she doesn’t have
the width for here; as half

the time she’s pressed
to pay for cable,
what’s living large?
A sturdy table,
Fewer ghosts–
At best, a dinner guest.

“Duplex” relies largely on exact rhymes: unpacked/stacked, vows/cows, cable/table. The final two lines of the first two stanzas echo each other with slant rhymes, anchored in assonance, but in the final two lines of the last stanza, where the idea of “home” as a social place is upended, the pattern shifts to alliteration: ghosts/guests. The change in rhythm embodies Wynona’s off-kilter journey to adult independence, one we learned about earlier in the collection in “Higher Education,” when, after college,

afraid to lose the race,
Wynona moved back home. She’d need a year,
she said, to find her rhythm here,
though waiting for the perfect key to strike her,
she found the songs she’d yet to sing
          would always sound more like her.

Like the irony of “Pleasant Bluff,” which contains the dissonant concepts of geniality and deception, “Duplex” contains its own imbalance, and therefore, tension. “Higher Education,” with its Keatsian emphasis on the truth of the unheard, or unsung, melody, anticipates the conclusion of the collection.

In Wilkinson’s prose poems, what appear to be blocks of text on the page are often strongly iambic and musical. “This Is the Town Wynona Built” demonstrates that lyricism and also documents Wynona’s engagement with art as a process of selection:

. . . . She drew the line at supers, cousins-once-removed, love letters, pills, and knickknack shelves. This cleared a space for her small self, who has, Wynona must concede, her own small sense of style. There are no homes. Homes take a while.

Although framed as a paragraph, the lines lilt iambically and make use of both slant (shelves/self) and perfect (style/awhile) rhymes. Similar to the irony of “Pleasant Bluff,” the apparent form–prose–contains its supposed opposite: meter and rhyme–that is, poetry.

Wilkinson uses this tension between poetry and prose to keep the reader off balance, beginning with the opening stanzas of the very first poem, “The Brink”:

Wynona Stone is having trouble broaching.
She likes to float. A quick sip now and then,
the one indulgence she can’t not allow,

appeases. She felt surer in her skin
some years ago; things change. Don’t ask her how.
It’s not impossible to lose, with coaching . . .

Broaching what? This refusal to append an object to what I thought of as a transitive verb (“to broach an uncomfortable subject”) sent me scurrying to the dictionary in search of an alternative, intransitive version of “to broach.” There it was, in the esoteric world of trout fishing, where one can broach both transitively and intransitively. The trout can broach, or leap from, the water–but then, of course, she’s a fish out of water. Wynona’s sphere is similarly limited. As a high-school basketball star, she was briefly a big fish in a small pond, and she has trouble rising from that pond. After high school, she stays put in Pleasant Bluff, continuing to live in her parents’ loveless home.

Just as this syntax keeps us slightly off-balance, so does the perspective of the primary speaker of these poems. We receive most of Wynona’s story at a remove through the lens of an omniscient guide, a persona whose perspective is at once derisive and compassionate. From “The Brink”:

It’s tenuous. She wants to see beyond

the spite that casts her life in metaphor.
Wants to, but can’t. Her mind’s a rotten pond.

The rhyme lulls us, but the conflicting perspectives put the narrator’s reliability into question. Can we trust this guide, or do we need to stay vigilant against the soothing patterns of sound? And like anyone who can see it all, our guide is possessed of a certain cynicism. From “Slow Fade”:

                     . . . Out of touch
with social cues, Wynona drinks too much–

which suits her role: the shoe about to drop.

Ultimately these shifts in perspectives, combined with Wilkinson’s rhyme and repetition, imbue our guide with a singular, idiomatic voice. What may strike readers right from the outset is the speaker’s habit of repeating words, as in these lines from “The Stone House”: “They tune each other out/ by tuning in tonight in separate room,” and “It’s volume versus volume. Volume wins,” and:

           . . . Those years of fuzz
had simplified the rules of intercourse:
either you scream until somebody answers
or keep it to yourself and wait. And wait.

Wilkinson’s guide also insists on double negatives in phrases like “she can’t not allow” and “It’s not impossible” and “a storm that’s never not approaching” and “It’s not unpleasant here.” How to tease out the logic of these lines without pausing to do the mental math that double negatives demand?

Repetition also forms the book’s larger structure. Poems often tend to echo images or lines from earlier poems in the collection. “Down and Out,” the opening poem in the book’s second section, echoes “The Brink”:

Wynona Stone is having trouble broaching.
She’d hoped to float. A stiff swig usually
appeases. Not today, though, nosirree.

Wynona likes to float, she’d hoped to float, but by “Hibernaculum,” the opening poem of the third and final part of the book, she’s sunk:

A cold snap: so Wynona isn’t broaching.
Her sighs form sullen bubbles on the ceiling.

“She’s not unhappy, but she’s not unsad.” This final line of “Down and Out” repeats the double negative pattern, and slows the reader down again. Like Wynona’s feelings, this form is a bit of a paradox: the repetition creates the impression of order, but it also creates complexity of meaning as we work to make sense out of the patterns. It’s also another effective technique of keeping us imbalanced, slowing and interrupting the steady rhythm that Wilkinson is so adept at creating. In the concluding lines of “Hibernaculum,” Wilkinson subtly echoes her double negative syntax with a pun on “not” with “knot”:

sometimes a simile is her best shot
to see things as they are. The rotten weather
is not Wynona’s problem: like a knot,

her heart’s pulled taut inside this self she’s spun,
and, like a knot, what’s holding her together
is the energy she’d need to come undone.

This energy, finally, comes through Wynona’s quirky, three-dimensional art. After crafting the robot head, Wynona makes tiny models of her former lovers in polymer clay and a miniature replica of Pleasant Bluff, although, as our guide tells us in the prose poem, “This Is the Town Wynona Built,”

To call the thing a replica would be misleading. There are omissions, twists. The scale is off.

Isn’t that how life ends up being made into art? Omissions, twists, adjustments to scale? No surprise, then, that Wynona ends up working in Small Collections at the Museum of the Way We Were, with “arms like tentacles gone numb / from sensing what’s forever out of reach.” And, like many artists, she destroys the work of her past. From “Deus Ex Machina”:

Not pillage, more
like disassembly, really,
since Wynona must
dissemble any figures
that resemble symbols
. . . . . . . . .
No, she doesn’t pillory
or pillage, merely drops
the model village, piece
by piece, into a coffee can
. . . . . . . . . . .
at least until she understands
art’s less about this world
undone than how
she’ll build another one.

Wilkinson concludes the collection with “Arts and Crafts,” where Wynona creates her “masterwork”: an installation of hanging origami cranes. While the omniscient speaker muses in ars poetica fashion on the gap between concept and thing, Wynona manages to close that gap:

Her masterwork
may never be
considered museum
quality

among the high arts,
hard on strings,
that root for concepts
over things,

but bending wings
just so, she’d swear
with paper birds
she makes the air.

This final pair of opposites–the unvarnished reality of air and the formed art of origami–enacts the old argument about whether to “root for” concepts or things. In both content and form, concept and thing, The Wynona Stone Poems suggests that with enough juxtaposition, the distinctions between opposites fade. The unsung can become the sung, and the unmade can become the made. The thing– the origami–sketches the invisible concept of air. Wynona’s inability to rise above the surface, the conflict that begins each section of the collection, is finally resolved. The surface is an illusion. There is no division. Wynona becomes capable, as Keats recommended, of existing in uncertainties. In this final poem, the division between the narrator and Wynona finally begins to blur. The last words are reserved for the omniscient speaker, but like all storytellers who view reality from a distance, our speaker does not participate in the story and therefore can only tell us about it. The narrator makes Wynona’s reality available to readers, but only once Wynona makes it.

—Michele Leavitt

Michele Leavitt

Michele Leavitt is the author of Back East (Moon Pie Press, 2013), winner of the 2013 Michael Macklin Book Prize, and Virus Conversations (EAT Words, 2014), an audio chapbook. Her essays and poems appear in Medium, So to Speak, Mezzo Cammin, Hippocampus, The Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches writing and codirects the honors program at Unity College. Vist her at www.michelejleavitt.com

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