“estrangement, as it goes”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

23 of 100: The Wynona Stone Poems by Caki Wilkinson (2015, Persea Books)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I wasn’t sure how I’d do reading an entire book of poems in the third person about a fictional character and her family and community, but Wilkinson really makes it work. Wynona is just as real as any narrator/speaker. As a result, the reader connects with the world created in the poems and how it may or may not resemble our own: “Estrangement, as it goes, / is not the sort of thing the Stones discuss. … // If Mrs. Stone turns cold–she often does: / the silent treatment, ruffled feathers, blahs– / they speak for or about her: Mother likes / a darker char, don’t you? You’ve cleaned your plate. / She has. She’s happy.” By using a fictional character instead of a traditional speaker, Wilkinson earns for Wynona a degree of affection, where other narrators may struggle to earn that kind of leeway from readers. For example, when Wilkinson writes, “Nobody has to tell her life’s not fair,” we are more gentle because it’s Wynona; we relate to the wallowing instead of questioning the literary advisability of a wallowing speaker.
  • Wilkinson uses rhyme throughout the book. Initially, the simple rhymes seem to match girlhood, while offering some levity to rather grave topics. Wynona never outgrows the rhyme, which speaks in part to the character being a lot odd and a little stuck.
  • One of the quirkiest things Wynona does is to sculpt clay miniatures of lovers and enemies, and I find it so endearing: “You might’ve heard / she built a throng, / clay figures, squat / as shotgun shells, / her long lost foes / and loves gone wrong, / then stood them up / like dominoes, / pushed one and watched / the others fall, / said, Are you pretties / pitiful or what? / Call it a rut.”
  • The details in the collection are great: “little knitted caps / fitted to pickle jars.”
  • I truly admire the blend of humor and sadness in the poems: “when others at the beauty shop / choose lightning bolts or hearts, / she asks the cosmetologist / to wax her lady parts // and leave a pineapple design … / the Weatherman / doesn’t say a word, / just flaps against Winona’s lintel / like a manic bird, // until she understands he’ll never / give a hoot about / the logic of her welcome, though / he gladly wears it out.”

Lines I want to remember:

  • “She’s a drawer / of knives, jammed shut. … Her mind’s a rotten pond. And doubt? A storm that’s never not approaching.”
  • “exacting love / for this world / she made herself / the center of.”
  • “love / she learned to receive / like a chest pass / lobbed / from the periphery.”
  • “by the time they eat, it’s no one’s fault, / a table full of martyrs who, by god, / will finish what they’re given,”
  • “Resolved to give the run around / less often, I vow not to loan / my car to strangers, mow the lawn / in lingerie, or try to sound / important.”
  • “a real hard knot / of worry, normal as another organ.”
  • “She can’t say what she needs.”
  • “Prognosis? Hanging by a thread.
  • “Wynona as the star / of Wynona Stone, the musical, / playing her avatar.”

What others have said:

  • from Publishers Weekly: “Wynona Stone played high school basketball in her hometown, moved away for college but soon returned. Working for a local museum, she does handicrafts and has an unsatisfactory love life with a local TV personality—“blowing the Weatherman,/ to put it bluntly.” Wilkinson assembles pentameter stanzas, clean short lines, and snapshots of Americana. Her introspective woman-at-loose-ends might be familiar from fiction, but few books of poetry have done this sort of character so well.”
  • from The Rumpus: “In poems that phantasmagorically imagine, then reimagine, Wynona’s plausibly mundane existence in the fictional town of Pleasant Bluff (not unlike, conceivably, the New Carthage of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl), Wilkinson has accomplished one of the most innovative collections I have read in years.”
  • from 32 Poems: “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.”
  • Caki Wilkinson’s own words in an interview with Memorious: “I think I was drawn to Wynona initially because of her flaws, which were alternately funny and sad in ways that made me root for her. Wynona is a compressed, distorted version of a real person, and there are moments when her circumstances seem ridiculous, but I think her motivations are very human. She’s a person trying to come to terms with a bunch of small failures, and she wants to hope there’s something better ahead of her.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

  • “Wynona Makes Like A Tree,” “Interlude” & Third Standoff” here
  • “Down and Out,” “A Scene Not Made,” “A Christmas Story,” “Isobars,” “Human Resources,” “Wynona’s Hiatus,” “Hibernaculum,” “Self Check-Out” & “Deleted Scenes” here
  • Hospitality
  • Calculating Route
  • The Cosmetologist

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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