Way More Than Luck: Ben Wilkinson, Seren
I found Ben Wilkinson’s work, as represented in this collection from Seren, direct but nuanced. The poems are well crafted in a range of forms. The three sections of the book have distinct themes. The first section, which gives the book its title, dwells on the writer’s depression and charts the accompanying self-deprecating despair. This is a brave project and articulates an unsentimental journey redeemed through serious running. In ‘Where I Run From’, referencing Murakami’s paean to the discipline, he clearly articulates its importance:
Running is not the tough guys stance. It’s you
versus you, the you you used to be, before you
realised that pain is certain, but sorrow is a choice.
Wilkinson hints broadly at not just where he runs from, but what he is running from. In a reminiscence of childhood Sunday mornings where his father disappears each Sunday leaving mum in bed, children watching the TV, he imagines him “dancing over tree roots, trails in the cold morning light” and concludes
Then I’d know why I lace up
Before the day’s begun
In slate rain and deepest dark,
To get gone before anyone
Can hold me back.
(‘Sundays too my Dad got up early’)
In ‘To David Foster Wallace’, whose work I was unfamiliar with, Ben Wilkinson offers a lengthy and tortured epistle to a fellow sufferer. Strong lines abound:
the constant gnawing sense of having
Had and lost some infinite thing
- my chest
bumps like a dryer with shoes in it
We’re all utterly alone, but we’re
Utterly alone in this together.
Glimmers of salvation shine through. Sharing may be part of the answer but it’s an individual battle needing individual response. The black ‘Hound’ that haunts you, follows you around, pretends to be a faithful pet, needs to be tethered to a lamppost without guilt to stop it taking without giving.
And there is ‘Some Relief’, “relief in coming down; relief in standing on the fell after rainfall, looking down at the town, the houses, your house, smaller than you imagined, everything somehow more manageable for now.” Wilkinson crosses that ‘men and feelings’ boundary with knobs on. To dwell on and share an insight into a nightmare world, the poems made all the more vivid by their very northern sense of place, is a considerable feat.
The second section, ‘An Ordinary Game’, is a collection of football-related poems. Very apposite in July 2018, but all focused around Wilkinson’s adopted football team, Liverpool. They are enchanting and uplifting. Soaring above the obvious in some cases and restating it bluntly in others, they really do make a case for the beautiful game and its role in forging identity, creating popular heroes, and sustaining myth. Poems on John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish are about things that matter much more than football, although the lovely Bill Shankly tribute, a collection of his aphorisms, does include that one which suggests the opposite.
Part three, ‘An Absurd Pastime’, is about life. Life as an absurd obstacle course of imperfection, where we constantly try to improve our performance, and invariably end up repeating the same mistakes. Among the reflections on failing relationships, lost moments, transient landscapes, one poem stands out as overtly political. ‘Building A Brighter, More Secure Future’ (Conservative Party Manifesto 2015) is a cut-up of familiar slogans that no doubt we will soon hear again. And no doubt, despite their apparent absurdity, we will again buy into them:
This is our future. What we have is a
mandate to fulfil, building a Britain more
secure. And for us, it will be brighter.
Way More Than Luck is a mixed bag. Many of the poems included are award winners and it’s not hard to see why. Ben Wilkinson’s poems at their best and bravest create a link between a troubled inner world and an outer world, urban or rural, that can mirror, kindle or exorcise it.