Concentrated ‘Ratbaggery’: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Barking Wings’ by Les Wicks

Barking Wings by Les Wicks. PressPress 2012

Chapbooks have a tendency to concentrate a poet’s work into a ‘confined space’ with little margin for error. While a collection of between 60 to 80 pages allows a poet to spread out, take a breath and look around, for a chapbook of around 30 pages to be successful, the poet has to hit the ground running and keep running flat-out. Les Wicks does precisely that in his latest collection, Barking Wings.

One has the sense that Wicks has taken a very deep breath at the beginning of the book and not taken another breath until the final full stop on page 31. But that is not unusual for Wicks. Following the publication of his first book, The Vanguard Sleeps In (Glandular Press 1981), Wicks’ work was described in the following terms: “ frantic beat of rock music” (Access magazine), “Successfully evokes….atmospheres of ratbaggery” (SMH) and “good sleazy fun” (Rae Desmond Jones). I was sorely tempered to recycle some of these statements in this review of his tenth book.

There is more than a touch of the performance poet about Wicks. While his poems work fine as traditional poems on a page, they are constantly demanding to be read aloud, shouted even, so that the sounds of the words can be considered as equals along with their meaning. In ‘Luck hard’ for example, we are told:

My GP has warned
I must face an occasional
Illogical exuberance….

This exuberance quickly becomes a series of word/ sound plays:

Ignore the Bad Thoughts
during a commercial break.
4 is a jagged number, we are
impaled impala.
Always a fine line, suppression of mind (the
filthy brumby) & requirement to be open, queerly, qwerty.

To fully appreciate these lines they need to be read aloud to allow the sounds of the words to bounce off each other ….”queerly, qwerty”.

But Wicks can slip easily back into a what seems to be a more conventional form:

It is raining somewhere else
& the world wont finish yet.
Over breakfast
a lite  northerly  wind grooms
crimson rosellas.  Joy is deceptively busy.


But the ordinariness of this poem is only skin deep. The deliberate misspelling of ‘lite’, the image of the wind ‘grooming’ rosellas, and is he talking about a person or an emotion when talks of ‘Joy’ being deceptively busy? If this is ordinary it is the ordinary of a Reg Mombassa painting.

Suddenly the poem changes gear and a borrowed rhythm picks us up and sweeps us towards the end of the poem:

The back-bone’s connected to the
sky-bone. The wish-bone’s connected
to the home-loan…..”

Barking Wings shows Wicks at his playful best. In the 18 poems crammed into this pocket-size book we have image piled up on image, words and sounds crashing to together and, even when we can see ‘blue sky’ for a few lines, we are always aware that another surprise is only a line break away.

After 10 books surely its now time to start asking when will we see a Collected/Selected volume of Wick’s work? It would be fascinating to trace his development from his early poems in those out of print collections to mature playfulness of his latest collection.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

Barking Wings is available directly from PressPress.

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