Vigorous and Compelling: Margaret Bradstock Launches ‘Belief’ by Les Wicks

Les Wicks’ Belief (Flying Islands, 2019) was launched by Margaret Bradstock at the Friend in Hand Hotel, Glebe, 2:30pm 2 February 2019.

Les Wicks at the launch of Belief. Photo: Anne Casey

Les Wicks has done it again. Belief is his 14th poetry collection. He says he aims to bring a book out every three years, and has continued to do so, without, need I say, any loss in quality. I can’t pretend to understand every word or poem he writes, but nothing valuable is achieved without effort. To me it’s sometimes like doing a cryptic crossword − all the clues are there, a plethora of images suggest answers, and suddenly you’ve got it. A few wines or whiskeys along the way may, or may not, help. Sometimes it’s more productive to Google the more erudite references.

Les has a high moral compass. His values (political and humanistic) are all in the right place, and Belief is a testament to this, frequently undercut with a wry sense of humour. The first section, ‘Visions’, gives us a preview of the afterlife we might, or might not, wish to believe in (e.g. ‘Compost’ perhaps, or ‘Big Dig Gig’, where the recently departed from this world are being interviewed in the next). As Les writes in the subtitle to this collection, belief is ‘an almost impregnable construct…each of us ridicules but clings to’. I like the poem ‘Kyeemagh’ and also ‘Wind Instruments’, both of which show belief as illusory, yet as something necessary that keeps the protagonists going. In ‘Wind Instruments’, Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band fame continues to search for his missing girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie, against all odds: ‘Could be dead but almost certainly/ somewhere west, the tumbleweeds /of faith curl the sands’; ‘hopes went to shades & assumed a passive menace’; ‘So much smoke for just a few coughs of poetry./ Our irrelevance is durable’. The metaphors, the similes, personification are always arresting and drawn from scenarios we can identify with.

The next section, ‘Territory’, is situated in history, war, other countries. In ‘30 degrees North…97 degrees West’, we’re in Austin, Texas (or Les is): ‘I ponder what city this is/ with its roads always coughing./ Where the air is a tunnel/ for the effluent of convenience/….A giant plastic swan/ paddles towards serenity/….This is here – history, displacement/ even independence for a while.’ In ‘Hopeland LA’ (even the title an irony),’Nothing to pay/ till judgement day/ these early breakfast eggs sprawl beneath/ a dawn-light beacon of bacon as/ the racked toast sits planted like palms.’ For the already-jaded persona, disillusion, or at least questioning, sets in: ‘Glare abandons the city/ like so much else./ This divorced, aging metropolis/ is just another brittle celebrity.’

‘The World Is Sport’ exposes the biggest illusion of all, as ‘the national team stop training/ to accept honorifics….better beat Ghana next week/or the promised new car will drive you to your death…these wars are cheap.// Flesh is a commodity./ Rich, indifferent men buy teams/ & barrio boys all dream of exit…/ the model wife, new teeth./ They bet their bones.’

I was rather thrown by the following section header, ‘Australarcanum’. Alcohol wasn’t any help, so I had to resort to Google, which told me ‘The Astral Arcanum is a craftable post-Moon Lord Revengeance Mode’, with game controls like Rage and Adrenaline. That wasn’t much help either. The simple answer is that Australarcanum gives us an Australian twist on the arcane: magic, witchcraft, mysticism.  Thus, in ‘Vacation Hexing’, the 8-year-old ‘in the penitentiary of school holidays’ fantasises killing his baby brother and believes the palm frond he’s pointing will do the job, while his parents ‘watch on, negligent in a cocktail placidity’. The tone becomes more savage in ‘From the Academy’, where ‘The warlocks of confidence…call our plucked dreams pruning, offer/ the mad shop topiary that promises/ our horizons are so curtailed we/ need never test an edge.’ In the concluding stanza, belief turns to disillusion and recognition of the inevitable outcome of our human condition: ‘I believe in it all, there/ is no choice here where/ our prayers are the fine print./ We’re all meat in the herd/ driven to market/ stinking of shit & optimism.’ ‘A Druid BBQ’ questions ‘the truncheons of logic’ of religion, while implicating those involved at all levels: ‘Why deities love sacrifice/ has always puzzled the lambs…/ though only momentarily prior/ to their individual emergency./ My mouth waters, can’t help it.’

As a one-time body-board rider, I was drawn to the opening lines of ‘Heat Magick’: ‘Back home from the surf,/ the board is my shepherd./ Wave theory, no need to practise.’ Soon, with Prufrockian inertia, ennui and listlessness descend as the persona interrogates ‘Change or derange/ few questions remain that allow our simple answers’ and ‘In the begging cup of dayfall/ fruit bats drag the breeze into town.’ Confronting wordplay, especially as an opener, is a tour-de-force in Les’s poetry. So, in ‘Formal Dining’, he writes ‘I have believed poetry to be superior cutlery,/ the bitter knife, the swoon.’

Many of the poems embody the ambivalence suggested by the collection’s subtitle – that we can ridicule belief as illogical but are unmoored by the sensation of having nothing left to cling to. ‘The Euthanasia Workshop’ is a highly amusing read, but there’s a kind of wistfulness in the concluding lines that bears this out.

‘Birthed’ is one of the more positive poems in this collection:.

A new small life
on this burnt summer’s day.
Lorikeets lift from the palms outside as
here the deepest compact is born,
a covenant.
Both parents worry for the world
but feel sure there’ll be space yet
for this tiny, mighty voice.

It’s a happy conclusion. At the same time, we’re left with the age-old question of whether the parents’ confidence – a hope, a prayer – will reach fruition. This final section, ‘Felt’, is beset with hidden uncertainty in the face of human emotions. The concluding poem, ‘Promise’ only serves to underline the ambiguity, ending on what I read as a deliberately ironic note:.

This impermanence will last forever.
Isolated — even the swashbuckling motorways
are distracted, their plans miles away.
We are frantically passive beneath all those salves
manufactured to stifle, tamp
the aches of reason.

Wait. Watch. Even if we’re both falling.
Catch me.
& I’ll catch you.

Les Wicks’ dominant theme meanders loosely throughout this whole collection, but a whole lot else is going on. Iconoclastic, irreverent, but always vigorous and compelling, his poetry allows you to physically see Les punching out its rhythms. And now I’ll leave him to do just that.

Margaret Bradstock

Margaret Bradstock is a Sydney poet, critic and editor. She lectured at UNSW and has been an Asialink writer-in-residence at Beijing University, a co-editor of Five Bells, and on the Board of Directors for Australian Poetry. Her poetry is widely published and has won awards, including the Wesley Michel Wright Prize for The Pomelo Tree and the Woollahra Festival Award for Barnacle Rock. Margaret’s eighth collection, Brief Garden (2019), was published by Puncher & Wattmann early this year.

Belief is available through Flying Islands Press or directly from the poet