GROWLING COCKATOOS AND HOPEFUL SWASTIKAS: Les Wicks’ Getting By Not Fitting In

Verity La Through the Looking Glass: Reviews

Review by David Thomas Henry Wright
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Les Wicks’ Getting By  Not Fitting In opens with two quotes, one by Mao Tse-tung: ‘All is chaos under the heavens, the situation is excellent’, the other by Neil Young: ‘Look around it, have you found it’. Both Mao and Young were more influential figures a few decades ago, yet their legacy resonates: Young still performs, and the Chairman’s portrait still hangs in Tiananmen Square. So, too, is it with Les Wicks. In the late 1970s he founded Meuse Press with Bill Farrow, and he was instrumental in setting up the Poets Union. He has been published in multiple anthologies, publications and countries. This, his thirteenth book, is a fitting addition to the corpus of a prolific Australian poet.

The peculiar juxtaposition of Mao and Young sets the tone for the collection. To contrast, to jar, to muddy vocabularies, to combine crass people’s tongue with precise poetics is at the heart of Wicks’ technique. Getting By  Not Fitting In is structured into seven sections. The first two, ‘The Company of Women’ and ‘We Are Just Men’, divide female and male themed poems: women observed, and masculinity lived and viewed. In the ‘feminine’ poem, ‘In the Tribe’, Wicks writes:

The Treaty of the Mothers
was a hardfought thing. It worries. (8)

Whereas in the ‘masculine’ poem, ‘User Manual – Men’, Wicks opens:

The trick in all this trickiness
is to deceive the nasty inner thing lodged
under our not-so-hardy skins. (22)

The third section, ‘Narrative’, contains narrative poems, including broad narratives, such as those depicted in ‘A Brief History of the Mass Market’:

Decades later I’m peering at the Silk Road, darkweb.
Doors of Tor Project will give you anything,
like that photo of a stain a woman leaves
on concrete when she dies.
The FBI have pounced on bitcoins
& online arms sales have closed due to lack of interest.

The past was fast enough
& now is in a hurry. (35)

The fourth section, ‘Location’, focuses on locale. In particular, a tragic Sydney is articulated in ‘The Sydney Problem’: ‘Inside the last bestial roar comes from aircon’ (47). In the final three sections — ‘The Difficulties of Matt Kovacs’, ‘From Ms Tess Manning,’ and ‘What Ends?’ — the first four themes converge to form the poetic narrative of Matt and Tess over thirty-six poems. The final piece, ‘The 6th Intersection’, combines the voices of Matt and Tess (justified left and right), while centred text depicts an objective, moral voice:

Christ, you just disappeared.

We were never there at the end.

Both asinine and fundamental:

Are you happy?

Are you happy?

Happiness passes for this
state of acceptance.
She is distracted.
He has forgotten
recrimination, a
noodle smile says No worries –
the Australian pinnacle, the prize. (95)

Despite such playfulness of form and vocabularies, the possibility for the poem to have an objective voice that can render moral judgment situates Wicks within a traditional category that rejects postmodern tricks or ironic glints. His Australia is a harsh one, where lorikeets ‘ravage’, cockatoos ‘growl’, and women say, ‘since I got off drugs me periods are real regular every month’ (9). Wicks is not afraid to indulge the ugliness of culture. These poems are preoccupied with a lower class, neglected Australia, and the linguistic, economic, and social transformations it has endured over the past decades. For example, ‘Xmas Day, the Block’ opens:

Crack-Whore & Santa Claus
3rd floor, #10 & #11 ‘cept
no one uses crack &
now they’re called sexworkers with
brassy accountants.
So much intensity
remains human transaction. (53)

Wicks fluctuates between various modes. His great achievement is an ability to skilfully juggle the various facets of his viewpoint in a gaze that remains consistent within the whole collection. His poems have the capacity to observe with cruelty and kindness, often at the same time. In ‘Struggle’, Wicks depicts a parochial history that champions:

Is this country thirstier?
A job was something solid once
when she was young & unbreakable. She continues to strive
though her sense of connection fades.

We owe ourselves to the dirt. There is a freedom in this. (17)

In ‘More Views than Umm Like Everybody’, we get acerbic satire: 

Beer Shit has a facebook page,
877 fans (hits the). Aficionados say
oscillating fans are necessary –
Bud mud, the brown drown. LOL.

Add it as your friend. (30)

In ‘Sheath’, there is a kitchen sink realism that dares not flinch:

Struts are built of boredom     that very human poison.

Don’t know why I fucken rung 000.
Don’t know why I’m talkin’ to you. (29)

This multifaceted gaze is perhaps best emblematised by Wicks’ ‘Ho Ho Heil’, contained in the second section ‘We Are Just Men’. The poem depicts an ‘aging Nazi skinhead’ doing his last-minute Christmas shopping. He is described as ‘just another baldy’, his swastika tattoos having ‘paled to a gunmetal grey’. (32) While the image is darkly humorous, the character Wicks depicts is human. He is perhaps not treated with respect, but with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek irony. Yet, when a ‘smiling Moslem woman’ with a decorated pram passes and says ‘Excuse me’, Wicks still observes of the man: ‘it seems like all his arguments have been fought to exhaustion’. Indeed, the reader is told to rejoice, for ‘like all other energies, hate fades’. Here, Wicks is able to make a faded swastika a symbol of societal hope. While such juxtaposition is disquieting, it is also deeply human: this is Wicks’ truest touch.

Getting By  Not Fitting In
Les Wicks
Island Press, 2016
96 pages, $20.00
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David Thomas Henry Wright was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards’ inaugural QUT Digital Literature Prize, City of Fremantle’s T.A.G. Hungerford Award, Viva La Novella Award, and Overland Short Story Prize. He has been published in Southerly, Seizure, and Verity La, and edited a special issue of Westerly. He has a Masters from The University of Edinburgh and lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed the school’s course in Australian Literature. He is an Electronic Literature Organisation member and presented at the ELO 2017 Conference in Porto, Portugal. He is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch University. www.davidthomashenrywright.com