A DECLARATION OF LOVE FOR HUMANITY: Judith Crispin reviews Les Wicks’ Belief

Review by Judith Crispin
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Les Wicks’ fourteenth collection of poems, Belief, is clever and brutal — an unflinching examination of human belief, in all of its horror and beauty. Structured around seven major sections entitled ‘Visions’, ‘Territory’, ‘Australarcanum’, ‘Brain’, ‘The I Myth’, ‘Wastage’ and ‘Felt’, this collection is a kind of heptateuch for the modern age.

What we encounter in Belief are insights that can only be reached in maturity — a balanced appraisal of human nature, deeply compassionate but never comforting. The language is accomplished, economical, replete with images that are supported by artful cadences and enjambment.  The carefully crafted lines in ‘Birthed’, for example, bring new emotional dimensions to the image.

She is shipwrecked despite / the plans & training                       push                
                  breathebreathe / Get this fucking thing out of me & / not a
ripple of response from anyone / except the partner / who dabs at her
brow with a damp cloth / as though he’s tamping down grassfires / on
this atoll’s interior.

Belief focuses on consumerism, fanaticism, psychopathy and death. Wicks might have been forgiven for succumbing to anger and despair, but he manages somehow to balance scepticism with a genuine longing for the miraculous. And while the poet takes a scalpel to the industry of human believing, and the atrocities created in its name, he passes no judgement on individual beliefs. In this collection, the miraculous and the mundane exist side by side.

To my left an A380 lifts from the tarmac — / miracles — you see what
I mean.

For Wicks, like Swedenborg, heaven and hell exist in the same location — we decide which one to see.

Themes of the loss of Eden permeate Belief, a search for that innocence we all had once, before the divorces, mortgages, painkillers of various kinds … Wicks evokes Licorice McKechnie, who vanished in the 80s — last seen hitch-hiking across the Arizona Desert in a confused state — as a symbol of lost idealism in his poem ‘Wind Instruments:

After the band broke up / of course she went to America. / Could be
dead but almost certainly / somewhere west, the tumbleweeds / of
faith curl the sands.

I suppose none of us can really live up to the expectations of our previous selves — the younger versions, who were going to eradicate poverty, bring world peace, establish artist communities … we all fall short one way or another. What happened to us?

Today’s Briar Rose was / a punk in the 80s. She is rich now, / our
new fairy tales really are this bereft of nuance.

For Wicks, our beliefs did not hold. A new god arrived in their absence — Mammon, the pursuit of capital that blinded us to everything else. The new religion is a complex and networked market, hierarchical like all belief systems:

 . . . this world is consumption & shit. / I squatted above you all.

The endless accumulation of capital by governments, and the individual cleaving to financial security, are presented in Belief as two ends of the same scale. What nations begin — the wars and genocides, the destruction of the planet for financial gain — we complete personally when we endure, or vote for, governments that operate that way.

Kristallnacht is a brand of champagne / everything makes sense / if you forget
hard enough.

And later,

Some kind of contra-conflict intuition / suggests our plenty is not
under threat but / is their goddiness, those wraps / a danger to our
beaches? / Will the waves taste different? / / We thought all this
money / would free us from questions.

Relentlessly the poet builds a layered image of contemporary society and the evils that underpin it — post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers, the desecration of the environment, the murderous Anthropocene in all its horror. But Belief is more than a criticism of society; it opens a window into the interior world of believers. A gentleness is reserved in these poems for the disillusioned: 

I have lied with careless grace / for truths that barely matter.

Belief teeters on the edge of nihilism without ever completely abandoning its compassion for poor fragile humanity. For Wicks, the world is an abattoir, a place of fear, cruelty and horror, where what little dignity we have is stripped from us in death. In a particularly bleak meditation on euthanasia, Wicks relates:

Barry’s bought the nitrogen kit online with / (of course) a recyclable
plastic bag.

And we hear about Grace, whose

rehearsed last speech / was short-circuited by the fast reaction — / her
last words — This tastes like shit./ No way Nembutal can pass as a
cocktail / our final sip has disgust built in but / right to the end life
costs, / there’s always an aftertaste.

There will be no peace for any of us. 

We’re all meat in the herd / driven to market // stinking of shit & optimism.

Clearly, this collection is not for the faint-hearted.

The joys of this collection, however, are the threads of light Wicks weaves in. The dark quality of the poems is often mitigated by gallows humour, and the characters are always human, fragile and beautiful. Belief is a declaration of love for humanity, in all of its error. It culminates with a glimpse of redemption:

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

Wicks’ Belief is a major contribution to Australian poetry, and an important commentary on contemporary being. Maybe we’re all totally fucked, but we will be totally fucked together. This is the lifeline buried in Belief — the one saving grace of humankind, our capacity for love. I don’t know if that really qualifies as hope in the context of this book, but it does allow a trace of the divine in a landscape which is otherwise pretty bleak. Wicks’ book is strong and brave, gentle, angry and broken. It tells the truth. 

Belief by Les Wicks
Flying Islands, 2019 
RPA $10.00, 126pp

Judith Crispin is an artist and poet living near Lake George, New South Wales. Judith has published a collection of poetry, The Myrrh-Bearers (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015), and a book of images and poems, The Lumen Seed (New York: Daylight Books, 2017). Her illustrated verse novel, The Dingo’s Noctuary, will be published with Daylight Books in 2020.