Micah Horton-Hallett reviews Time Taken

Hallet Wicks LE P&W Oct 2022

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Time Taken by Les Wicks – Review by Micah Horton-Hallett. 
Puncher & Wattmann, 2022. LINK

Time Taken by Les Wicks“Don’t speak to me of those poems I wrote in my thirties.
I am not that person anymore”

Judith Wright

“My job, blazing shirt & neat long socks.
Is to collect the shavings of time”
Les Wicks: Trip

Comprising of selected works drawn from 42 years of publication, along with a slew of new works, Time Taken provides not just an overview of the decades of Australian Les Wicks’ poetic career, but a document of Australia’s that have passed with the decades and the denizens that inhabited these lost shores. Les Wicks’ earlier poems in particular have a straightforward clarity, where the success of the poem lies in Wicks’ observing eye: Sometimes caustic, sometimes humorous, always connected, human and compassionate.

Time Taken is a collection of poems where the poet is almost always present. Like a third person camera perched just over the readers shoulder and whispering commentary in the reader’s ear. One explicit example of this can be drawn from The Hinge, where Wicks is writing of the mistreatment of a homeless person at the hands of police:

He was what they called an NFA
Owned nothing (I even take this story as my own)

In his primary mode, Les is the poet of record- taking the reader for a ride and saying ‘come and see’ as he states in the closing stanza of the poem News:

I too have a tiny role, the
uneasy eye. Feel the words rise already,
barely aware of panic,
& drink
It in.

He treats his subjects (people and place alike) with the same equanimity of gaze, whether his subject be pension day drunks on the long commute to night, (Jenna) domestic poisoners (Her Light Fruit Cake) or an anti-sex slavery campaigner (Khozikode). Rarely attempting to occupy the subject of a poem, Les Wicks’ distinct, personal voice can sometimes feel constricting. In particular the erotic poem Under the Weather is marked by a specific cis-gendered and hetero-normative male gaze that is earnest and heartfelt, but trapped in these conceptions of femininity and the female form. Strong emotion that forms a solid surface with not much but immediacy underneath, but that is its point, a document of passionate wonder that is enticing in its ownership of the earnestness of youth. Wicks then follows up with the poem Hold On To Your Love, which holds the lines;

But most love poems
Just talk about the sensitive
& backlit prettiness
Behind the authors own eyes

A juxtaposition that shows the laconic, ironic and often humorous self awareness that is one of the hallmarks of Wicks as a poet. This is a poet who is aware of their otherness and refuses to try and occupy, but instead celebrates

The collection is divided into themes rather than epochs Hungry, Angry, Friends, Touched, Landed, Waterways, Puzzled and Peace. An organisational device that places poems from different stages of the poet’s life and career in proximity to each other and lets the reader see these recurrent themes through the lenses of a slew of different personas, faceted ideas and images turning so the light can be caught differently each time. It is an approach that works on the whole, changing theme just as the reader is being glutted with a kaleidoscope of people/places/elements/ideas and the system of organisation works on a number of levels.

Each section gathers its own momentum, builds and then crashes, mimicking the waves and water that provide inspiration for some of the collections most affecting and linguistically spectacular works. and ending appropriately with Peace, although as in all the other sections the sections’ theme refuses to be one dimensional, questioning, undercutting and complicating. Making the reader question and engage with the very concept, the very possibility of peace.

For over forty years Wicks has been protesting and documenting issues that he obviously remains passionate about. His concern for environment, humanity, social justice and global conflict run like electricity through the body of work, and yet although the voice can be bone-tired, elegiac, and edging towards despair in poems like Lake Peddar Lost and One More Peace, his poetry remains hopeful, unbowed and unbeaten. And in Out and About, he passes the struggle down to a new generation. Writing of his daughter at her first demonstration:

& my daughter, 12 years old is just
out of reach of everything –
but she stands
valued & vital
as any of those grey haranguers on that stage

His approach to political poetry is marked by clarity, strong imagery and a refusal to fall into the strident didacticism of some of his contemporaries. He remains politically engaged, but still equivocal, still questioning the mode of resistance. An explicit example comes from Fix:

If we are more than just gristle and fluids
then we must stand up, engage

However, in the face of another who offers violence, or at least the capacity for self-defensive violence as a political/ social option he ponders

I was too awed to argue, maybe wouldn’t have anyway
though where are the fists that do not crave use?
Open hands can also speak

Then acknowledges the limitations of his engagement, deferring to one whose mode is not witness, but active engagement.

Which burned through all the arguments
Of voyeurs and thinkers like me.

Nigel Roberts, the Australian poet enfant terrible of the 1970’s confidently claimed in the afterword of his seminal work Steps for Astaire that by the 2000s people would be consuming poetry via holograms. While this vision of the future has (so far) failed to eventuate, Wicks has done the next best thing; placing QR codes alongside some of the poems that link to performances of those poems, sometimes accompanied by music, and sometimes not. This ability to pull the authors voice out of the ether works brilliantly for a poet whose performance is as strong as his writing and adds an extra dimension that goes beyond mere gimmick and makes the works documents of time. The recordings also highlight the true strength of Les Wicks’ poetry; its musicality and the deft way that he manages to sidestep cliché and expectation.

In defiance of the often repeated maxim that a poet produces their best work in their twenties, it was new works such as Awash and Belief Beach that I returned to again and again. Les Wicks is a live poet, a voice that has not faltered, that has grown and matured and still has much to say that begs to be read, begs to be heard. The sheer delight in the way that he engages in word play and pun is infectious. Time Taken also has the honour of holding the best closing poem of any I have read in any collection. Ever.

Time Taken is a fitting encapsulation of a career thus far, but also an intimation of works still to come and is absolutely worthy of attention.

© Micah Horton-Hallett 

Micah Horton-Hallett studied literature and creative writing at the University of Sydney, after which he spent eight years as MC and co-convenor of the Rhizomic poetry open-mic and invitational series of readings. He lives in Sydney’s Blue Mountains and works as a School Learning Support Officer specializing in early literacy intervention, complex trauma and oppositional behaviours.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication in over 400 different magazines, anthologies & newspapers across 36 countries in 15 languages. His 15th book of poetry is Time Taken – New & Selected (Puncher & Wattmann, 2022). https://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

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