Transistor Rodeo

by Jon Wilkins,
University of Utah Press, 2010,
69 pages, paper, $12.95,
ISBN: 978-1-60781-002-5
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note regarding the following review: Transistor Rodeo won the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize sponsored by the University of Utah Press; Zoo in 2010 and Rodeo in 2009.

If what you are looking for is poems that surprise, let me mention this unassuming mother lode.  Try these lines from “Love Song”:

Words leapt from your mouth then

like a gymnast on the moon.  You were so

lively and full of pockets.

Don’t worry, I am not giving away secrets: There are a number of poems entitled “Love Song” in this slender volume.  But I would use this opening stanza as a description of what Jon Wilkins, the poet, does.  Using the same title for each of a series of poems, he sends words zipping and zinging through our senses like a knife – throwing magician, then ducks behind the nearest title for a new and completely differently balanced set of knives:

Always assume it is your lover

               who stands you said at the end

               of every tunnel and is waving

               a scarf or an axe. . . .

Leap to the next “Love Song,” and so on.  But Wilkins is not just fast or flashy; he prays, catalogues, theorizes.  He does these things by himself in the loneliness of space, or else naked and drunk after the prom with William Carlos Williams in his own Mean – Joe – Green – meets – the – boy – with – the – Coke version of “Kenneth Koch’s Unfinished Sestina.”

In the section called “Prayers,” Wilkins uses the titles to place us in a specific time, physical space, and attitude, i.e. “7:34 am, styrofoam cup, metal table / Prayer”:

Still too early

for beautiful

people.  Just

the dust

mask / leaf

blower who

may / may not

regret former

truancies and that scar.

His prayers are bright, twisted pieces of cellophane that wrap the everyday in what feels like the mathematics of modern meditations.  He uses slashes to turn his short lines into fractions, as though he were working out the balance necessary to prove his theories on God / world.  He ends this prayer, “Lord, make me hot as coffee, / and I’ll melt this world like sugar.”  Wouldn’t we all like to believe that of ourselves?

If I had been taught prayer or mathematics by Wilkins, I might have stuck with them.  Not because I always agree with him, but because he would keep me fascinated by what was coming next. His ability to keep us off balance and interested is uncanny.  As he says in “Please don’t hate me because I’m perfect”:

God, I wish I had a nickname like Rabbit.

I wish I’d spent more time swimming as a kid.

He leaves us wishing as well.

Michael Macklin