Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms begins with images, sounds and the body: Egon Schiele’s images, the music of the band Rachel’s, and the poet’s sensory and mental experience of the two. Wilkinson traveled through Austria, apparently in search of Schiele, and seems to have discovered the essence of the poet’s consciousness along the way. In twelve linked poems, Wilkinson uses biographical and geographical references, along with personal and world history, to map out the multi-dimensional experience of encountering another artist’s work. Other writers who appear in these poems, whether as characters (Wittgenstein, Trakl), or as ghostly voices who speak their poetry anonymously into the dusky light of Wilkinson’s impressions (Cole Swenson, Susan Howe), along with the references to Rachel’s, Mozart, and Brahms, create a timelessness, a coexistence of past and present that infuses the poems.
In the opening piece, “Pictures Inside the Mattress/Before Your Brothers are Dead,” Wilkinson suggests the difficulty the poet faces in the presence of influences like these: “Backwards. Curse of narratives. All the characters/all at once. The way bodies come out of the morning./Out of the forest, together & apart.” Artists, writers, and musicians continue after death through their artistic creations, which other artists, writers, and musicians enter, inhabit, and transform into their own work. Genealogy is more than a catalog of influences and obsessions; as Wilkinson demonstrates throughout these poems, it is about existing in the shared, haunted spaces in which creative desire is born—what genes are to the family tree. These are the “rooms” Wilkinson visits and invokes—dark places full of strange private histories and shameful communal ones—places in which “every day the war can’t fathom itself.”
Traveling by train (Schiele’s father was a station master, and Schiele’s first drawings were of trains), the poet retraces routes Schiele must have traveled, sees towns and landscapes Schiele painted, rooms Schiele may have inhabited. Of Schiele’s paintings, Wilkinson notes “Where there’s a figure there’s never a landscape./The opposite is also true.” The beauty here is in the subtle double meaning of the second line: “the opposite is also true.” In the literal interpretation, the figures are alone on the canvas with no scene, and the opposite, “where there’s a landscape there’s never a figure,” is also true, as Schiele’s landscapes do not have people in them. But the symbolic reading is much more telling in terms of Wilkinson’s poems: where there’s a figure there’s always a landscape, and where there’s a landscape there’s always a figure. For the poet, the figure of Schiele, in photographs and self-portraits, contains the landscape, and in the landscapes outside the train, the poet finds Schiele.
Wilkinson addresses Schiele, then speaks as Schiele, and for a time addresses Wittgenstein and then speaks as Wittgenstein. The second and first person pronouns intertwine so much that the poet becomes lost in the artist and vice versa. This is clearly Wilkinson’s intention.
Here is the open field in Oregon where we’ve pulled over,
my hand under your dress. The way you open & close your eyes.
Three paintings of your little sister Gerti in 1910 & I can almost,
among the metal rinse tubs of fixative & stop-bath
hear her wiggling out of her dress in the darkroom.
Sniff-kissing your ribcage & skinny elbows.
The poet’s history and the artist’s lie in close proximity on the page, the poet addressing his lover in one stanza, and Schiele in the next. At one point the poet asks, “Will you pull this off & draw what the mirror returns to you?” The question could just as easily come from Schiele, who used a mirror to complete hundreds of self-portraits, or the poet, who sees himself in Schiele. “This long mirror I find myself inside/your soft Krumau, wintered.”
Sounds, especially of music and the locomotive, provide a counterpoint to the visual experience of Schiele’s landscape and paintings. Both music and the train prove appropriately transporting, moving through physical and temporal space in a way that words and images do not. In “Pictures Inside the Mattress,” “The cello shoulders open the song, splitting the bow immediately.” This is also the opening sound of the book, setting an undeniably melancholic tone. Later, in “Engines & Lovers,” the action of an engine, the movement of soldiers, and “Brahms on the gramophone,” form an eerily domestic image of war. The most intriguing example comes near the end, in “Piano & Brothers,” in which Wilkinson describes the musical endeavors of the Rachel’s.
Lower East Village. A different two boys. 1998.
Together they push their mattress underneath
the black grand piano in their studio apartment.
One boy gently loosens the keys
from inside the instrument.
Tiny hammers, tines.
The “boys” disassemble the piano, using “crochet needles, a child’s toy mallet…anything to yank or loosen,” recording the sounds of the deconstruction. The speaker then addresses Schiele:
I can see it in the evening:
death by musket, death by
song & approximation,
death by light, by kissing the key
into the desk’s secret drawer. Tiny hush.
Death by steamed open
envelope, by woodthrush,
by the blunt end of a shovel,
by salt barrel & the steam engine hissing itself apart.
Death by missing the body itself. By looking for too long.
Taking the piano apart is not death, but all the things that lead up to death, which resonate in the places in which they occurred. In the final poem, “The Satchel of Letters,” the speaker says, “Late in the evening I get this spoked feeling/that one thing holds the smallest parts of me together/& if I say too much, speak too loudly, they will all come to pieces.” What these poems demonstrate is that the “spoked feeling”—the often confounding collection of fragments of memory, thought, image, and sound—makes the poet what he is, and drives him to examine the pieces, seeking out the place where they meet.