Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson
Copper Canyon, May 2019. 80 pages.
Reviewed by Maya Marshall
Keith S. Wilson’s debut collection of poetry, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, explores what love is and folds over and over itself while asserting a bevy of answers.
Wilson is a romantic lyricist with a scientist’s sense of scope. This debut is heady. He’s writing to poets and intellectuals about high art and missing a lover, and he’s also casting his biracial coming-of-age in the body of an adolescent minotaur. He’s part of a tradition of Black writers who write their quotidian experiences into the canon. He is of a new guard of political poets who recognize that news can be crafted beautifully into poems and that the considerations of the world at large are not only relevant, but crucial to art. Wilson writes,
...You go to museums to fall in love
with the most impassioned strokes, to share the genuflections
of love, and then you go home to what works everyday,
catch your glint of everything off the edge of the fork.
(“Light as Imagined through a Body of ice”)
This book is and is not a museum. It is high art about home and everyday people. The poet Wilson harnesses the slogans of the day and recasts them in discourse with poems and poets of the early twentieth century, as in Black Matters where, wielding light to comment on invisibility and visibility as he does so often in the collection, he nods to D.H. Lawrence and writes Blackness into divinity: “we infer it: how light bends around a black body,/ and still you do not see black halos, even here, //my having told you plainly where they are.”
The book’s central questions and concerns include: what does it mean to be dual and whole concurrently? How much of my father am I? How do I render hetero-masculine love visible and clear? What does it mean for me as a Black man to have romantic relationships with non-Black women? Am I betraying someone? Who am I betraying most? When I, as a reader of this book, say “betray” here, I mean both, “reveal oneself” and “be treacherous to someone else.” I think Wilson is considering both definitions throughout this book.
The collection is a willful act of love even where it takes on the precipitating and persistent manifestations of racism, classism, and identifying undenounced villains of the historical record, as we see in “Lost Quatrain of the Ballad of a Red Field,” which begins with the epigram, “after a murder, in a quiet suburb”:
Some man’s lovely mother, a fence, picks at
her jewelry in the light.
She sits quiet, clean, in a room,
drinking cooled white wine.
She thumbs a jersey,
not sorry, sublime,
still bound by her stomach to her boy,
to the long red lines
her son made dragging a man,
screaming, through a field.
Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love begins in lamentation of lost love in “Aubade to Collapsed Star” and ends with cosmic and corporeal exploration of love in “Heliocentric,” an unsigned epistle in which the poet meditates about finality and splendor.
This book is the diamond it is by virtue of the pressure of a full adolescence, a factotum’s list of jobs, years of close reading of English language poetry from Europe and the Afro-diaspora, steady and scholarly attention to race and race relations, and a deep, critical, masculine, feminist love of family and a beloved. Wilson’s controlling metaphors are scientific concepts, celestial bodies, and the Greek figure of the minotaur. He’s written several ekphrastic poems, notably the stunning “Floorscrapers” in which he celebrates the quotidian beauty of working-class men and their hands as the center of their power/love:
...and his back is a crowbar for the actions
being completed by the palms of him,
his intersections (the fingers lolling over each other like men
on a rocking train) and I see the light and the labor both
and the ordinary somersaults of the ribcage
and viscera (they say the heart), but I see the fingers
motioning like this too, and my own hand curled
like a conversation made after light has ceased...
When we say debut, the implication is that the writer will write another book that shows growth in craft and maturation in thinking and feeling though a subject and a life. Already Wilson’s craft is honed; his sense of the world is mature. Fieldnotes shows a mastery over some traditional forms and a very tight sense of the power of an individual line. It is sober and a little somber, but there is no bitterness, no malice in the emotional lexicon.
What I do wonder about is joy. There is the memory of pleasure here, and a measured, fairly distant, appreciation of beauty. What I wonder about this poet’s trajectory, after this debut which is bookended with love and loss, is what the next dynamic feeling of the poet’s emotional lexicon will be. Will it be freer in form? Will the poet continue to observe love and show more of its delights?
Maya Marshall is a writer and an editor. She is co-founder of underbellymag.com the journal on the practical magic of poetic revision. Marshall has earned fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, and Cave Canem, and the Community of Writers. She serves as a senior editor for [PANK] and works as a manuscript editor for Haymarket Books. Her poems have appeared in RHINO, Potomac Review, Blackbird, Muzzle Magazine, and elsewhere.