Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.
Notes from the Journey Westward interrogates the idea of America—especially our westering, both historical and contemporary, our rough, rocky journeys through the wind-blown interiors of the continent—and of our own hearts. Here, blind grandmothers take us by the hand, lost fathers hide in every prairie shadow, and old devils hunch and watch from craggy peaks. We are orphans in this country, all of us, and so must reckon with our very foundations, with the myths and stories that make and remake us as people and as a nation. Wilkins’ Notes from the Journey Westward is a book you won’t soon forget.
***Finalist for the 2013 Society of Midlands Authors Best Poetry Book of the Year***
***Winner of the 2013 High Plains Book Award in Poetry***
“Blink and cry but this earth is all/you’ll ever see,” writes Joe Wilkins, and he is a poet who pays attention to this earth, one who looks, looks again and comes back still again to look more deeply. Like the voice in “Mission School,” Wilkins’ poems make and remember in the wide scope of human and non-human experience: “Whatever it is,/she says to me, lost again in story,/you must love it.” One way to define love is fidelity to experience, and if this is so, then Wilkins demonstrates such love over and over in his ruthless, entirely unsentimental efforts to imagine and understand the world he inhabits—and the one that inhabits him. He can say, on the one hand, “There’s nothing to be done/about hope,” and then deliver this:
now I am telling you I am a small bird,
dun-colored, nervous, rising
again, slamming again
my face against the glass. See there—
blue sky. A hard world away.
Exactly. And nothing will do but that blue sky.
Wilkins has a fine ear, but he uses it, rather than displays it. For all their toughness, these are wonderfully lyrical pieces. Vowels seem to bounce off one another like stones in a creek bed, but they are ordered, deliberate; subtle sound repetitions chime throughout, like bellwethers. Wilkins slips from chore boots to house slippers to dress shoes without effort. He has range and staying power.
These are the sorts of poems one keeps close by when they’re most needed, when one can feel most lost. -Sam Green, author of The Grace of Necessity and Vertebrae: Poems 1978–1994
Joe Wilkins’ poems are savage and beautiful, full of hard-won lives and a godawful tenderness. In one poem the speaker says they need a myth to tell them “Be alive”, but Wilkins has written that myth, and it is called Notes from a Journey Westward. In this book Manifest Destiny is more than political rhetoric—it’s a call to find the limits of survival. The edge of America has more than an ocean. It has dust-stunned men, hardscrabble women, and a patient devil, sharpening his teeth. We’re in this world whether it belongs to God or not—alive and bearing it. -Traci Brimhall, author of Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins
Moving through this book is, truly, a wondrous journey: across rugged landscapes and the vast unsettled past that WAS the west. “A hard world away.” With a ferociously steely eye and equally ferociously tender heart, Wilkins surprises us at every juncture. Echoes of ancestral voices crisscross. Quiet intimate moments intersect with large socio-political issues. Spare poems, long poems, prose poems—I so admire the depth and breadth of work here, in how much Wilkins manages to pack in and carry along in our ever-onwarding little wagon. -Nance Van Winckel, author of No Starling and After a Spell
For Joe Wilkins, the American West is no theme park or romantic diorama. Notes from the Journey Westward offers an earnest glimpse into past and present landscapes that are real and imagined, mourned and celebrated and witnessed—for these, to borrow the words of Nazim Hikmet, are human landscapes. Wilkins isn’t the kind of poet to offer answers or satisfy himself with quaint definitions of self or place. He’s the kind of poet whose writing is as ambitious as it is beautiful, as honest as it is lyrical. The unflinching poems in this collection are a delight. -Michael McGriff, author of Dismantling the Hills and Home Burial