Joe Wilkins

"Joe Wilkins has a big, true, highway-running American voice. When you see a new book of his, you should celebrate. Just buy it, put down the window, and let the music blow back your hair. It's nothing but alive." – Luis Alberto Urrea

Reviews

Joe Wilkins’ laconic poems run deep, producing spine-tingling evocations of the land and home and family that you’ll want to return to again and again. -Amy Wang, The Oregonian

When We Were Birds possesses the kind of vision and verve reserved for those who have a hallowed conception of our journey on earth. I cannot recall such a book in recent memory that has me read with such careful attention to my breathing or reminded me of the aliveness of poetry in our age. Reading When We Were Birds leaves me hankering for the complex richness of our shared humanity, which I secretly think is Wilkins’s great agenda for his art, and nothing less. -Major Jackson, Citation for the 2017 Stafford/Hall Prize from the Oregon Book Awards

No matter where Wilkins’ travels find him, his approach to the world is the same. He’s perceptive, reverent, big-hearted, but also angry, sad, lost and grieving. The title of the book suggests a kind of inevitable falling from grace that is both a tragedy and a blessing. In certain poems we find a bird’s-eye view, soaring, untrammeled, light as air. And in others we are undeniably earthbound, with grit in our teeth and eyes, our knuckles and knees bloody and stinging. -Melissa Mylchreest, writing at Missoula Independent

Wilkins is not afraid to remember the snakes and the pain. He holds his many failing fathers and himself up to the light and finds every one wanting. In this way his worldview is absolutely biblical, as is his storytelling. We settle for too little when we avert our eyes from the failings of our heroes and suppress our hardest questions. As Flannery O’Connor observed, Christian readers are too easily satisfied with sentimental tales that don’t descend into the valley of the shadow of death. Without the valley, our happy endings ring false and empty. Isn’t our happy ending yet ahead Here Wilkins gets it right. You won’t find in these pages a perfect king or father or even a perfect God. What you will find in The Mountain and the Fathers is authenticity in the valley of the shadow and occasional glimpses of light. -Lisa Ohlen Harris, writing at Books & Culture

A book as powerful and arresting as a prairie sunset following a furious rainstorm, Joe Wilkins’ novel Far Enough: A Western in Fragments eschews the romantic myth of the Modern American West and replaces it instead with an authentic, poignant story of the yearnings, mistakes, suffering and healing of a Montana ranching family. […] Read Far Enough during one of Montana’s dramatic thunderstorms and then take a drive through Golden Valley County. Stop in Ryegate on the north bank of the Musselshell River and have a beer at the Ryegate Bar served up by retired cowboy who treats you like a long-lost friend. Continue on Highway 3 toward Shawmut and glory in the landscape: rolling green pastures undulating in the wind like a grassy sea framed by a panorama of rugged mountains; cows, sheep and Sandhill cranes; a lone cowboy on a four-wheeler rounding up cattle. Wilkins’ book casts a spell that makes one fall in love with Montana all over again.-Kathleen Benoit-Whiteley, writing at The Billings Gazette

Wilkins writes about rural Montana with the same brilliance and precision as Ivan Doig or Wallace Stegner. His lyrical descriptions and evocative imagery make for a jaw-droppingly beautiful book. There is a mysterious alchemy that takes place when beautiful language is mixed with the dust and blood of hardscrabble lives. In Far Enough we are left with pure gold. -Elise Atchison, writing at Montana Quarterly

Novelist Thomas McGuane says there are cowboys who are as “deluded” about their trade as are workers in the “entrepreneurial class.” Romance about ranch work means “their hold is tenuous and they’re always on the cusp of violence or rage about being in that situation, and they’re naturally in conflict with their bosses.” Cowboys used to be in it for the long haul; they were “lifetime admired.” Now the ranks are filled with “mostly angry temporary help. McGuane’s pessimistic observation could serve as an endorsement for Far Enough: A Western in Fragmentsthe newest book from fellow Montana writer Joe Wilkins. The tension in Far Enough pulses in a similar pessimistic strain, one encapsulated by Wilkins elsewhere: “We hurt the land, and it hurt us.” Far Enough arrives in taut, prose-poetic vignettes. Most sections appear on single pages, but Wilkins delivers a full fictional arc in bursts by turns melodic and sharp. -Nick Ripatrazone, writing at The Iowa Review

Far Enough shows how a book can be woven out of shards that have been chiseled off the heartstone of the West and assembled in such a way as to make sense, to tell a story. It’s a postmodern western, but it’s a western nonetheless. While I read the book on a hot summer day, sitting in my hammock here in a village at the Appalachian edge of the Midwest, I started thinking of Mark Twain and Richard Brautigan, of Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, of all those strong regional voices that capture the spirit of various frontiers. This is the spirit of Wilkins’s book. He brings to life through fragments a time and a place, a contemporary West in which mothers die not from bear attacks but from meth overdoses, a world in which the river runs dry every summer, possibly the action of an angry god, but more plausibly because of climate change. And it’s able to tell these stories through brief snippets, paragraphs, and one- to two-page pieces linked only by a shared vision of the world they create. -Vivan Wagner, writing at Easy Street: A Magazine of Books and Culture

The Big Dry of eastern Montana makes for a subject of rich complexity. Joe Wilkins evokes place like Willa Cather. That is, place begins as a kind of raw, wide-open poetry. But Wilkins tells a different story. This is about the author’s search for a model of fatherhood, to fill spaces left empty by the death of his father. Wilkins strikes with staggering, melancholy, progressively self-reflective prose that, in part, inhabits the sparseness of the part of Montana where he was born and grew up. Yet his prose also pushes against what might be considered the standard fare of writing fixed in the American West. He addresses memory and the inability to remember in lyrical prose that is, at times, achingly beautiful yet never pretentious or sentimental and never cold. With exquisite control at both the structural and sentence level, he displays both a surety and openness to question, particularly with regard to class and masculinity without theorizing or naming them as such. –Judges’ Citation for  The Mountain and the Fathers, Winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award in Nonfiction

What I’m looking for, always, is writing that works me over like a crowbar. That bruises, yes, but also that breaks the skin, so it can slip under and stay put. Writing that fractures bone, so some part of me has to forever knit around someone else’s story. I don’t want writing I can shake off or walk away from. It’s pretty simple. Great writing does damage. And I don’t want to heal from it, ever. If you want to read what matters, read Joe Wilkins. –Elizabeth Eslami, Tupelo Quarterly

Notes from the Journey Westward is visionary. It is admirably consistent and meditative, relentlessly honest in its rejection of any romantic version of the West, and reverent before stars and morning, before the earth and the people who have survived on it. Joe Wilkins honors them by telling their stories. –Tami Haaland, The Billings Gazette

Notes from the Journey Westward, by Joe Wilkins, reads like wisdom to me. “There’s nothing to be done / about hope,” he writes, in “Hardscrabble Prairie Triptych,” about cracking open mussel shells in search of pearls, and I feel directly addressed, required to examine the persistence and hopelessness of hope in myself, in us all, in the human animal: “We crack them open / anyway, shells bright as a boy’s eyes, / scoop out each stinking handful of meat.” The willingness to shift from “I” to “we” here is a clue to the risk and power of these poems, the great claim that one story can, like a covered wagon, carry many, and that history is somehow alive in the present moment. –Kathleen Kirk, Escape Into Life

Wilkins nails the sense of this place dead-on with poet’s eyes that see the landscape as “one part grass and two parts sky” and musician’s ears for the “grass that cracks beneath your steps.” The snap shirts, feed store ball caps, Rainier beer cans, antelope breakfast steaks, Chinook winds and the opaque plastic sheets covering windows in the winter… However, Wilkins’ nostalgia for the Big Dry is bittersweet. Writing in his early 30s, Wilkins reflects on his youth as a story of survival. His father died when he was 9, leaving his mother to raise him and two siblings on a 300-acre sheep and hay farm in a gritty dot of a community called Melstone. They survived on the whims of rainfall and a coal-fired furnace in a drafty house “cobbled together from the ruins of homesteader shacks.” “You couldn’t call it a living. It was a kind of ritualized dying,” Wilkins writes. More than a memoir, the book is an indictment of the ideology of rugged individualism so deeply rooted in the arid American West. The Mountains and the Fathers is another poignant lesson in reconciling ourselves with our natural environment. “We need to remember how it really was and is out West, and we need to tell those true new stories,” Wilkins writes. The Mountains and the Fathers is one of “true new stories,” well told. –Chris Bowman, Capital Public Radio

Wilkins’s poetry is inhabited by working class figures he lets speak for themselves. What makes me want to reread Notes From the Journey Westward and Wilkins’s first book Killing the Murnion Dogs again is his ability to breathe life into this rugged and often heartbreaking world. –Mark Allen Jenkins, Stirring

Page after page and sentence after sentence, this is one of the best-written and most readable books to come across this reader’s desk, worthy of keeping company with such excellent nonfiction such as A River Runs Through It, Blue Highways, and Tom Montag’s Curlew. -Phil Hey, The Briar Cliff Review

Words are [Wilkins’] escape from a dry, treeless, stony world and the entryway into other worlds. They’re the paving stones to self-knowledge. Later he finds respite in stories—true or not, some half-remembered. “It is when we recognize how stories fail us and how stories save us. It is when we have heard them both and tell, in the moment of out greatest need, the story that will save us.” This book is one of those stories. -Carol Ann Clark, The Great Falls Tribune

Wilkins does a wonderful job of telling the world of daily life—the hippie math teacher who’s effective in part because he throws boys against walls until they learn, strawberry ice cream and fishing, snakes and prairie fires and cheap vodka—but he hits a crescendo near the end, when he leaves the toughness behind and lets his mother remember reality, warm and joyous and not elegiac at all, from the first moments of life with her husband to the last, just a few years later: “Dancing, she was saying, every night that week. He came in every night that week and took me dancing…Two-dollar champagne, she said. We drank it out of soda bottles and drove all through the night…Anyway, I loved him. I love him.” -Jamie Harrison, Montana Quarterly

Wilkins’ emphasis on the visual signals us to take notice lest we diminish our world through our own limited sight and blank stares. We need to see these ghosts, Wilkins insists, and consider the experiences to which they testify. […] Killing the Murnion Dogs deserves to be read. Wilkins is a young poet in full command of his art, managing a multitude of forms yet never allowing technique to distract us from the raw content of his subject. On the contrary, Wilkins is right on the mark when he employs the highly traditional ghazal form to both mourn the persistence of suffering and celebrate the redeeming power of love. Here are the final couplets of “Rain Ghazal”: “They wake in the dark, the heat of their sleep between them./She swings her hips over his with the clatter of rain./The road’s a sudden river, trees thunder with dripping,/the sky no longer belongs to itself. All the world is rain.” –Stephen Germic, The Billings Gazette

And, finally, there is the language. If you handed me a poem or essay written by Wilkins, I’d know it even without a name attached because Wilkins—who writes out of the James Wright and Richard Hugo tradition—has a voice all his own. Each sentence is a hand-built and beautiful thing. […] The words at time feel old and weary. Sometimes they feel expansive like Montana’s plains. Sometimes they suffocate the reader under the weight of expectations. Other times they are so dry and barren that they nearly blow off the page. But they are always poetic, and they always sing in a voice that so few writers possess. –Sean Prentiss, Brevity

Joe Wilkins grew up in a water-starved stretch of eastern Montana known as the Big Dry. With his new book, he returns to the unforgiving landscape of his youth in a series of wistful vignettes culled from vivid, often violent childhood memories. The Mountain and the Fathers is a wonderfully rendered portrait of starkly beautiful rural life and a haunting search for what it means to be a man in the American West. Wilkins is a poet; his eye for detail is clear and he writes with the narrative grace of high lonesome prairie wind. –Booknotes

Joe Wilkins’s writing in Orion and elsewhere evokes the difficult and formative weight of his home place—eastern Montana’s Big Dry. In his new memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, Wilkins gathers flashes of his early life there, and arranges them in ways that are graceful and hard and beautiful. –Scott Gast, Orion

The most striking component of Killing the Murnion Dogs is its awareness of “the whole world.” What is ordinary becomes transcendent. In “Spiritual,” the speaker asks us to “Call this day necessary: No, call it sacrament.” Each familiar, common thing invites reverence. In the final poem, “Prayer,” the speaker prays for the “acres of baked dust and cattle,” the “weeds and bits of driftwood of filthy / crescent moons beneath fingernails,” and above all the girls, boys, women, and men who make the dust their home. In places derelict and seemingly unexceptional, Wilkins compels us to recognize what is worth salvage, worth praise. -Deborah Kim, The Indiana Review

Violence–even sometimes brutality–may be an integral part of the world Wilkins creates, but there is room for tenderness, too. In “A Prayer,” an expansive, Whitman-esque poem that closes the collection, the poet turns his unflinching eye on the people who populate his poems, men who “water the sodden garden of themselves / with liquor” and women “nailing / themselves to the rough-cut boards of their husbands.” While these portraits are not necessarily flattering, there is an undertone of admiration in every line: he celebrates these people because of what they’re willing to endure in the hostile Western environment, and the poem is all the more moving because he seemingly counts himself among the people he describes. “A Prayer,” like the other poems in Killing the Murnion Dogs, is ultimately a kind of love poem, albeit a complex and sometimes disturbing one. -Carrie Shipers, Main Street Rag

“[Wilkins’ poems] evoke sheep shearers and bee farmers, lost industrial cities and desolate highways.” – Citation for Notes from the Journey Westward, a 2013 Society of Midlands Authors Best Poetry Book of the Year Award finalist

“We weren’t meant for this kind / of destruction”: lines tucked halfway through “Hallelujah, Somewhere, Steel,” a poem at the near median of Killing the Murnion Dogs, the full-length debut form Joe Wilkins. The location of the sentiment is appropriate to its application toward the rest of the collection. Wilkins, a poet quite aware of the visual layout of his lines and the resuscitation of pastoral lexicon, has crafted an elegiac book. Wilkins firms traction for his laments in absolute, gritty details. The people of these poems have “cheeks black with tractor grease,” though they earn the care of the reader. -Nick Ripatrazone, Pleiades

I really don’t have the words to say how much I loved this book. It made me physically ache. Wilkins’ book takes the reader to the backroads of America — to a rain thirsty ranch in Montana, to the Mississippi Delta, to a roadside diner in Iowa, to a sidewalk outside a liquor store in South Memphis. If I’m making his poems sound like a glorified road trip, then I apologize. I have seen very few poets depict the grit and toughness of America with such loving care. No melodrama here — just a deep love and respect for the rugged landscape of this country and the people who balance their everyday lives waiting for hope found in rain, in beer and cigarettes, in the open highways.  –Karen J. Weyant, The Scrapper Poet

No one combines the personal and the natural better than Joe Wilkins.  He’s a hero of mine and will be your hero, too, if you read his new memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, just out from Counterpoint. -David Gessner, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour

Joe Wilkins is a master of the “poetry of place,” transporting us to Montana, Spokane, Memphis, the small town of Sunflower, Mississippi, Texas, and Minnesota, and always dreaming of home. –Kathleen Kirk, Escape Into Life

At his best, Wilkins recalls the rural flavor of Wendell Berry, but in a world all his own. Read him. –David Breithaupt, Newpages

Joe Wilkins, who sometimes contributes poetry to our pages, but this time has provided us with an honest and touching essay, “All Apologies,” writes about his relationship in high school with a friend named Justin, whose troubled family life eventually pushed him out town. The essay brilliantly captures the complexity of this moment in adolescence while also seamlessly weaving in the contemporary details of the era, grounded in Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, the words of another troubled soul whose genius would come to a tragic, too-soon close. –Jessica Faust, Poetry Editor, The Southern Review

“Raw delicacy” also describes Joe Wilkins’s intensely realized short story about a homeless woman in Montana who decides she’ll move beyond the self she had become. “Enough of Me” won High Desert Journal’s Obsidian Prize in Fiction, judged by Gretel Ehrlich.  –John Palen, reviewing High Desert Journal 13 at Newpages

In this raw and richly descriptive essay, Joe Wilkins explores the violence that runs through his parents’ and grandparents’ relationship to their Montana landscape. –Citation for “Out West: Growing Up Hard,” finalist for the 2010 National Magazine Award

Wilkins writes of eastern Montana’s Big Dry in the precise, crisp and engaging language of a native son raised under the tutelage of a life-long storyteller. An eye for detail and an ear for local rhythms reveal a bone deep intimacy with the people and landscapes of his high desert birthplace.  –Ann Weiler Walka, Citation for the Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers Award

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