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Same Difference

Ben Wilkinson
ISBN-13: 
9781781726488
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 28, 2022
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This ambitious new collection from poet and critic Ben Wilkinson finds its author experimenting with poetic voice and the dramatic monologue. Carefully crafted yet charged with contemporary language, the book brims with everyone from cage fighters to boy-racers, cancer patients to whales in captivity.

Several poems unpick the preconceptions and prejudices that can inform so many of our encounters – with the world, art, and one another – while others take a sideways glance at everything from male depression to the history of meat-eating; from the philosophy behind athletic competition to surreal yet familiar emotions.

Notable here are poems that wrestle with the mystery of failed and successful relationships, both providing moments of transcendence and despair. There are well-observed pieces about sport, particularly the rewards of running, from a noted devotee.

Wilkinson has also been deeply inspired by the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-96) , ‘stepping into the shoes’ and finding affinity with that poet’s astringent tone and ruthless clarity, borrowing his ‘punchy and musical’ phrasing. These add to the volume’s tonal and imaginative range.

While empathetic and often moving, Same Difference is a collection that seeks to undermine the confessional mode, keeping the reader on their toes and asking just who is doing the talking. It is also formally elegant, often using traditional rhyme and metre to weave its arguments.

“Colloquial, straight-talking, ‘less deceived’ than Philip Larkin, Wilkinson brings a spiky 21st-century realism as well as formal adroitness to the contemporary lyric. In Same Difference he further expands his range with an interwoven series, ‘After Verlaine’, in which he discloses the French poet’s capacity for ‘hard thinking’ and accesses a newly sensuous and shadowy depth in his own imagination.” – Carol Rumens
 
Same Difference is pitch-perfect. The poems and sonnets are remarkable for their emotional truth and craft; the versions of Verlaine are exquisite echo-chambers of the originals; and the dramatic monologues are utterly compelling.” – David Morley
 
“The range of this book is far-reaching and restless - its territory the shifting ground upon which is built the idea of a self - offering us the chance to think again about the intricate, sometimes delusional, stories we tell ourselves, ones that Wilkinson, here and with great clarity and verve, tells for us.” – Greta Stoddart

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Caroline Bracken, Nation Cymru

Sunday, September 4, 2022

I approached Ben Wilkinson’s second collection Same Difference with some trepidation, he is a university lecturer in Creative Writing and the blurb told me that throughout the collection he ‘steps into the shoes’ of French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896).

If I’m honest, my reaction was akin to that gif of Sister Michael from Derry Girls throwing her eyes up to heaven and muttering Christ under her breath.

How wrong I was. The collection is in fact highly entertaining and some of the language would make Sister Michael blush. His ‘after Verlaine’ poems are written in a contemporary voice, for example ‘Portrait of the Artist Asleep’:

‘She looks for all the world like some deadbeat angel,
foetal but hopeful, an inch of light haloing

her temple.’

And ‘Joie de Vivre’

‘Now you suckers and saps might fall for nature
but that confidence trickster doesn’t fool me.’

There are many voices in the collection, including Jackie Kennedy, a tennis champion, a doorman, a whale, an athletics coach, a cage fighter and Facebook. What’s not to love?

There is humour in ‘We apologise’, ‘Guacamole’ and ‘Rich’ but an undercurrent of seriousness both in language and tone is what really arrests and holds the reader:

                      ‘Sometimes I think
I can’t move for my past around here;
the ghosts file through me in every park,
every bar. It’s like the mouldy novel of my life,
and I just keep turning the dog-eared pages.’ (A New City)

‘Try living in a house’ is the best poem about a relationship breakdown as I’ve ever read, it begins: Try living in a house// with rats in the walls. Try not listening/ for the scuttle past the headboard.’ The poem ends: ‘Try knowing that when they’re gone,/ they’re not. Try this as the story of us.’
Wilkinson’s poems are visually beautiful on the page and his range in form and content makes this collection a must-buy. l leave you with the final lines of the poem ‘Coach’

                ‘There are many

reasons to test the limits
of the human heart,

and this business of ours
as good as any. On your marks.’

Review by Mab Jones, Buzz Magazine

Thursday, March 31, 2022

In Same Difference, Ben Wilkinson showcases precise and thoughtful verse that’s sometimes in his own voice, sometimes in the voice of another. A final line in the book gives a kind of summary – “whoever I was. Whoever this is” – as the poet veers capably from cage fighter to cancer patient, and various others in between. A whale in captivity is given a voice, too, pointing to the fact that Wilkinson is drawn to subjects who are trapped, whether that’s in the squarish shapes of fighting cages, aquatic tanks, sick beds, or something else. 

However, whilst there are poems that intimate restriction, as well as loss and leaving, there are also poems in which children run “Happy with sunlight” and people fall in love, their eager hearts “like a jackpot’s flood of pennies”. Aubades and laments intertwine with poems of love and joy, in writing that, in style, is toned and athletic, able to turn to any subject or mood. A final image of a setting sun, that is both on the wane yet “blazing” seems heavily symbolic. 

Some of the poems are inspired by French poet Verlaine, and Wilkinson is a poet who can just as easily utilise metre or free verse. A runner as well as a writer, there’s that same sense here of restraint, as when on a timed sprint, with some poems also employing a repeating form, or running free. In all, it’s a book that takes us into many hearts and minds, and as a result, it’s a pleasure to jog, pace, and perambulate through it.

Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Monday, March 21, 2022

There is a word, much overused in literary criticism, that has come to define an otherwise inexpressible space between things. Representing a failure of the power of signification to describe a strange ‘otherness’, the sense, for example, of a time-fractured limbo between landscapes, ‘liminal’ is a useful catch-all for hoovering up pages of pressing silence.

Yet somehow, the term is entirely adequate to the task of nailing the gentle authority of Ben Wilkinson’s wonderful new collection for Seren: the travelling but not arriving, the inherent contradictions of the creative impulse, the distance between intention and action, the inhabitation of the mindspace of an icon. This last, in the poem ‘1963’, gets beyond the ironic truth of the cliché to the love that is Jackie Kennedy’s ‘final blazon’, forever caught in a speeding car, its upholstery smeared with the contents of her husband’s capacious head:

‘The years speed by like gunshot

echoes out, horror followed
by the inevitable quietude;

the numbness of what, finally,
we remember to forget’.

Wilkinson’s skilled use of form – here, in a series of dry, slow-paced couplets – preserves the ‘horror’ and the ‘quietude’ in a single breath. The lines are measured beautifully with not a wasted word or stray thought. Elsewhere the tone is conversational but controlled: ‘Poetry’ and ‘Weirdos’ perform a similar service to an evaluation of the poetic vocation, as though viewed from the bridge. For nothing will persuade the disingenuous poet that his art is in vain better than a sonnet in the form of a monologue, and antennae that remain receptive though half-submerged in shit. Or the ‘weirdo’ for whom attributions of eccentricity are a blind to genuine artistry, manifested, here, in the shape of Wilkinson’s finely-crafted tercets:

‘Here’s a gin in a whisky tumbler
to us, who sit in the theatre’s
singular dark to watch the full

credits run and beyond; who hear
the fox’s cry in the night and think
it some portent;’ (‘Weirdos’)

Such poems of lacerating self-reflection and humility are honest to their own fragility. The cool detachment of the artist, in one of several broad stylistic pastiches of Verlaine, is artfully contrived in lilting couplets which mimic the gentle rocking of the door in its frame, the slow heartbeat of observation. The sincere indifference of the subject in ‘Portrait of the Artist Sleeping’…

‘You’re no more her muse than the lamp distilled
in the mirror she’ll fix her face in before she leaves’.

…need not overshadow the work of the other artist whose words declare the embattled presence of poetry, even where resolution is not possible. The narrator’s sense of l’autre, as construed in another pastiche of Verlaine, reverses the process of laconic examination to describe the evanescence of love’s erstwhile power. Finding a perfect symbol for the leavings of intense attachment in the sun’s ‘facsimile’, ‘Once’ pulls the emotional ‘fireflies swarming at dusk’ into an empty platonic vacuum, except that the act of writing also validates love’s existence:

‘Take these day-glo flowers, their perfect scent;
her fulsome kiss. It came and it went’.

Wilkinson’s Palladas moment is resounding, undermining the earlier suggestion, refulgent with rhyme, of love-stricken lyricism. These are beautifully configured poems, even where the subject-matter is the faecal detritus and dilapidation of a condition which has outgrown its usefulness. The sense of the world having fled, severing subject from object and insinuating the narrator in a liminal – that word again – plane of uncertainty dominates this fine collection. And it is nowhere better expressed than in ‘Church Going’, an astute, one might say faux-insouciant, reading of the decline of religion through its encoded fabric; a decline more precipitous than in Larkin’s ‘fifties, and suffixed with a conspicuous, if imagined, ‘gone’. The precision of this formal sonnet betrays the fatalism of its concluding sestet, which answer’s Larkin’s own question as to future disposition:

‘This one’s earmarked for apartments,
yet for years has seen nothing but loose
plaster crumble with the rot. Darkness.
A piano’s dead keys, cold to your touch’.

Larkin picks up the rear, even when Wilkinson is in hock to the stylism of Verlaine. The tone and timbre of mocking contempt is sometimes as affected in relation to the vagaries of ‘love’ as it is to the value of Art, as though both were chimeric spectres, invoked respectively by falsified emotion and surfeits of cash. And truly, the futile decadence of a gunboat decanting ordnance into the Congo bush in Conrad would be a fitting subtextual denouement for emotional and intellectual absurdity: Wilkinson’s sterling final tercet fires bravely into the squalid emptiness:

‘Like a useless toy boat that’s miles offshore –
too tired to go on, but who can’t pack it in –
I’ll wait on the shipwreck still gunning for me’.

If Peter Mandleson’s mistaking of mushy peas for an avocado dip in a Hartlepool fish shop is one characteristic of a divorce from working class reality (‘Guacamole’), then Julian Barnes’ subtitle to the poem ‘Frame’ - Our life is not our life, merely the story we have told ourselves - is the argot of a different kind of disjuncture. The final line of the final poem of this richly satisfying collection gives an ambiguous summation of what precedes it: ‘And not me, but whoever I was. Whoever this is’. Rendered in the sepia tones of bucolic recall, the title of ‘Northern Anecdotal’ belies its own innocent honesty with a sudden corrective to memory. The process is renegotiated in the long poem ‘Frame’, whose uncertain meander through the backwaters of a life unearths the detail of half memory ‘and its neat shot of treachery’, insinuated, here, into the umpteenth figurative chaser, as though clinging, eternally, to the wreckage.

And from this narrative point, we travel backwards to move forwards. In the relentless round of enervation, of the fragmenting past, it becomes necessary to re-varnish memory in order to restore the holes occasioned by the falling apart of what we think we recognise (‘Last Hope’). One of the most extraordinary poems in a book of glittering gems takes, as its starting point, a painting of 1935 by Diego Rivera. ‘The Flower Carrier’’s artful, and luxuriantly cynical description of a wedding at which the fragrance and colour of the floral decorations are counterposed by the ‘stench of politics’, honours the carrier’s lack of self-deception, his, or her, celebration of love and beauty in despite, and the failure of others to know the difference:

‘But their weight on my back

is the weight of love itself, bright
yet strangely heavy; the faith we all carry
in our tired old hearts. I’ll arrive

in town, hat tipped against the sun,
pocket my fee, whistle and be gone,
knowing this beautiful lie is my art alone’.

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