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Same Difference

Ben Wilkinson
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




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 Pat Edwards, London Grip

Monday, July 25, 2022

Wilkinson’s poem ‘Poetry’ opens this fine collection with a timely reminder to all of us who are mired in the business of writing poetry that “the game is as good as up”. Wilkinson knows that when it comes to poems he’s likely to “write another soon enough”. He’s also wise enough to tell us readers to “see whatever you want”, so that’s just what I’ll do; I’ll be one of the ‘Weirdos’ who “seriously / work away at poems, as if poems / might shape strangeness into charm”.

On reading these poems, we are quickly aware of the range of form and subject the writer has in his tool box. The poems are moving, funny, compelling and span the personal and the profound. That a poet can move from his rather beautiful thoughts about the month of ‘October’ to the unrefined musings of a club bouncer in ‘What the Doorman Says’ is a real treat. Wilkinson gives us “I’ll take autumn’s cruel stare / over summer’s pining dove” in the former, and “too many kids have knives on them nowadays” in the latter, and there is clearly great merit in both. It’s not just the connection with his subject matter but the neat way he morphs one poem into the next. A great example of this is the last line of the ‘Doorman’ poem, “That booze, generally speaking, brings out the worst”, and how the next poem ‘The Young Fools’ opens with “We were always first to hit town back then, / supping pints and blowing smoke rings.” This almost seamless flow, even though the form and topics may be very different, helps the reader feel the work as a complete experience and to feel utterly welcome and considered.

At times there is deep longing, even regret; the reader can sense loves lost and relationships changed. In ‘The Middle of the Midlands’ the poet uses four line stanzas, the inner two lines indented further to the right, to create almost a sense of things sliding and shifting out of his grasp. In this poem I was also struck by the poet being completely comfortable and confident enough to use the conversational abbreviation “I’d’ve” for ‘I would have’. Of course, it’s absolutely correct and accurate, but what nerve and conviction!

Further evidence if it were needed, of Wilkinson being totally at home in his writing style, can be found in the almost rambling ‘Invocation’, somehow still set out in four neat nine-line stanzas. Here the poet pours out his memories of times with friends, probably when they were students, playing “Articulate! while pissed”. The poem is packed with really evocative references, building line after line a picture of life without responsibility, just good times on a shoestring. Turn the page to find ‘Ocean’ which I keep returning to for its haunting last lines:

   The old I like best. When their ancient eyes meet mine,
   mournful, I’m sure they know what it is to lose

   an ocean, that endlessness, stretched out before you.

I’m not entirely sure what the poem is about, maybe rush hour traffic as a young cyclist passes older commuters in their cars and cabs? Maybe a care-home window during lockdown? Remember he did tell us to see whatever we want. I’m intrigued by the metaphor of sea creatures trapped behind glass staring at one another, and by the empathy shown to those for whom time is running out.

There are many references to cycling, running and sport in the collection. The poet seems to have a healthy relationship with these and recognises how every participant will have a different reason for wanting “to test the limits / of the human heart”. There is, as in all the poems, recognition of time passing and the frailty of the human condition, the need to live in the moment.

Another feature of the collection is Wilkinson’s ‘borrowing’ from the works of nineteenth century French symbolist poet Verlaine. I am not familiar at all with Verlaine but can appreciate some of Wilkinson’s playful use of half rhyme and metre in these poems, and the way he mashes up contemporary and more archaic language as in ‘Once’:

   Who knows, but her voice is like an angel’s;
   her touch, those fireflies swarming at dusk.
   I know the risks in blundering back here,

   revelling in that glorious, summer-day fuck.
   Take these day-glo flowers, their perfect scent;
   her fulsome kiss. It came and it went.

I was delighted to come across Wilkinson’s tribute to Mary Ruefle’s iconic ‘color series’ in ‘Grey Disgust’. Mary Ruefle’s poems feature every colour you can think of, usually referring to each as a ‘sadness’. Wilkinson captures much of her wry wit in his depiction of grey as “a lift still rich with the grim fart of the / previous occupant”. Ending with a reference to “belly-button fluff”, Wilkinson again shows his mastery of how to order the poems in a collection by following with his poem ‘Fuzz’, grimy with everything that makes for the perfect dodgy, smoky, noisy club.

There are lots of swipes at modern life in these poems and at what some refer to as the rat race. These thoughts are timely as we approach what looks like the next recession. In ‘Rich’ Wilkinson can see no merit in having too much cash, “Money spoils whether it falls / in the lap or accrues in the hands”, and in ‘Guacamole’ he offers the laugh-out-loud story of Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for avocado dip – priceless! Our social media ‘memories’ are mocked in ‘Ben, we care’, where “vain algorithms, might choose / to spring consequence on you at any given moment.”

It’s rare to read a collection that reaches out to the reader with such emotional integrity while being so easy to relate to. Everything about these poems is tender and inclusive. Even when Wilkinson is being brutally honest, he srill writes with such care for the language and for the sequencing of the poems. This really is a ‘good read’ in every sense.

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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