Sunday, 12 April 2020

Inner and outer worlds, Anthony Wilson's The Afterlife

I’ve long been an admirer of Anthony Wilson’s poetry, ever since I picked up a copy of his first collection, how far from here is home? (Stride, 1996) at a second-hand bookshop over a decade ago. I later discovered his excellent blog, of course, and his work as an editor, which has brought poetry and new poets into so many people’s lives, but it is his own creative output that always calls me back, invites me in once more and moves me afresh.

For this reason, I devoured his latest collection, The Afterlife (Worple Press, 2019), in one greedy session, before going back over it again and again. From his first collection onwards, Wilson has displayed a talent for re-energising everyday language, for using ordinary words to conjure something extraordinary. He does this by engaging with events via observations of the people who live through them, as in the following extract from Sitting With Your Body:

…and Tatty stroked
your shoulder as if comforting
a child who was poorly and hadn’t slept,
all the while watching your stillness,
finally you were still, as though present,
then we kissed your ice forehead
and found our coats and walked
across the common to eat with the others.

The emotional intensity of these lines develops in subtle ways, by the juxtaposition of contrasts such as movement and stillness, by the ambiguous double or triple meanings of certain pivotal words. For instance, Wilson implicitly hints at different interpretations of terms like sleep and presence, trusting his readers to forge their own connections and take off on their own journeys.

An ability to play with the multiple meanings of words is also present in the collection’s title, The Afterlife. Initial readings might offer up religious connotations of life after death. In fact, Wilson is referring to a second life that comes after having faced your own death, a second life in which everything has changed forever.

This theme runs through the collection and marks a step forward in the poet’s thematic concerns. In dealing with his second life, Wilson works to find reconciliation between his inner and outer worlds, as in the opening lines of There are Days…

There are days I lose to knowing
it has come back.

An ache in my back, a run of night sweats.
Then nothing.

I am me again, climbing out of bed
to make the tea…

Physical acts are here portrayed alongside emotional torment, routine seen as a necessary counterpoint to the loss of former certainties.

The Afterlife is far from being a depressing or morbid read. Instead, its poems celebrate life with greater intensity thanks to their acknowledgement of our frailty, encouraging us to seize our days too. I thoroughly recommend it.

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