Chapbook Finding Aid: A Ghost As King of the Rabbits, Joshua Marie Wilkinson
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Joshua Marie Wilkinson Biography
Joshua Marie Wilkinson was born on December 2, 1977 in Seattle. He obtained his Master of Arts in Film Studies from University College Dublin, and then continued on to get his PhD in English at the University of Denver.
Josh is the author of six books, including Swamp Isthmus, Selenography, The book of whispering in the projection booth, and Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careless Dusk, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2005. He is also the author of many poems, which have appeared in over eighty journals and anthologies. He also codirected a tour documentary about the band Califone.
Today, Josh is editor of The Volta, a poetry website. Additionally, he is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, where he teaches poetry and poetics in their MFA program in creative writing. He is currently working on a book of collaborations with Noah Saterstrom.
Themes in "A Ghost as King of the Rabbits"
Death: In Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s chapbook, “A Ghost As King of the Rabbits”, death is a prominent theme throughout the whole poem. He uses death in a literal and a figurative sense. There is the death of a woman and a man, which is the physical form of death. There is also a figurative sense of death displayed in the poet’s work. An example of the figurative sense is the drunk father. He is not literally dead, but the person he once was has died from his addiction to alcohol. The figurative form of death is just as heart breaking and traumatic as the literal appearance. Death is an important theme in both of these forms because it helps the reader see that it is apart of life. We must cope with death because with death comes memories.
Memories: The two major themes of memories and death in this chapbook go hand in hand. Without some form of death, memories would never come. The form of death is not necessarily limited to a person dying. It could be the death of a moment in time, the death of a person’s old personality, the death of an area where someone once lived. The point is that memories can be just as haunting as death. Throughout the poem the narrator continually flashes back to his past. He flashes back to many different defining moments in his life, such as the death of his mom, the areas he once visited, and people he once knew.
Nature: Nature is one more theme in Wilkinson’s poem. When nature is mentioned it is used in a calming and peaceful sense. This seems to be used to contrast with the destruction alcohol and cars can bring. Wilkinson seems to use the theme of nature to demonstrate the damage that man made things can bring to people and their way of lives compared to the peaceful aspects that can be seen in nature.
Family: Family is another important theme in this poem. In the beginning the narrator mentions a young boy, the death of his mother, and many indications of siblings. The aspect of family is important because it is related to the other themes in the poem: death and memories. Families can produce some of the best and worst memories in one’s life. There is also always death in a family, which once again ties back to the idea of memories. Family members pass away and become memories to their children, siblings, parents, and spouses.
Symbols and Motifs in "A Ghost as King of the Rabbits"
Fire: Fire is used as a motif to represent destruction, but also the birth of new life, much like a forest fire. When the fire destroys the forest everything that was once there grows back in a stronger and healthier way. The idea of death and regrowth is displayed through this motif of fire in this poem.
City: City is mentioned in many different ways in the poem. It is mentioned simply as a city or as a specific type of city where the narrator has been before. This is relevant because it shows that the narrator is remembering where he was and what his life was like at a certain point, which ties back to the theme of memories.
Mail: While reading this poem, it was slightly unclear as to why mail is mentioned. Mail seems to be mentioned a lot because it can also symbolize hope in a way. As a young child, one might wait for a package to arrive and look for it everyday, much like how a person can continuously hope for something without knowing when they will receive what they want or need.
Snow: Snow is used in this poem in a unique way. It seems like when snow is mentioned in a poem it is used to represent something cold, dark, or lonely. However, in Wilkinson’s poem it is stated as a gift. He even mentions it is a gift that never seems to come. Meaning that it is longed for by people.
Alcohol: Alcohol is frequently mentioned to show destruction. The narrators father was an alcoholic and that tore the family apart. The alcohol did not only destroy the father’s life but his children’s lives as well.
Camera: Camera is used to represent memories in a different form. Cameras are used to record a moment in history, whether it be video or photographic. This motif is important because often pictures and videos are looked at on a later time to remember what it was like in that exact moment.
Colors: Colors are used as a motif to depict emotions and give a better visual of what the narrator is seeing or remembering. People associate colors with different emotions, for example the color green can be seen to represent envy, while the color copper, like what the narrator used to describe a fox, can be seen as natural and calming.
Summary of "A Ghost As King of the Rabbits"
In Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s “A Ghost As King of the Rabbits” he writes about a man who continually flashes back on his childhood and his years of development. The findings in this poem were apparent because of many themes that were constantly displayed. The themes of death and memories were shown throughout the entire poem. These themes show the reader that the narrator experienced the death of his mother, who died from being hit by a milk truck. After reflecting on this defining moment in his life the narrator continues to remember other important moments. He flashes back to his father and his alcoholism, different areas where he has lived or visited, and even a time where he was in love. This chapbook demonstrates a young man and the good and bad moments in his life and how those moments, captured in time, have made him who he is today.
Wilkinson derives inspiration from many different places. For this chapbook specifically, his biggest inspiration came from Wallace Stevens, as can be seen in the title (See interview). Throughout the chapbook, Wilkinson uses subtle, obverse references to Stevens, such as playing on Steven’s rabbit-light by including an illustration labeled penguin night-light.
Wilkinson said he was inspired by Susan Rothenberg’s paintings and Ron Mueck’s sculptures while writing this chapbook. Susan Rothenberg is famous for her early horse paintings and fragmented body parts; perhaps the reason Wilkinson includes numerous references to horses and certain parts of the body throughout this collection of poems. Ron Mueck is known for his realism. Because of the altered scale his sculptures take on, they allow for close up inspections of life-like features. A critic of Mueck said, “If you stare long and deeply enough, you experience a horrific beauty.” The same is true of Wilkinson’s poetry: he talks about very real instances, and while some may be gruesome, the story behind them can be astonishing.
He also found inspiration in Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud’s portraiture. Both of these artists are known for their emotionally raw imagery. Freud is known for his nude portraits, which expose the human as he is. Wilkinson tells the stories of people as they are, without trying to sugar coat anything. Bacon’s later art is preoccupied with themes and motifs of death, which are very prevalent in this chapbook.
Illustrations in "A Ghost as King of the Rabbits"
“A Ghost as King of the Rabbits” contains several pictures throughout its pages illustrated by J’Lyn Chapman. In his interview, Josh explains that he did not explain to J’Lyn what he wanted the illustrations to consist of or what to draw and on what pages. Instead, J’Lyn drew all the pictures overnight and returned them to Josh the next day.
We found that the pictures do not have an obvious or direct connection to the stanzas the images are next to. However, many of the illustrations used in this chapbook are of objects or scenes that were mentioned at least once in the chapbook at some point. For example, on page 12, Wilkinson writes, “A kid at the mailbox sings that/your brothers are deader than doorlocks,/that your mother lives/in their teeth.” On page 19, J’Lyn drew a picture of a mailbox with a ghost on the left side, as shown below. This image seems to reflect the stanza on page 12 because there is a mailbox, but also a ghost. Since we believe that the mother is dead, this ghost could be a representation of the narrator’s mother. When the narrator explains how the kid at the mailbox sings that “your mother lives in their teeth,” this seems to mean that the mother is not actually living, but can only be spoken about and remembered through speaking. As mentioned in the motifs section, mail is very important to the narrator, and we also know that the mother was very important as well. In this illustration, we see two important things to the narrator. The fact that the image is drawn seven pages after the stanza seems to symbolize the flashbacks of the narrator. We believe that this chapbook is written about a narrator who has constant flashbacks to his or her childhood. The fact that the narrator writes about a memory on page 12 and then revisits the memory on page 19 demonstrates the constant reminiscing of his or her past.
Another interesting aspect about the illustrations is that every drawing is labeled. Perhaps J’Lyn’s labeling is her way of being very thorough of the illustrations. Another interesting aspect about all the illustrations is that each one is black and white; J’Lyn used no color in any of the drawings. Perhaps this black and white could symbolize the bluntness of death and life in the chapbook. There is an obvious discussion of the living, such as the narrator and his/her siblings, but also the death of the mother, the milkman, and even an emotional death in the father seen through the use of alcohol. The black and white could also symbolize the narrator’s numb feelings. He or she has been scarred by the death of the mother, and also been scarred by the father’s alcoholism. When someone is hurting so deeply and experiencing pain, it is hard to step back and see life colorfully. Instead, there is a shield, where everything looks dull and nothing has the ability to allow the person to take off the painful film to allow him or her to see life normally. Alcohol can also have this effect; we believed the father became an alcoholic once his wife, the mother of the narrator, was killed. The father clung to alcohol to help numb his feelings, causing him to perhaps only see black and white just as the narrator.
Interview with Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Q: We noticed that your title is the exact opposite of Wallace Steven’s “A rabbit as king of the ghosts.” You used similar techniques, including the cyclic construction of the story, as you both begin with the scene that your stories are about. Are there any reasons that you chose to name your poem this other than the similar writing style?
A: It was a tribute to Stevens of course; and for some reason the reversal made sense for the book I was writing at the time, which is called Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk, of which the chapbook is two parts, plus J’Lyn’s drawings.
Q: Stevens is known to baffle the reader and provoke philosophical analyses. Is that your intentions with this chapbook?
A: No. Those were not my intentions.
Q: Other than Stevens, who do you get your inspiration from?
A: Many places. For that work, I was spending a lot of time with Susan Rothenberg’s paintings, and Ron Mueck’s strange sculptures. And Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud—the peculiar differences and overlap of their style of portraiture, if Bacon’s can even be called that. I found a copy of Barthes’s Incidents and that helped also.
Q: You include many characters in this book, some of them having a role that begins and ends in the same stanza. What was the purpose in including so many characters? Would you say they are crucial to understanding the story?
A: Well, there is no overarching story, only little lyric stories. So, there’s that. But the characters are crucial to how the poem wants to tell only glimpses of narrative and then turn away—overheard stories, little songs, rumors, figments, specters, and abandoned tales. So, they are “crucial,” yes, but not in the sense that they unlock the “whole” story—there isn’t one; it’s a poem, after all.
Q: You asked a lot of questions in this in this chapbook, and we had a hard time translating some of them into something that could aid in the overall understanding of the story. Why did you decide to use so many questions and whom are they directed towards?
A: I love the form of the question. It’s the one place in language that invites more language from another person directly, which sounds obvious. But so much talk is endless talk. The question is an invitation, and it can be to register curiosity or it can be to interrogate. I think what’s peculiar about the questions in that chapbook is that most of them expect just yes and no answers. The questions themselves are what we must question—who could say this? and in what context could this be said? and why would a person say this to somebody else? My poems are about the articulation of mysteries, in some ways. Not only that, but in part—at least I think so. I am bored by things like “the overall understanding of the story” (there’s no test, no quiz, only you’re brain used otherwise), and I’m drawn to art that asks us to set aside conventional methods of understanding for a more horizontal experience of simultaneous meanings and contradictions to body forth. That’s just a fancy way of saying: art that you cannot easily paraphrase and thereby ace for the test or cocktail party and forget.
Q: Are you the narrator? Is this story about your life? You referred to family members many times throughout the book. Is this your family you are referring to? Why did you choose to write about this for your very first chapbook?
A: I am not the narrator, no. This work is not about my life, no, except for the fact that it came from my imagination of course. I don’t choose to write about anything; I follow what my pen seems to want to tell me when it’s moving across the page and I begin to adumbrate and then deepen the parts that seem most disarming to me. I revise towards unknowns, pleasures, difficulties, and desires.
Q: Just to settle a little debate among our group members, who is Anna? A sister?
A: The author is unable to say, I’m afraid. Not for the wish to be difficult, but because the author does not know.
Q: It is interesting that you are not the illustrator of this chapbook. Did you tell J’Lyn every picture that you wanted drawn or did the two of you collaborate to incorporate what she thought should be drawn? We also noticed that some of the pictures did not tie in with your story (at least not in a way that was obvious to us!). What was the purpose in putting these pictures in your chapbook if they did not relate to the story?
A: I’m surprised that you think this is a story at all. But J’Lyn and I worked together on this. She made the drawings and we had a conversation about it. She took the text home and the next day appeared with all the drawings, like magic. They were perfect to my mind, especially those that “did not tie in” as you say.
Q: While you did use alliteration often, you hardly use any end rhyme, nor can we see a specific form to your stanzas. Do you think free verse contributes to the content of the story? If so, how? You also had quite a few creative words of your own (including haystink, starcrumble and wingdust). Do these words also contribute to the meaning?
A: I don’t believe that I work in “free verse” in the sense of whatever comes out in the meter and line length it happens to is fine as is. I tend to use a lot of iambic/anapestic music and then thwart it—stanch it, break it, reverse it—with a lot of trochaic and sometimes dactylic music. (I love the amphibrach; I love the choriamb; perhaps I am a lyric poet after all.) That tends to be my favorite approach. Is that free? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it’s not in pentameter; no in the sense described above. I like Adam Phillips’s formulation that we only ask after meaning when we are disturbed by something. If you go see Sky Fall, most people leaving the theatre are probably not going, “But what did it mean?!” (And I liked the movie very much.) My point is that, meaning is a story we tell ourselves to feel better about what resists our obvious or default ways of understanding something. So, those neologisms are just disturbances, I hope—little friendly resistances to normative experience of language.
Q: Would you rather your readers understand your work thoroughly, or just enjoy what they are reading?
A: If by “understand your work thoroughly” you mean that the reader would be able to give an apt summary, a perfect five paragraph essay about, or have looked up every single word in the poem in the OED to be able to declaim a treatise on it for the getting of a teacher’s gold star, then I would rather be enjoyed. The poem is a just a poem. It’s not a secret; it’s not a riddle; it’s not a joke; and it’s not a story. It’s an artful use (hopefully!) of language used otherwise—and what otherwise means is that no summary of the work is possible without denigrating the work itself. I would hope that a reader would indeed enjoy what they are reading (by enjoy I include to be disarmed, perplexed, and agitated by) without it feeling any irritable reaching after CliffNotes or Google. As Frank O’Hara told a group of fifth graders, “The painter is just trying to show you something beautiful” not to get you to solve a puzzle.
Q: We think that the ghost is the mother because you wrote, “a kid at the mailbox sings your brothers are deader than doorlocks, that your mother lives in their teeth” and then later there is an illustration of a ghost next to a mailbox. Are we right?
A: The author does not know, you see.
Q: What significance does mail play in this story? You reference letters and a mailbox and a mailman often, but we aren’t sure how it ties in with the rest of the story. What is the narrator waiting for in the mail that his father won’t tell him about?
A: I’m fascinated by mail, by the interruption of the day by letters from without flying into a box attached to your home. I loved the mail as a kid. I used to write to baseball players for autographs—this is the mid 80s—way before internet. We found their stadium addresses in an almanac of some kind. The mail was the best part of the day: surprise, unknowns, pleasures, disappointments, but mostly: anticipation. The anticipation was the best part, not that we knew it. I don’t know the answers to your questions: your formulations are more interesting than mine, you see?
Q: It seems as though this chapbook is written in flashbacks, and you switch from past to present often. Why did you choose to tell the story like this?
A: Well, it’s a poem that seemed to need language from these different perspectives. I love the oscillation of the past with the present. I love how we use the present for the past (“So, last night, I walk into the bar, up to the door and I say…”) and the past for the present (“I was hoping to send this package”). The poem always discloses what it needs in revision, and I try to behave accordingly. I just do what it seems to tell me. I’m kidding but actually quite serious, too.
Q: The role of the camera seems to play a significant part in your story, as it aids in conveying the memories you portray. Why did you choose to use the camera to represent memories?
A: I’m not sure that that’s what the camera does, but that’s an interesting formulation. I like the false sense we have that a photograph is a stillness, a fixed moment—which is a fiction that we like to believe in. That’s endlessly fascinating to the poet. The movie’s illusion is movement; the photograph’s illusion is stillness. Of course there’s no such thing as stillness, but we like to tell ourselves things can be pinned down, fixed, understood that way—in order to stabilize those disturbances.
Q: We had a hard time connecting the love part of the book to the death part. Help us out?!
A: Most assuredly, the author cannot help you out with either death or love—let alone the connection there between. My apologies, but you must’ve seen that coming by now.
Archimbaud, Michel. Francis Bacon: The Final Vision. New York: Phaidon Press, 1994. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
"Bio." joshuamarie. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr 2013. <http://www.
"Susan Rothenberg." Art21. Art21, n.d. Web. 22 Apr 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/art21/
Tanguy, Sarah. "The Progress Big Man A Conversation with Ron Mueck ." Sculpture. 22.6 (2003): n. page. Web. 22 Apr. 2013. <http://www.sculpture.org/
Wilkinson, Joshua M. Personal Interview. 9 April 2013.
Wilkinson, Joshua M. A Ghost As King of the Rabbits. Grand Rapids: New Michigan, 2005. Print.
William Grimes. "Lucian Freud, Figurative Painter Who Redefined Portraiture, Is Dead at 88". The New York Times. 21 July 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Close Reading I of Wilkinson
Did the movies spoil you early?
Couldn’t the river take that man away?
Had you wished for a better entry?
The man slumped wide-eyed dead at the wheel of the milk truck
isn’t enough for a poem until
the ground thaws,
the windshield splatters onto the dash,
into his pleated lap & animals catch
the opened scent.
Montana burned fresh. They nuzzle
& tug him lengthwise
like a dummy
into the goat field
& wish him goodbye.
We believe that the narrator is speaking about the death of his mother, a concept constantly referred to in this chapbook. The narrator’s mother was killed by a milkman deliverer who was driving and crashed into his mother, thus killing both the mother and the driver.
In the first stanza, the narrator seems to be directing questions at the milkman, who we think is responsible for his mother’s death. The first line refers to movies spoiling the milkman. Spoiling is an ironic word used in this line, because as we all know, bad milk is called spoiled. In addition, we thought maybe the word “movies” could represent video games, and having a destructive mindset, like one needed to defeat a violent video game, could spoil someone. The second line could mean that the author wishes the milkman could have been taken by the river or have died some other way that would not have taken his mother’s life. The third line of the first stanza is also referring to reflecting on a different cause of death for the milkman. We believe the entry the narrator is speaking about is the entry into the afterlife and the narrator seems to be asking, “why would you want to die in a car accident instead of another way?” In this first stanza, the reader can feel the pain and suffering and even the animosity the narrator feels toward the milkman for the death of his mother.
Moving on to the second stanza, the reader can sense the graphic and disturbing images of the car crash of the milkman. The strong imagery used in this stanza exemplifies the narrator’s strong sense of memory of his mother’s death, as we read this part as a flashback to the narrator’s childhood. When the narrator says that the dead man (the milkman) “isn’t enough for a poem…” we again see the narrator’s animosity toward the milkman who seems to not be really worthy to be written about in his poem unless the narrator gets to discuss the milkman’s gruesome death. By the narrator’s descriptive and harsh words, such as slumped, splatters, and burned, we see that the narrator does not take the milkman’s death lightly. Instead, he explains with it very vivid detail, ensuring the reader is able to picture the awful scene. The fact that this stanza only consists of three sentences, one of which is only three words, the reader can sense the strong emotion of the narrator. When someone is worked up about something so life changing, like the death of a parent, it is often hard to be calm and express thoughts thoroughly in an organized manor. We can sense the narrator’s long-windedness about the death, which supports the idea that he or she has strong emotions about the death.
When the narrator refers to the dead milkman as a dummy, the reader can again sense the strong rejection and the unimportance of the milkman to the narrator. The narrator chose to compare a dead human to a lifeless model of a human.
The verbs the narrator uses when describing what the animals did to the body are gentle, such as “nuzzle” and “wish.” Compared to the harsh verbs listed earlier about the death of the milkman, we can see that the animals’ actions are much gentler than the descriptions of the death given by the narrator. We see that nature is gentle in this scene, whereas humans actions and descriptions are harsher. This relates to the overall idea of the chapbook in the sense that the narrator’s father and grandfather inflict pain on the family by abusing alcohol (a man-made product) and the mother’s death caused by the man-made car also caused pain for the family. The idea of the windshield of the car splattering onto the dash was a human error, caused by the milkman driving the car. But the animals came to the rescue to clean up the mistake made by the milkman and even wished him goodbye. This concept also relates to one of the overall motifs of the chapbook: nature. Nature is gentle whereas human life can be painful and destructive.
Close Reading II of Wilkinson
Memories (a torn open roof,
taste of marmalade or warm beer,
goldfinch smacked a window
or drawn into a book with three
kinds of color & some black)
find us stopped in a doorway kissing
or whistling, pulling that door shut,
or a shirt off, a sliver out, a page
loose, a sky over,
a melon apart.
In these last few stanzas of the chapbook, the author seems to emphasize the idea of memories, and how fleeting and incoherent they can be. Beginning with the first stanza, it starts out with the word “Memories,” and then the rest of the stanza is put in parenthesis. By putting the rest of the thought in parenthesis, the poet is almost setting these thoughts/memories aside, and reminiscing on them; however random they might be. Memories can easily get muddled together as well, and sometimes may not make a lot of sense in your mind as time goes on. They can also come into your thoughts at random times, and the memories you are thinking of may not even have a connection. This is emphasized with the phrases “torn open roof, taste of marmalade or warm beer, goldfinch smacked a window or drawn into a book with three kinds of color & some black.” Maybe, to the narrator, these have some sort of association with each other, but to the readers, these seem to be random thoughts and meditations.
Furthermore, when the poet goes from the thought ending in “..kinds of color & some black,” to saying that those memories “find us stopped in a doorway kissing or whistling, pulling that door shut..” he is examining the idea that when we start to think of a specific memory, a certain idea- whether it be a familiar smell, taste, or emotion- from that particular memory can lead us into thinking about an entirely different memory. Our brains tend to make connections from memory to memory, however small or insignificant that connection may seem.
This last page of the chapbook seems to tie in what the poet was intending to make of this story. Throughout the entire chapbook, there are many different characters and what seem to be many different little stories. While reading through it, a lot of it didn’t make sense. One moment it was talking about a “kid at the mailbox sings that your brothers are deader than doorlocks,” and the next it’s talking about “when the missive arrives Anna lifts her blouse, tucks the envelope into the front of her blue shirt & locks herself in the bathroom.” Then, a couple pages later it appears to be talking about a man that was killed in a car accident and animals prey on his corpse. While reading this, it was difficult to see how these ideas all fit together. However, even after asking the poet himself, it was discovered that there isn’t a specific connection to be made. Throughout this entire story, or collection of stories, different thoughts are being presented. They don’t have a necessary connection to each other. This idea of memories flowing from one to the next is reflected in the number of short, random, and somewhat disconnected tales throughout this book.