Joe Wilkins’s award-winning poetry collection Thieve is a map across American landscapes and relationships that have become distant, unfamiliar. These poems show us how to embrace our neighbors and old friends and find grace and mercy in a world that cuts us in two.
Born and raised in Montana, Wilkins writes poetry from a rural life lived in the Rockies, the Iowa plains, and the Klamath Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. These landscapes provide not only regions of ecological and geological juxtapositions, but also cultural and political conflicts. It is with the backdrop of colliding eco/cultural/political systems that Wilkins explores how we make our way in a world wrought with division.
Early in the collection, Wilkins shows us how to live like a camas lily, a flower that may be overlooked but still feels compelled
to shake, finally, to scatter, to urge every sugar to the root, to feed the earth as it fed him
In some ways, this becomes the central argument of this collection—we all must do the necessary work, even if it goes unnoticed, of learning our landscapes and reaching out to one another with love if we are to make our way in this world.
There is a movement toward the past, in hopes of understanding the present, in many of these poems. In “Eleven,” for example, the narrator reaches back into his childhood, surrounded by boys in “tight Wranglers & cuffed jackets,” who drive down Main Street “blasting whatever / sounded most like a dumped bucket of hammers.” Then:
they rise before me, these first translators of the thorned, invasive language of manhood, & they are not looking at me, but through me
Within the raw, precise imagery of memory, Wilkins reconciles the struggle of identity, concluding that there is a way forward into a stronger sense of self and manhood, that “there is a road / away from wherever they are.”
Thieve is divided into three sections, and though each stands on its own, together they weave a larger journey. Lost Boys of the Upper Great Plains explores through vignettes the lives of “lost boys” who have
patience that of meltwater, our anger involving pills & wires.
These boys, the way they stagger and swagger through the world, capture what it’s like living in a rural landscape and the “Shit-stained rafters / the terror of underbridges // & uncles…”
Where do these boys find their place in the world? In the cold water of a horse trough or deep roadside culvert pool, in whiskey and blue Gatorade, in
three bills for a gas station supper, & one of us knows a girl name Lacy who’s promised to leave the basement door unlocked, & one of us throws a brick through his mother’s front window & then lies down on the grass & glasses his wrists.
We are left with stillness and blood seeping into soil, body finding land. Yet within this violent quiet maybe there is mercy, for at least one of the boys survives and moves on.
The poems of the second sequence, Explain, interpret landscape and experience and life—to a reader, a neighbor, a stranger. These explanations, seemingly simple acts, are exactly what we are missing in society right now. In “Explain: Recession,” Wilkins writes that
Someone, yes, used to live here— not us, but someone called them dear, Not us, child, not this year.
In “Explain: Wolves,” Wilkins explores the life of wolf OR-7, who has wandered thousands of miles through Oregon and Northern California. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Wilkins’s lyric in this poem—“She wanders heavy-bellied, full of milk & knives” and “When mountains gather their snap & shatter.” Here (and throughout Thieve) the poet strikes a balance between beauty and violence, animal and landscape, human and wolf:
I’m telling you if we ever on the next ridge see her loping down the scree, teets swinging, or in the fireblind night hear above the sough & slap of lakewater his dark bell of howl boom & ring, then children we will lean into one another, our itching hides, all the lengths of our glad, animal bones.
These poems reach out to the one who is far away, to the one next door who we have so little in common with, to the animals that are within and around us. They warm our abandoned houses, they connect us to the world in which we live, they ask for our ear, they help us understand.
The last sequence, …Poem Against the Crumbling of the Republic, consists of poem-letters (or prayers, really) to an “old friend” in hopes of reaching a place of acceptance and empathy with someone far away. In some ways these are neighbors we ourselves have had, neighbors we have been, neighbors we are: old friends. This repetition of the addressee “Old friend” speaks to a country that is more than its partisan politics would have many of us believe—it is our shared histories and landscapes. This is what will keep America from crumbling: reaching out to old friends.
So even in “Our Lady of the Freeways”—when we drive by a wreck on a “sun-blasted freeway / ninety miles from Nowhere, Oregon” and find a microcosm of America’s cultural and political divide:
sedans, big rigs, rusted pickups, Subarus driven by lean, angular people sipping seven dollar bottles of sparkling fermented cabbage water, & of course right beside us one of those harebrained Hummers…
—and when we are thus exposed, we still come to a fuller appreciation of each other thanks to the compassion and nuance of Wilkins’s poetry. The poems of Thieve help build deeper connections with human life—and it is through these actual, direct connections that we become true neighbors and old friends.
What Wilkins wants for us and for this country, what his poetry so beautifully demands, is “some assurance that God and the world / are as good as Duck Benson”—the older boy who taught you pain by twisting your wrists until you cried out “Mercy!”—and “that after the pain, after the breaking, / it will be, as it was, granted.”
Mercy granted. Through our pain, Wilkins shows us that we might find compassion and love, and that’s precisely what Thieve provides—a map exploring the parts of our world that no one else wants, the communities we may have forgotten, and we are all the richer for it. As readers, it is up to us to take what has been neglected or ignored and do the necessary work to realize and honor that beauty and value. We must find deeper connections to each other and our shared histories and landscapes if we are to survive.
As Wilkins writes in “Where the River Breaks the Mountain’s Back,”
This is a map. Love, I leave it here for you.
Michael Garrigan writes and teaches along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He loves exploring the riverlands with a fly rod, believes every watershed should have a poet laureate, and is the author of two poetry collections: Robbing the Pillars and the chapbook What I Know [How to Do]. You can find more of his writing at www.mgarrigan.com.
Header photo by Brennan Emerson, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Michael Garrigan by Joey Ulrich.