Humor and Grace in The Survival Expo by Caki Wilkinson
Persea Books 2021
We know we are in for a wild ride just looking at the cover of Caki Wilkinson’s daring third book, Survival Expo (Persea Books, 2021). An Elvis look-alike walks a greyhound as he checks his phone and an ant farm runs amok into a headless woman’s intestines, prefiguring the humor and darkness of this collection. The only way into Survival Expo is a nosedive but guided by the title poem, we manage to trust our shaky way forward, with the instruments Wilkinson provides:
…punch-out tools that fit inside your wallet
so if you’re stranded in the wilderness
or captured, and have access to your wallet
you might save yourself. What can it hurt? …
So equipped, we step into The Survival Expo and meet Caki Wilkinson in the surreal terrain she reveals. Reading this book is like having the nerve to get close to the girl you were always afraid to approach in high school. You know her: the one with the wrong kind of friends, whip smart and too cool to be called daring. Wilkinson’s collection is a cautionary field guide to a world that is compelling and harsh and knowable.
The first poem of the collection, “Jocks,” is, as the title suggests, a first-person lyric about high school sports. The speaker and are friends are the athletes; they sit in the back row
…already wearing away uniforms
under our warm-ups, popping purple gum,
some of us in lipstick stolen from our mothers
others mistaken for our younger brothers…
The poem reads as an off-kilter sonnet on steroids, although it casts only a sidelong glance at the form’s conventions. Each of the 22 lines has ten beats, and Wilkinson takes much liberty with end rhymes. The main theme is power and how hard it is to claim and own it, as the poem’s final couplet hammers home: Our trick plays worked. We wore each other’s sweat./Our pregnant captain didn’t know it yet.
These are girls already wise in their ways of survival. They know their physical strength, which rules can be ignored, and they have each other.
And there we are, from that first poem, dropped like a crazy dunk shot that wasn’t supposed to make it into the net; we become intimate spectators in the seductive world Wilkinson creates.
“I Think About My Neighbors” is the poem that introduces the third section of the book. It also touches on the political and muses about how the neighbors voted. Hilary Clinton’s unfortunate use of the word “deplorables” comes to mind. Wilkinson’s is a more expansive world: her people so varied and curious that we want to learn more about them, not dismiss them:
We’ve not been introduced
so I don’t wave at them outside their house,
their yard, like mine, in need of some attention,
their porch foreboding as a pirate ship,
but sometimes he’ll be hosing off the truck,
or she’ll be bringing groceries in or hanging
a windchime fashioned from the small, sharp bones
of an animal they must’ve killed themselves…
Wilkinson’s world is one in which fascination about human life trumps any judgment of family, friends, or neighbors. We don’t want to miss out on knowing the speaker’s people, like those in “Obstinate Gospel” who are “armed with psalms and scratch-offs.” These churchgoers are “not letting maps/ or medicine decide how best/ to look the future in the eye.”
Wilkinson’s speaker is accompanied by her even wilder cousin, Hope–we are tempted to read her name as ironic but her persistence and tenacity push back– who anchors the collection in the second and final poems of all five sections. One poem titled “Hope is the Thing With Feathers” reminds us that Hope, like everyone we meet in Wilkinson’s world, is a survivor. They are outliving car crashes, cancer treatment, the wrong men and still sit down to “…half a rack of/ribs, sweating up the styrofoam.” “Hope Comes to Elvis Week” is my favorite for its urgency and technicolor imagery. It opens in scene, in Wilkinson’s home state of Tennessee:
We go to Graceland for the vigil. Hope is in the same fuchsia tube
dress she wore to our grandpa’s funeral, but it’s okay this time
around, nobody hissing about what’s appropriate, not in Memphis
in August, 99 at dusk, the dew point making people’s hair deranged.
The poem concludes with a potent sense of longing: “the crowd just slightly hushed./ Hope says Can you imagine/ being loved this much?”
It would be easy to overlook the repeated sounds of “just,””hushed,””loved,”/and “much” because they are so deftly placed, working subtly with the understated “slightly” to suggest the quieting of the crowd. Wilkinson is a master of form, using prose poems, traditional verse, a found poem made of newspaper headlines, a poem composed entirely of small town names, even a reversed abecedarian. Together, these diverse structures amplify the varied and irresistible world she inhabits and offers the reader. Nothing is too small to be overlooked.
“Georgics” is, hands down, the most humorous poem in this collection. If, like me, you need a refresher on the title reference, the original “Georgics” was composed by Virgil somewhere between 37 and 30 BCE, a Latin poem with an agricultural theme and a tense, uneasy tone. The word “georgic” means “a poem dealing with farming,” but Wilkinson works an ironic twist. Her “Georgics” is a work in five parts, each indicated by a Roman numeral and made up of ten lines, with ten beats per line, except for the end couplet, which is perfectly rhymed and ten or eleven beats. The first part straps the reader in for the amusement park ride of this finely-crafted sequence, \solidified by the rhythmic turn of its last lines
I have a history of killing plants.
The only thing I’ve ever farmed is ants.
From this couplet, we are held willing hostage to the second, third, and fourth sections, where we witness three consecutive boyfriends to whom the speaker has gifted an ant farm, with predictably unsatisfactory results. Section IV opens:
What if I said I pulled this stunt again
with Boyfriend 3, because I’m bad at gifts
This section is one long question, reminding the reader that survival is a condition requiring ongoing renewal rather than a simple declaration. This “Georgics” is not pastoral, and it manages to be very funny even while considering deeply the conditions of commitment and belonging:
No ant farms, ever. How about a book?
Which is what he got. I’d pictured something more
spectacular, but whether I was learning
to listen or determined not to look
like I wasn’t listening the book was fine,
the first of many gifts. We took things slow.
I ruined it like all the others, though.
Wilkinson teaches at Rhodes College in Tennessee and, in an interview, described a classroom strategy that invites students to consider “the thing and the other thing” in their writing. “Georgics” is ostensibly a poem about testing the limits of quirky gifting and then changing tack with the fourth boyfriend. That is its “thing.” “The other thing” Wilkinson is writing about is love– how we know it, try and hold onto it, learn about it, survive it.
Survival is the heart of this book – as the name of this timely collection reminds us.–The title poem itself is a masterpiece. The very word survival catches our attention these post-pandemic, post-January 6th days. Images of backyard shelters, MRE kits, water purification systems come to mind. We think insurrection or natural disaster, invasion or desperate escape. And the word expo calls up the hubbub of state fairs at one end or, at the other, a convention for buying weapons with only a passing glance at a prospective gun owner’s credentials. Wilkinson sets the scene in a sweep of opening lines, weaving in the dazzling fourth line with its apt, Biblical reference:
It’s mostly men inside the Agricenter,
pricing seed vaults and metal shelters, knives
and MREs spread over dressed up tables
like alms for fraught apostles–Take, eat–
and we expected this, my friend and I,
but came in anyway, for fun, I guess,
except to me, it feels more like a test
to prove how out of place we aren’t…
The reader remains nearly breathless through the 60 lines of this poem. There is no full stop until a single period, two-thirds of the way in. Like the speaker and her friend, we succumb to the Agricenter’s compelling multi-sensory imagery. This overload calls to mind Denise Levertov’s words: “Accuracy is always the gateway to mystery.” The flashing ad at the Expo— YES, SILENCERS ARE LEGAL— makes it possible for us to believe, no questions asked, that “…there’s a line/ for 20-minute background checks.” As the poem hurtles to its final eight lines, the momentum is sustained by the conjunction “and,” deployed three times, and the shocking but perfectly right verb “reloading”:
and the Agricenter smells like kettle corn,
and my friend is feeling better, done with chemo,
and I don’t know what to say but can’t shut up,
just keep reloading wrong words through the last
packed aisles and turnstiles, back to Saturday,
appalled, of course, but not ungratified
by all these ways we have to stay alive.
Thankfully, Wilkinson’s exploration of what it means to keep going is generous as well as fierce. She shares with us the tools of survival: humor, human companionship, a perverse and passionate curiosity. Hers becomes our world and, by the book’s end, we want to live in it and be part of it a bit longer.