A review of Time Taken: New and Selected Works by Les Wicks

Reviewed by Sarah Tiffen

Time Taken: New and Selected Works
by Les Wicks
Puncher & Wattmann
ISBN: 9781922571267, Paperback, 254 Pages, Jan 2022

Les Wicks was the first poetic dignitary to join us on our rural literary adventure – Riverina Writing House in Leeton in Western New South Wales – for an evening of stories, poetry, literature, and a wonderful workshop the next day in February 2022. 

Meeting him, I was struck by his generosity and his authority, his warmth and his impatience with the world. Refusing to be cowed by the corporatization of everything, Les is one of the true giants of Australian poetry with a lifetime devoted to both the art and his poetic community. A poetic journeyman and warrior whose work in writing and community throughout his life crisscrosses the globe. His beautiful new book Time Taken: New & Selected is a compendium of that life, full of treasures – wisdom, observations and raw evocations of the man himself. He has so much to share, and to teach us, and his doggedness in peeling back the layers to the human core speaks to his own love of the raw and human detail, almost sacred in an often insane world.

Here in Time Taken is a voluptuous kaleidescope of Beatnik Baroque across the decades. We move through time, always brutally, delicately bound to place, feeling so Australian even in the shadowed recesses of phrases and lines.

Is this the laconic, sexual, hypnotic 70’s – an Australia that we lionize now, tight pants and disillusion and sexy grime, or the aching 90’s all awash? We move through dappling light, seeing into vulnerable lives like voyeurs or seers – compelled to look and look away.

Here is Wicks, singing the heart of a Sydney barely grown – seedy, glorious, free, dark, sweet, singing something low and salty – Newtown, Bronte, Sutherland, King Street, the Cross or Cabramatta and Woolloomooloo. 

The words and worlds he conjures are dissolute, gorgeous, blunt and sad – vagabonds, ruffians, broken hearted, ferociously courageous, poor, hungry, feisty, underbellies of us, and the beach and the suburbs and the past and the now.

“Jenna” (p43) is a perfect portrait of a certain kind of Sydney: 

                                        Mate, how many times I gotta tell ya.
Delinquent collapse of dyed blonde
Over rhyolite eyes
In this silver-tarnished train..
                                        I don’t fancy ya                                       
Everyone listens, these two
Have that amplified Strine
Lubricated in beer
Operatic slur.

Here, there is love, and familiarity, and a kind of longing, for a time and place we used to inhabit, for a place whose borders Wicks himself must have loitered on, a terrible, theatrical nostalgia. The human touch.

Or “Spin the Bottle” (p30), “My Bronte Beach” (p176), “Suburban Fabric” (p77), “Little Imogen Black” (p55), or “Carnal Knowledge” (p199)– that all carry variations on the swagger, the observation, the character, the dark undertow.

“My Bronte Beach” is tangible and briney and bright and so exact, so intimate in its descriptors, so lovingly, casually observed and so Australian:

My Bronte Beach 
is the loudmouth in the waves singing Summertime
It’s actors, politicians,
pensioners & the kids – shockingly minus stuff.
The incursion of spring is the radius of white plovers,
glare swallowed by each wavelet
as a tourist biplane dissects the new cyan of midday..
Someone known – just out of hospital –
totters back to the sea
a great aged turtle.

“Carnal Knowledge is so frank and sordid and tackling with forensic documentarian recount the grainy heroic themes of sex and poverty and the far away defiance of a 70’s we can almost not imagine ourselves into now.

It’s all so kind and so raw – so carefully, casually and sometimes angrily specific – and yet all the while, about Place, about Heart, about Us, being Australian, being human. It’s bigger than Sydney. It’s a road trip all over the country and the world. 

He pays homage to many places beyond Sydney, including from Lake Pedder to the Mulga to the Riverina. Riverina Weather Report feels very intimate and familiar to this Riverina girl. There is just so much to savour in this collection. Broken Hill and the bush and the “Flung Far South” – veritably peppery from the bush scent exuding from the sensual words:

In accidents of clear light
Undressed leaves bend
To the fragile gleam of a breathless lake.
The forest floor steams,
Basks in 12 degrees – deep mind – 
The sonar of bird calls.
Mossy sheep are more like boulders – this place
Where the football field has lichen instead of grass.

And poems on relationships – fabulously precarious and brutal, disillusioned and forgiving – friends, lovers, family – it’s all here. Coaxing and tweaking and inviting language to display, reveal and undo. No pretense, just seeking and driving through image and word to show us something of ourselves.

What do I sense from it all, but his strong desire to hope, his willingness to see the good, or to will that which is wavering to be good? Driven by love, he works diligently, tirelessly, over and over again to be naked, to be true, to capture the beautiful amidst and beside the damned – and yet, and yet, the thread of his despondency that things are brimming with Dickensian anarchies and darkness, his self-reproach at not being able to cut ties with that essential uncertainty. It is compelling.

Running throughout this collection is an essential magical presence – that of the shy, wayward working-class boy, unbookish, careless, dreaming and destined to be the Railway Man – who by chance found poetry – and fell in love and dedicated his life to it, and to all of us who strive to keep the Old Arts alive. That boy is lurking in every word and phrase – shyly, cavalier-ly, defiantly relishing the Bright and the Bold, the subterfuge and the mastery of poetry – and committing himself to that potent magic for the rest of his life. Perhaps because it revealed itself to him unexpectedly. Juxtaposed – like when the unloved find themselves loved, still only half-convinced after all this time.

This presence – his core – is a reminder of something deeply real. That poetry comes from the gut and heart – from dirt and grease and struggle.

“The Hinge” (p17) tells us stories from inside that life – and the sense of the nearly-there past, the grief of that loss, the beautiful working class life, the splinters and dreams.

Silver whistles slept
Trains had abandoned
That brittle underlife…
These tunnels need passage,
Stainless steel is the lubricant. Absence
Makes each surface scabbed and achy.
Rails flex – bereft, shackled.

“Railway Town” (p151) is an insider’s homage to a life on the railways and a framework of meaning and belonging that is so very hard to countenance, nor replicate now.

I was awarded braided epaulettes.
That gold crown badge on my midnight peak cap
Shone like a quietly proud moon.
Anywhere in the world
a fellow  railway worker will give you shelter.
This community of Process,
Engraved conclusions,
Nothing I’ve seen elsewhere can compare.

It all reminds us what a powerhouse Wicks is. What a sage, generous interlocuter, hero of the most dangerous and most fragile art of poetry. 

His incredible body of international work, and his friendships with poets across the globe including in deeply fragile places like the Ukraine makes this truth manifest. It is not for nothing that writers and poets and thinkers get maimed and killed and locked up, for it is the poets who speak truth to power by holding up an ingenue’s lens to grief, to cruelty, to truth.

His work with international artists and audiences shows his curiosity and his deep compassion. There’s London and Iraq and other foreign places in the selection of poems here.

Time Taken tells a story of a poet’s life, and the life around him. Wicks observes. He captures. He laments. He quietly, brutally, sometimes abashedly, boldly, sketches life. 

His work is full of politics – sharp and keen, with sex and class continuing themes. He travails society, the underbelly and the undertow. He gives of himself, and in doing so, gives us here a sinuous, labyrinthine, bejewelled, and filigreed perspective of the wide wide world – oh the Human Condition. He lays it out with the frankest and simplest of language and observations, but so poetic and unexpected at times, it hurts.

This book has special modern features – a key so we know what period in Wicks’ career poems come from, and some QR Codes linking to performances and such. This is fabulous for those who want more. 

For this reader – I have not thought of how to differentiate the eras of work – but to see the whole as a rich, woven sum of all the parts – the tapestry of a man, who came by default to poetry and has arguably done more to practically champion Australian poetry than any other. He was one of the founding fathers of the Poets Union, fighting for recognition and compensation rights for poets. What a world we would be in if more thought that way. If Australia treated its poets like seers and also paid them minimum wage. It is the spirit of the man throughout the works which make this book a getting-to-know-you odyssey.

Time Taken is a gift to unwrap slowly and intermittently and repeatedly: to savour and respond to, to learn from, to reflect on and to give thanks. A portrait of an artist and a society. A man continuing to mine the rich glinting seams of his imaginative observant poetic heart and eye. 

In the end the sad beauty in its heart is most compelling and the sense of a life and way of life receding into bright webbed ghosty visions. “Immortal” (p196) is beautiful, poignant and dark, a kind of male anarchy and outsiderness, and strongly reminiscent of and speaking to Seamus Heaney in its masculine, practical, rural, tools and tinkering world:

…Occasional weekends out on the property,
Men with time,
their tinkering congregation of etched hands.
The smell of rolled cigarettes/
Tree stumps blown away with hand-made charge..
Later, while pissing against the yard fence,
Told the prudent rules of being grown up.
Breath crowded a bruised, shiver-night…

Les Wicks too is the tradesman and the artisan, the stationmaster who stepped beyond, crafting stories with his hopeful heart and defying everyone to ever denounce the power and necessity of poetry to make us come alive.

About the reviewer: Sarah Tiffen, author of six volumes of poetry celebrating a rural Australian sensibility and a Riverina aesthetic – deeply tied to the place where she was born, where she lives and works and where all her ancestors lie buried. Recognised by her friend the great Les Murray, Donald Hall, American poet laureate, shortlisted for the ACU Poetry Prize several times, and founder of Riverina Writing House – an independent publishing house and centre for writers and writing – Sarah’s work echoes Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, and Murray, evocative, spiritual, raw. She is a mother and teacher.