William Wantling, In the Enemy Camp: Selected Poems 1964-1974 (Introduction by John Osborne, Foreword by Thurston Moore).

“I can make good word music and rhyme,” declares the narrator of William Wantling’s “Poetry,” “and even sometimes take their breath away—but it always somehow turns out kind of phoney.” A veteran of the Korean War, a criminal and junky, Wantling’s poetry was forged in the crucible of San Quentin Prison where he fled to escape the paralyzing conformity of his Midwest home-town of Peoria, Illinois, described in the title poem as an “enemy camp.” The collected poems, which include elegies to fellow outsiders, among them Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Young—do their best to conceal their author’s careful craft and literary eclecticism, echoed by Wantling’s deployment of poetic forms, among them syllabics, sonnet, sestina and haiku. Many of the poems reflect on the authenticity and relevance of writing verse: “Poetry,” set in San Quentin Prison, ends with the stabbing of a prisoner (“the blood that came to his/ lips was a bright pink, lung blood”) and concludes with the lines “what could consonance and assonance or / even rhyme do with something like that?”

Wantling’s poems are littered with references to heroin, the Korean War, San Quentin Prison, hard drinking, LSD, cocaine and mescaline but there are also allusions to T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett and Hemingway. As John Osborne points out in a trenchant introduction to this collection, the title “Things Exactly as They Are” “comes from Wallace Stevens’s long poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar,’ itself inspired by Picasso’s painting The Old Guitarist.” While there is a temptation to read Wantling’s sinewy poems biographically, they are strewn with a coterie of narrators, some of whom confess to murder and others who revel in theft and heroin addiction:


High, once I ate 3 scoops of ice-cream

High it was the greatest

Greater than the Eiffel Tower

Greater than warm sex, sleepy

Early on a morning


In “Essay on Being 35,” the narrator chronicles his crippling depression (“If I could snap out of this funk/ I’d have enough energy to kill myself”) in a language that is startlingly detached: “I taught my wife to masturbate/ so I could sleep more/ or at least lay there/ & stare at the wall/ She cries while she does it.”

A number of the poems brim with wry, dark humour, including “A metaphysical promise from one who is quite angry that all dreams soon become nightmares:”


I’ll kill you, God

First chance I get


And “A short treatise on love and perversion with psychoanalytic overtones”


My father slept

My mother wept

and I became the horned goat between them


Nearly a quarter of the collected poems are Haiku, a form that Wantling respects and embellishes:


I don’t want to say goodbye

but I think it’s being said

for me


Here, as elsewhere, Wantling’s casual mastery of technique hoodwinks the reader. Many of the poems employ rhyme and half-rhyme but Wantling’s attention to form is hidden in the dark intimacy of his verse. Longer poems, including “Dirge in Spring,” a meditation on the accidental killing of a young blind hare, frequently ask the reader to consider how violence affects the perpetrator, a theme echoed in poems about the Korean War where Wantling explores how soldiers are ravaged by the horrors of war in which they participate. Indeed, as Osborne rightly notes, Wantling’s “place as the preeminent American poet of the Korean War has yet to be properly recognized.”

Wantling’s long stints in prison and his Midwestern background kept him out of the Beat circles, although he published in a number of little magazines, among them Jeff Nuttall’s My Own Mag, also appearing alongside Nuttall and Alan Jackson in the Penguin Modern Poets 12 (1968) . For a while, it seemed that Wantling would make it: his collection The Awakening was Christopher Logue’s recommended book of the year in a 1967 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, but his death in 1974, aged forty, put paid to any chances of a Bukowski-like resurrection, a writer with whom he is compared.  Wantling, as Osborne notes in the introduction “is excluded from every one of the standard anthologies of modern American poetry.” This handsomely produced volume brings Wantling out of the shadows that he inhabited and back to the fringes of poetry where he belongs. These are poems written in darkness by a writer who stared at the sun.
Doug Field

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