Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Erica Lewis

Review of Joshua Marie Wilkinson's Selenography (with images by Tim Rutili, Sidebrow, 2010)

From the first moment you open Selenography, Josha Marie Wilkinson and Tim Rutili’s text and image hybrid, there is a burst of muted and mutating color – blues swirling into greens and yellows, cracks of light seeping through. It all looks and feels like some sort of chemical reaction, one of those swirling LSD-inspired projections made popular at 1960s rock concerts, or, as the title (from the Greek, meaning the study of the surface and physical features of the moon) alludes to, craters and eruptions on the moon. The work is indeed a study of surfaces, a textual and visual journey through one stream of conscious landscape after another. In creating these various landscapes, however, there seems to be little direct interplay between Rutili’s photos and Wilkinson’s text (all of Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s text is located on the left page and all of Tim Rutili’s Polaroids are located opposite on the right page). Both text and image are so challenging, so complete on their own, that what they do or do not have to do with each other almost doesn’t matter. Almost.


The text interacts with the photos as more of a suggestion than a caption, or the text reacts as captions to a suggested/suggestive world within the photographs. Either way, the poems barely touch the surfaces they suggest or create; they create a new topography in a prose-like mapping of artifacts. The Poloroids are subdued and otherworldy. Many are of isolated images, items or scenes devoid of human action or interference, which allows each respective image to maintain its own insular sense of isolation or identity. It’s a bit creepy, in fact - there is a Southern Gothic feel to all of this, as if the images were lifted right out of a backwoods song from Neko Case’s “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.” But still, there is the question of the relationship between the text and the image placed in proximity to it. Wilkinson acknowledges this and gives his own version of an answer in “My Cautious Lantern,” the first of five sections in Selenography, when he writes “I know my / photograph doesn’t match/the scene.” If he isn’t self-conscious about it, then why should we be?


There are sketches of several stories being told in Selenography. Wilkinson’s abbreviated prose pieces act as little narratives, or as he states “storybooks collecting our / ends.”  Rutili’s Polaroids look as if they were taken on a cross country road trip. Together, the fragmented prose as caption and non caption, along with the isolated images of the photos, present something of a ghost story, as evidenced in lines from “My Cautious Lantern” (that hatchet comes with a / boy who wields / it ); (voices get locked / in the threads & felled light / uncovers you), the second section, entitled “Wolf Dust” (ghosts in the red / liquor / we are / reared / in the / sheepish sounds), and the third section, “Phantoms in the Telegraph Ink”(phantoms in / the moss phantoms / in the train cars dressed); (phantoms full of / saliva); (phantoms in the telegraph / ink). Some of the adjoining photos in these sections give a further sense of something haunted, unveiling a ghostly presence in their blurred composition, juxtaposition of dark and light/black and white, and apparent fingerprint smudges. There is a fleeting human presence here, but mostly we are left to wonder exactly where the stories are going, and who, or what, is telling them.


There is also a profound sense of dislocation and exposure, and a fair amount of attention paid to light and its absence. The first section is all about light and seeing, although the photos in the section, for the most part, are dark. As you move through the book, the text and photos reveal something more about finding your way in the dark, how light is unreasonable, how it is kept going, or how it goes out. In the third section, “Phantoms in the Telegraph Ink,” there are references to the life force of illumination (the / lighthouse / is / alive) and how light and dark are recorded (our sleep should collect / here from / reeling film), how light and dark affect everything - observation and the fleeting, what we can and cannot capture.


The fourth section, “A Collating Light,” promises, at least from the title, to bring things together, to shed some light on the fragments, but is this illumination a brighter something moving forward (a whole future marked with snow / & collating light) or a transition into something darker? The first photo of this section is of a hulking, black, statue of a gorilla, the sort one might find at a carnival or as part of a theme park, affixed to cement stump  – seeing this image, one can’t help but think about moving into the heart of some sort of darkness or into some sort of urban jungle, and how the things we leave behind, the things we surround ourselves with even, watch over us (things keep watch / on / other things). There is something almost taxidermic about these poems and images in the use of artifacts and animals (owls, birds, dogs, gorillas, rabbits, horses). It is also as if everything has been a preface of sorts until this section (first / the doorway then / the story), assuring eventual exposure. But even all of the exposure doesn’t keep (this movie’s missing / one reel / & I / like the sounds in the projection booth), with the layers Wilkinson builds around the artifacts, revealing that we can’t ever really escape where we’re from or know where we’re going.

While there are many references to light and dark throughout Selenography, it isn’t until the final section, “No Clumsy Moon to Chalk Up the Doorway,” with its references to night and sleep, that we get a better sense of who is telling the story/stories, or who and what we have been observing -  characters as artifacts and vice-versa, and all as “ghosted choristers:”


this spinning black set negates us
names us revokes

our calls
in the yard the light is a foil &

it stomps
us out like a wick until our
eavesdropping is what
stuns us


In the end, it is the minutae, the little things, the artifacts strewn throughout, that we use to guide us through the work. We understand that we have only been getting a glimpse of things through a “keyhole,” accompanied by a photo flash against the dark, and like the “distance between us / & the light of our projected / photographs,” there are really “no followable paths.”


My reaction to Selenography was more visceral than anything else, and as a reader, I wanted to take the separation of image and text even further. I wanted to see all of the text together without the images and all of the photos together without the text. I wanted the text and images to each tell their own story without overlapping or wondering whether or not there was any overlap. I was drawn to both image and text as separate entities, never entirely comfortable with the idea of viewing them together. And I think that is the point –to enter and re-enter this work, each time from a new point of entry. To study the surfaces of each and discover what all of the pieces mean separately, together, and once removed. Selenography is a long, strange trip, but one worth taking.