Review by Mike Amado

by Gary Charles Wilkens

Texas Review Press
English Department
Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, TX 77341-2146
ISBN-13: 978-1-933896-04-5
80pp., $10.95

Best advice to the reader who picks up a poetry book that's a winner of a press contest: read the work for the work and not the catch-accolade and the blurbs. That's just this reviewer's opinion, and is not "playa-hating" to such winners. Case in point is The Red Light Was My Mind by Gary Charles Wilkens. Blues music is used as a spring board into a stark reality, which makes this worth a read. The collection bears witness to a world of grit and yellow clay, exposing its secrets unashamed and set to twelve bars of the rawest blues. Wilkens, a genuine "southern boy" touts his roots on his sleeve in this full-length, threading together virtual snippets of rural life, amid hurting and hormones, meshed with the desperation and hardship that has always been the makings for the blues. And through the words of Red Light, Wilkens summons and conveys the ghostly voices of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. In the poem dedicated to (and orate by ) the latter of the three, Blind Lemon tells his life in Blind Jefferson:

          ...Blindness never
troubled me much--it was mine and I owned it.
Other men were blinder than myself.
Soon as I was big enough I took up the six-string
and never put the old thing down.” . . .
I was born in corn-rows, raised in a dirt and river shack,
Rising every morning to the motherless breeze moanin’.

These "voices", as they are, are told with a conviction that goes beyond the reader needing to know what is actual fact or poetic licence. In Sworn Testimony, Johnson R., Yazoo County Mississippi, where the fabled story of Robert Johnson and the Devil is told, Johnson starts out:

Hell. I don't Give a damn.
Me sellin' my soul to the Devil's true,
And it wudn't no stupid thing neither.
Rekken I know a few things the Devil don't.
Spose ever good man's got a better Angel
Looken' out fer'm. Ain't my tome to go
Anyhow. I'm a bad man myself jus' plain
As day, and the Devil can't put hooves
On a soul that's already burnin'.

Entering Red Light are characters that astound the reader with a down to earth-ness, resounding with the ribald, they would make Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner proud. We meet Leroy who owns a house of cat fish. "The palms of his wide hands are nearly white." Waiting tables for Leroy is Trina, a seventeen year old meth addict with strawberry-blond hair that, "Made men/ Give big tips and drop lewd hints." In the kitchen is Bertha who drinks from a black bottle that she calls her "Assistant" and will "knock your white ass out" if you call her "Big Black Bertha". Unusual "poems", however, this sequence of character sketches give me the impression of the author sitting in Leroy's house of cat fish with his note book opened just people-watching. That keen sense of observing the everyday adds merit to Red Light, along with the sharp use of everyday language, (and the occasional linguistic cliche).
Getting back to that University Press contest matter. It's hard to tell sometimes what is going through the minds of the judges and reviewers, particularly when each one (judge and press) varies in what they're looking for. Seeing that some collections that win are either too "heady" and "nebulous" (my words), or just riding a name, it's great to read works that are distinct and what I would call "Poetry of the People". There are a lot of straight-forward ideas and richness in Red light. Gary Charles Wilkens just might have the potential to be a "Poet of the People".



Mike Amado, a performance poet from Plymouth Massachusetts who has been published in the Wilderness House Literary Review, the Sherman Café Poetry Box among others. He has featured at such venues as Word on the Street, Open Bark, Kisskadee Coffee co., Mad Poets’ Café, The Art and Soul Festival, Porter Square Books, Gypsy Pashn’s Poetry Caravan




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.