Eliot Khalil Wilson accesses a wide range of experience and emotions in his book of poetry, This Island of Dogs, from Aldrich Press 2014. The well-crafted poems of the collection are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking; they navigate landscapes from Minnesota to the Mississippi River delta. Along the way, Wilson’s narrator introduces his readers to everyone from Evel Knievel jumping canyons in Utah, to a young girl in Afghanistan carrying the pieces of her bother home in the aftermath of an exploded land mine. The range is breathtaking and the book is an exhibition of the poet’s prowess with his craft as well as his expansive take on our world.
One of the early exceptional poems is “Uncle Frank and Little Rock Joan.” The poem uses sound, rhythm, concrete non-specific imagery, and unique language to sympathetically portray “Uncle Frank,” the slicked-back used car salesperson who is a victim to “Little Rock Joan,” the un-loyal woman who broke his heart. The poet’s mastery of poetic craft is evident even in the first three lines of the poem; “Uncle Frank the low-miles Mark Anthony, / Uncle Frank the king of bad credit car lots,/ kicking the retreads, pointing out the vanity./” Using repetition and precise control of the beat married to sound, lets the lines roll off the reader’s tongue. It’s a pleasure to read this and most of the poems in the book.
The poem, The River, is also a remarkable piece. The seven-page poem encompasses the entire second section of the book. It is a description and characterization of the Mississippi River, though it never uses its name. The poem details the river’s travel from its headwaters in Lake Itasca to its mouth near New Orleans. It details how the river travels through the landscape and how the people who live nearby use it for work and transportation. The poem catalogues the towns and cities through which the river travels. Along with this particular and precise information, which can be fascinating, the poem makes use of careful word choice so that sound is an important component of the poem. The additional use of sharp imagery like “shining corn,” or “sugar sand beaches,” keep the reader engaged and helps them to envision this extended journey.
While the book lacks a strong overall narrative arch, it instead uses the narrator’s tone as the organizing principal, though Wilson’s use of humor, amazement, and incredulity keeps the reader wondering what is next and turning pages. The book would be well worth reading just for this. However, the end of the book turns to matters more serious. There the collection explores ideas of unearned privilege, war, disability, and stewardship. The sobering ending lends some seriousness to the collection and seems fitting for this collection.
The subject matter of Island of Dogs varies widely and interestingly so that the reader can nearly forget the deft skill with which the poet executes his poems. The use of sound, rhythm, imagery, and line all mark these as excellent poems. The undeniable curiosity with which these poems probe the world make it a collection with a singular vitality. It’s a book worth adding to your poetry collection.
Review: Matt Larrimore