Longing That Borders on Faith: A Review of Wilderness//Kingdom

Wilderness//Kingdom by Jory Mickelson. Floating Bridge Press, 2019. 107 pages. $15.00

When I recall my adolescent years, I most frequently encounter a sense of shame and regret. Unable to find my longing reflected in others and afraid of being outed, I learnt to speak in code, to traverse a world that felt inhospitable and dangerous. How I achieved this was in part due to a cultivation of silence, an interior space where my desires were, if not expressed, at least able to be felt and acknowledged. Reading Jory Mickelson’s debut collection, Wilderness//Kingdom, I am reminded of this interior palace of the past. Winner of the inaugural Evergreen Award Tour, Mickelson’s collection plumbs a rich interior world influenced by external events and landscapes, its sections charting the slow awakening of queer desire and the journey to find a home in the Western landscape where it belongs.

Collecting poems which center around growing up in the rural West, Wilderness//Kingdom evokes landscapes often absent in queer writing. In “Montana,” an evocation of Mickelson’s home-state, Mickelson draws a connection between inner psyche and external world:

All my life I’ve been level-
headed because I grew

up knowing horizon; sky as baseline,
prairie as high-water mark.

This similarity between landscape and inner life is reflective of bioregional theory, one that presupposes a reciprocal relationship between human consciousness and the landscapes they inhabit. Mickelson’s poem works in this vein, with an implied claim that the soul’s inner architecture mimics the exterior world. However, the poem does not content itself with simply reflecting the exterior landscape. Instead a complication occurs in the poem’s shift to the final stanza: “It rises // suddenly in the chest: a crow that calmly / tilts.” The world is shifted from its horizontal axis, the poem’s final stanza signalling a shift in the speaker’s understanding of themself.

Mickelson’s writing about queerness in rural spaces can be framed through the word “desire”: desire being longing that borders on faith. It is also possible to view Mickelson’s writing through the collection’s title: an exploration of the terrain between the world’s wilderness and the mind’s kingdom. Mickelson’s writing probes the uneasy border between external and internal silence:

Stillness was what the boy
learned, to watch the Chrysler
drip its viscous oil onto the cardboard
square, not let the face be clouded
despite what might break down. His eyes

a landscape unstirred. Accept
the father’s will, don’t move an inch…

(from “Abraham”)

“Abraham,” which dramatizes a father’s punishment of a young boy for being gay, picks up on the silence in the earlier mentioned “Montana.” It begins as something observable in the world to be “learned” before it is internalised into the psyche as “a landscape unstirred.” The stanza break makes visible the border between external and internal self, one that permits the speaker to use silence as a form of power to “accept” his father’s beating. Other poems, as a counterpoint to “Abraham,” reveal the harm silence inflicts on the mind. In “Small Zeros,” a speaker mimics other schoolboys and kisses a girl, desperate for the “divisible zero” within his body to be solved. While silence may protect the body, it is also a stratagem, a tactic that does not meet any higher emotional purpose.

Silence, in and of itself, cannot allow a flourishing. Instead, Mickelson awakens his speakers to feeling, leading them beyond the abject solitude seen in “Abraham” and “Small Zeroes.” In “Ornithology” and “Fledged,” Mickelson grants his speakers permission to explore their queer desires. The speaker of “Ornithology,” for example, “learned to carry / difference in the quiet of myself, to unfurl, / to watch each feather.” The speaker does not simply stop at silence, but now begins to apprehend his own feelings and desires. This is a transformation reiterated in the poem “Synonym for Wing,” where a young man stumbles upon a gay couple kissing furtively in the woods. Having witnessed the couple making “their own wingful sound,” the speaker begins to retreat: “slow, then faster, then / full out until his lungs [were] a bird’s great / flapping wings.”

An enduring theme in Wilderness//Kingdom is Mickelson’s commitment to complicating hierarchies and accepted meanings in search of deeper truths. In “Who Am I To Tell You This,” the first poem in the first section of Wilderness//Kingdom, Mickelson’s speaker uses a recursive form of erasure to present his relationship with his lover. This erasure, visually presented as a division into smaller constituent parts, serves to distil further meaning and context of the speaker’s relationship with the now-dead man:

Your body is better left unread.
Your body is better left.
Your body is better.
Your body.

In another poem, “Blue Consuming Blue,” Mickelson employs a reversal of conventional syntax, beginning the poem with a series of subordinate clauses “If I said.” The poem’s repetition of the conditional “If” leads readers to expect a “then” that completes the syntactical pair. Instead, Mickelson’s poem remains focused on the abstract (“If I said blue jay … If I said glacial…”), and only midway through does the poem clue readers in on its true subject (“If I said his lips tasted of raspberry // If he presses them, cold / to my neck”). By the time the final stanza presents us with the independent clause from which all previous stanzas derive (“How not to devour a man / whose look says he wants to be”), readers realize that Mickelson’s syntactical structure extends pleasure and desire by asking us to remain poised on the edge of consummation.

In an interview with Sarah Aronson of Montana Public Radio, Mickelson speaks about his experience with painting—an acceptable mode of self-expression for an art teacher’s son. Though Mickelson never completed his college degree in fine arts, sections of Wilderness//Kingdom draws upon painterly language and technique. In the collection’s third section, Mickelson writes “My father taught me all drawings are / composed of smaller lines. If the picture’s // too complex, break it into parts, narrow / the scope” (from “Self-Portrait with Men in Cars”). The poem, which links childhood memory, adolescent dares, conversation fragments, and blessings, presents the slow growth and maturity of Mickelson’s desire. The final section of “Self-Portrait with Men in Cars” adopts a mythic register, complete with bold imperatives as if creating a world (“Lead to this Highway, all you roads, / for it is well shouldered and outstretched.”), before tunnelling down into a singular, intimate couplet where, devoid of the landscape of the highway, the self-portrait ends on a doubled-note of religion and family:

In our car upon this Highway,
we are saying “Farther, farther.”

The ability to compose and manipulate the boundaries of the narrative lends an exacting, pleasing quality to Mickelson’s writing. In the poem “Landscape, Fallow Field with Car in Distance,” Mickelson recounts a singular memory about his great-grandfather shared by his grandmother as they pass through “dark fields of winter / wheat”:

She never speaks about her father, but tonight—

When I was little, my mother would send
                 us girls to her mother’s house for meals. By the end
of the month there’d be no money; my father, he
                 drunk it up. Your great-great gran was stern,
she didn’t smile. She gave us food.

That was all I ever heard of him,
                 this almost shadow stretched across
the woman next to me…

(from “Landscape, Fallow Field with Car in Distance”)

Mickelson’s framing of his grandmother’s memory surrounded by darkness and shadow recalls the technique of chiaroscuro. The stanzas contrast against each other, the italicised middle appearing as a ghostly apparition, accorded greater depth by the poem’s structure and use of color. This attention to detail and composition reminds me a little of Richard Siken’s second book, War of the Foxes. Both use metaphors of painting to discuss the perception of reality, but where Siken’s style more surreal and abstract, Mickelson’s use of painting is more akin to portraiture, capturing moments indicative of a deep emotional core.

Lately, I have returned to Mickelson’s writing not for its poems of desire, but for the poems that are uneasy about the subjects they portray. Poems like “in some future time,” dedicated to Francis McCue and Mary Randlett, authors of the travelogue-cum-memoir The Car That Brought You Here Still Runs, begins with a series of hypothetical questions:

What if, for us, there is no dark
no cold dripping November spruce, no

headstones, not even
a name, the seasons saying

relent with each drip? What if
vetch and sweet pea tire of their work,

honeysuckle exhausts its bloom…

McCue and Randlett travelled across the Pacific Northwest revisiting the towns which inspired the poems of Richard Hugo, recording with clarity what remains of these places forty years after Hugo’s visit. Mickelson—writing in homage—positions his speaker as asking what remains in the future. Does the slow passing of time cause their community to come apart at the stitches? Mickelson’s poems, which previously linked human and non-human, portrays the unstitching of community through the breakdown of nature’s cyclical beauty. While Mickelson and I do not share a similar set of circumstances, I find his poems arrestingly capable of describing the fear and vulnerability of living in a world where nothing is certain.

Near the end of the collection, Mickelson dedicates a poem to his husband, Justin Taylor. “Wilderness//Kingdom” unfolds in description and declaration of a life made together, encapsulating the emotional brushwork of prior poems. Describing a love that surprises “a lifetime later,” Mickelson describes a night in a town where he and his partner live. The narrative is not exactly an Edenic utopia: violence and homophobic slurs still exist as a palpable threat at the edges of this poem, but Mickelson is careful to center joy in his sentences:

                                  After 13 years
it’s still a shock        to call you husband. And if this
was our honeymoon, then let me call you
                 husband in the heat of the small desert
                 town’s summer dark.
Let’s not be mistaken    for anything
other than men who learned to touch
without the need to wound…

Mickelson could have foreshortened the perspective of this poem’s setting, shown only the joy and none of the latent violence threatening it. Instead, he chooses to include both, and reiterate how existence can be worth living. He ends the poem in promise and defiance of the future: “As far as I am able / to go, I will go with you.” Wielding a palette of many colors, Mickelson ends on a hopeful note that there are reasons to keep moving, and that we should keep looking forward.

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