It was great news to hear that my friend and co-editor of The Externalist, Gary Charles Wilkens, received a review of his collection of poetry The Red Light Was My Mind in Rattle E-Reviews. Being a good friend, I’d promised to review Gary’s book, but being human with faults and flaws and priority challenges, I didn’t get to it (so sorry Gary!). The truth is that reviewing a book of poetry written by a friend is a psychological journey that is difficult to navigate.
On the one hand, I wanted to do right by my best friend. I wanted to write a review that would send waves of people to Amazon to purchase the book. So I began the review with a standard “this is my friend and this book is terrific” statement. The statement actually went something like this:
Gary Charles Wilkens is at his best in his first collection of poetry, The Red Light Was My Mind.
Then it occurred to me that this is his first collection of poetry. How would I know he was at his best? Well, of course I know because I have access to a lot more of his poetry than most people do. So it was obvious that I knew him from the first sentence. This got me to thinking about a review I read several months ago where a close friend of a poet that wrote poetry I really, really disliked.
The review went on and on about the glories of the poet, the sheer skill and beauty of the poetry, the pure necessity of reading this particular $6 chapbook. Upon reading the review, a person might think this was the next Pulitzer Prize winner. Upon reading the poetry, I wondered what the hell the reviewer was thinking. I hopped on the web, did a little research, and discovered the close friendship and colleague relationship between the poet and the reviewer–and quickly became disenchanted with reviews and criticism.
Coming back to Gary’s book and my review of it, I wondered suddenly if I was looking for good things to say. I wondered if my integrity would be questioned or compromised regardless of whether my good thoughts about the book were honest. I reread the book. I reread it again. I looked at my notes. There were a few notes questioning certain poems (Why did he break the line here? This strophe is a little too prose-like. There had to be a better word than that!), but on the whole, my notes were consistently positive. “While this has a very southern feel, most people from rural settings will be able to relate.” “Even knowing how hard Gary works on his poetry, the poems feel instinctual and natural.” “Tremendous character development.” “Beautiful narrative in a time when narrative poetry is de-valued.” “Original style that relates to the common person but still carries a thought-provoking quality.” “Speaks to contemporary issues without ranting–highly significant book.” “Inspiration score: 4.”
I reread the book again, then realized that I was looking for bad things to say to counterbalance the good things and instill an “honest” quality that was for all intents and purposes, selfish and completely dishonest. The truth is that I’ve seldom seen poetry as unique as Gary’s and that few people are willing to take the kind of risks he is (I recently read one of his new poems about a man hiding from Sheriff Jesus!) willing to take. The truth is that I don’t usually like the kind of poetry that Gary writes, but Gary’s work constantly gets me thinking–a quality that most contemporary poetry lacks. And a quality that Gary’s first book displays beautifully despite any flaws or faults.
So I was tremendously pleased when poems started showing up on the critical forum where I volunteer that were listed as “inspired by Gary Charles Wilkens’ poem XYZ from his book The Red Light Was My Mind.” I was even more pleased when I read Amado’s review of the book and he touched on those things that I love best about Gary’s work: characters we can love or hate, language we can understand, and originality of style we can’t walk away from even if we don’t always like it.
Thank you to Mr. Amado for saving my integrity and saying what I would have said if I was a stronger, better person.