I was drawn to The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree because I was out of work, and becoming a tree seemed like solid employment. “I lost my last job in July,” the title poem begins, “then spent the rest of the summer working on a tan.” And there you have it: this book’s particular sad whimsy and gentle hilarity. “With little money / left,” the poem continues, “I searched the want ads” (as I have been doing)
until coming across an opening
for a tree. The spot was just a few blocks
away near the path that runs along
the river. I hurried over to the square
patch of dirt in the concrete where
the city cut the last tree down.
Then stood on it, looked around,
liked the area and decided to take
If you can’t find a job, why not poetically, lightheartedly, become a tree? It’s just as lucrative. And oddly cheerful:
… there I was,
alone, holding up the moon in my branch
shaped like a right hand for the entire
city to see—smiling.
I’m smiling in my new capacity as Poetry Cheerleader for Prick of the Spindle. If you can’t make the cheerleading squad in 7 th grade, why not grow up to be a poetry reviewer?
As a child, I was always noticing how one thing looked like another, often sure that it was the other thing. Pilkington stills sees this way and bravely follows through, taking images to wild, comic, and lovely conclusions, and letting childlike innocence exist side by side with a wry, grown-up awareness. Exercising on a Stair Master is harder than climbing a corporate ladder. For lack of warm clothes, he would put on a new coat of paint. Temperatures in the sixties and seventies “[make] it / feel like a week of hippies.” This wordplay is funny but enhances the melancholy of the poems, leaving the speaker in a state of wonder that is sometimes a near-wisdom or pre-wisdom that can’t get past bewilderment.
In more than one poem, the speaker is standing on a street corner—like that tree, but human, employed in observing the present and recalling the past. In more than one poem, he is trying to protect his niece (a child, too soon a teen) from disillusionment, from the pain that will come from men’s broken promises. This is a beautiful, generous, and impossible thing to do, but, in some way or another, all the poems are doing it, protecting the childlike self from disillusionment by giving the illusions a life of their own in language.
In “Athens,” the grown-up speaker looking at the scenery in the background at a taverna can see that his wife “looks elegant wearing the Parthenon / as a crown.” In “Key West,” a low-flying plane looks small enough to catch and place in an “empty parrot cage.” It’s a matter of perspective. Talking to himself, the speaker needs to make the world familiar and manageable. Back in the taverna, “A motor scooter passes by on the street / below, sounding like a zipper being / pulled up on a pair of pants.” It’s just a simile, but it makes sense of the barrage of sounds, including foreign languages.
A few moments later as you turn
to go inside, you glance at the moon
just to see another familiar face
from back home.
In the next poem, “Parthenon,” the speaker has to accept that
was never named after a diner
down on Second Avenue and
the Parthenon could never fit in
your hand the way it always did
with coffee to go in a paper cup.
The world is bigger than that. The Acropolis has a history of its own, unconnected to the speaker’s personal history, though he keeps making connections:
… You pick
up a stone to put in your pocket
as a souvenir to weigh you
down against the wind that kept
knocking your cap off like a bully
from the grammar school near Plaka.
He’s beginning to live in this new neighborhood. And soon the unfamiliar grants a new perspective and superpowers!
… You decide
to go for a swim and now
that you are convinced it takes more
than one god to run a universe,
you are able to jump up on a wall,
step down on the rooftops and stroll
all the way to the Aegean.
Look long enough at the world to make it familiar and you become a god! One of many! Ancient, mythical gods! How else is a bewildered grown-up child to function in this otherwise unmanageable world? How else but to conquer it, mythically?
Ah, and this brings us back to poetry, and how Pilkington acknowledges the failure or limitations of language, or his particular chosen language (whether English or poetry) to communicate as he needs it to do. Still in “Athens,” he decides to blend together all the languages he’s hearing into a new one he “may learn to speak at home since / English hasn’t been working as well as it should lately.”
It happens in “Antigua,” too, almost the exact same thing, a conviction arising from transport to a foreign place:
… You decide to take
these languages, blend them
together into one, name it
after the next cool breeze, then
learn to speak it fluently.
When you are back in the States
and are rejected again and again
since no one understands
a word you are saying, at least
you will finally have the only
worthwhile reason for not ever
getting what you want.
These poems are dear, sweet, sad, hilarious, and wise. I don’t know why the second time I read “It’s About Time,” Pilkington’s poem about his sister, I got a huge smile on my face and burst into tears. Forget I said that, and let it happen to you.
Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Confrontation, Eclectica, Poetry East, Sweet, YB Poetry, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbooks Selected Roles, Broken Sonnets, and Living on the Earth, with Nocturnes forthcoming this winter from Hyacinth Girl Press. A past editor and reviewer for RHINO, Kirk is poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life eight days a week at Wait! I Have a Blog?!