'Killing the Murnion Dogs' shows Wilkins in full roar

2012-10-07T00:10:00Z 'Killing the Murnion Dogs' shows Wilkins in full roarBy STEPHEN GERMIC For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
October 07, 2012 12:10 am  • 

JOE WILKINS

"Killing the Murnion Dogs"

Black Lawrence Press

Joe Wilkins lives in Iowa now, but his origins are in the “big dry” of Eastern Montana, where, as Wilkins writes in a memoir essay, he “had to kill to live.” The poems of "Killing the Murnion Dogs," a finalist for the High Plains Book Award in poetry, take their tone and much of their content from the parched landscape of his home. Though writing of 1985, Wilkins could as easily have been evoking this past summer when he writes, “The mountain’s on fire, the sun just a bright stone in a river of/rippling smoke. I breathe ash.”

Wilkins’ voice is both sonorous and sharp, and through it we see a good portion of an America that usually lurks only at the edges of vision. Here Wilkins evokes characters from a forlorn Mississippi town: “The men down/King Avenue hold paper bags close to their hearts/and stare./There is a grandmother with one eye/who talks to stray dogs — this place is deep/with ghosts.” Wilkins’ emphasis on the visual signals us to take notice lest we diminish our world through our own limited sight and blank stares. We need to see these ghosts, Wilkins insists, and consider the experiences to which they testify.

But the strongest poems in this volume are set in Montana. In the title poem, the narrator recounts a powerful childhood story of the time his neighbor’s seven cow dogs got loose and slaughtered his family’s sheep: “The moon rose wild and red over the gravel/bed of the river as Willie Murnion’s dogs slipped/across Highway 12 and ran the flat miles/north through sage and greasewood.” The results are vividly rendered: “the lambs —/broke clean in half, sheep torn open/at the belly, gray loops/of entrails soft/in the sun.” Wilkins deftly balances the images of violence with descriptions of landscape that suggest the narrator’s tender appreciation of place. Notice how the red moon that foreshadows the violence in the portion quoted above is replaced a few stanzas later as the narrator reflects on the implications of the decimation: “even in my child’s mind/I know this means we might lose/the ranch. The sun rises and the sky/is the blue of ice, then the blue of water.”

"Killing the Murnion Dogs" deserves to be read. Wilkins is a young poet in full command of his art, managing a multitude of forms yet never allowing technique to distract us from the raw content of his subject. On the contrary, Wilkins is right on the mark when he employs the highly traditional ghazal form to both mourn the persistence of suffering and celebrate the redeeming power of love. Here are the final couplets of “Rain Ghazal”: “They wake in the dark, the heat of their sleep between them./She swings her hips over his with the clatter of rain./The road’s a sudden river, trees thunder with dripping,/the sky no longer belongs to itself. All the world is rain.”

Stephen Germic teaches writing and literature at Rocky Mountain College.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

More from the Gazette

Bookmobile

January 25, 2015 12:00 amLoading…
New novel explores Van Gogh's silent period

New novel explores Van Gogh's silent period

January 25, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

January 18, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

January 11, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Local literature: A few exciting reads by Helena authors

January 04, 2015 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

January 04, 2015 12:00 amLoading…
Try these exciting reads by Helena authors

Try these exciting reads by Helena authors

January 04, 2015 12:00 am Photos

Photos

Loading…

Bookmobile

December 28, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
Review: 'Five' by Ursula Archer is intriguing

Review: 'Five' by Ursula Archer is intriguing

December 28, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

December 21, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
'Killer Heels' looks at the history of high heels

'Killer Heels' looks at the history of high heels

December 21, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

December 14, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
Jerry Lee Lewis: Sustained by brief blaze of glory

Jerry Lee Lewis: Sustained by brief blaze of glory

December 14, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
First Alice Munro collection since Nobel Prize

First Alice Munro collection since Nobel Prize

December 08, 2014 8:41 amLoading…

Bookmobile

December 07, 2014 12:00 amLoading…
'Midnight in Siberia' looks at Russia today

'Midnight in Siberia' looks at Russia today

December 07, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Writers Roundup returns to Shrine on Saturday

December 02, 2014 10:15 amLoading…
Baldacci's new novel thrills — and tugs at heart

Baldacci's new novel thrills — and tugs at heart

November 30, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Bookmobile

November 30, 2014 12:00 amLoading…

Follow Enjoy

Get weekly ads via e-mail

Featured Businesses