In the Enemy Camp by William Wantling

Book Review by Alan Bett | 29 May 2015
  • In the Enemy Camp
Book title: In the Enemy Camp: Selected Poems 1964-74
Author: William Wantling

‘Things never became easy’ for William Wantling, wrote Charles Bukowski, and ‘that’s why he continued to write well.’ And remain criminally undiscovered, enduring a life of suffering – war, penitentiary, addiction, death – to make Bukowski turn green with envy. But for all those harsh landscapes he inhabited, the Enemy Camp remained his reputable home town of Peoria Illinois, where, as he claims in the titular piece of this collection, “I can’t find one lousy joint of weed and nobody here ever heard of peyote.” Wantling’s poetry is soaked in booze, peppered with track marks, sweating a mix of obscene truths and imaginings like the man himself after gulping down his favourite codeine cough syrup. Sentences flow over lines and across stanzas, raising questions while dragging you ever onward through squalid yet stunning tales; always with rhythm, rarely rhyme. These are perfectly set to page with truncated words, slang and ampersands providing visual markers to the mood and movement of the work.

His Heroin Haikus are short, sharp uppercuts. Then, in a piece simply named Poetry, he glides from pondering the literary devices of consonance and assonance into a lethal shanking in the San Quentin yard – a self-deprecating reflection on the redundancy of words when faced with the life and death physicality of the big house. For many who approach this outstanding collection, the brew may prove too strong. But “Ah Baby, don’t pout. The game is a good one.”

Out now, published by Tangerine Press, RRP £12.00