Wicks, Susan 1947–
WICKS, Susan 1947–
PERSONAL: Born October 24, 1947, in Tunbridge Wells, England; daughter of Walter Eric (a legal executive) and Joyce Wicks (a nursery nurse; maiden name, Woolger); married John Collins (a teacher), April 7, 1973; children: Emily, Bridget. Education: Ph.D., 1976.
ADDRESSES: Office—School of English, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury C72 7NX, England. Agent—Rachel Calder, Sayle Agency, Bickerton House, 25-27 Bickerton Rd., London N19 5JT, England.
CAREER: Poet, novelist, and memoirist. University of Kent—Canterbury, Canterbury, England, part-time instructor, currently director of creative writing.
AWARDS, HONORS: Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize, 1993; named New Generation Poet, 1994; various international residencies, 1991–2003.
Singing Underwater (poems), Faber (Boston, MA), 1992.
Open Diagnosis (poems), Faber (Boston, MA), 1994.
Driving My Father (memoir), Basic Books (New York, NY), 1995.
The Clever Daughter (poems), Faber (London, England), 1997.
The Key (novel), Faber (Boston, MA), 1997.
Little Thing (novel), Faber (Boston, MA), 1998.
Night Toad: New and Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books (Tarset, Northumberland, England), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: The writing of poet and novelist Susan Wicks is marked by a strong poetic sensibility, and her critics generally find that her excursions into non-poetic forms, which have occurred later in her career, with the novels The Key and Little Thing, have strengthened her poetry and vice versa.
Wicks's debut verse collection, Singing Underwater, focuses on ordinary family moments—taking a child to a swimming pool, finding lice in a child's hair, making bread. For instance, in the poem "Head-lice," Wicks writes: "Then one day I found them, pearls in the undergrowth. I could have held them in my hand. But murder is a modest little need you can prepare for, like love, or contraception of various descriptions." Reviewing the volume in the Women's Review of Books, Alison Townsend was persuaded of Wicks's depth of meaning, noting that in "Head-lice" Wicks uses an ordinary domestic occurrence to comment on a larger issue of life, that of death and personal guilt. "Playing off the connotations of the word 'pearl' (which suggests the pearl of great price, the mystic center and the human soul), the poem is double-edged, a masterful example of Wicks' ability to link disparate moments through metaphor." But Lachlan MacKinnon, writing for the Times Literary Supplement, took the opposite position in his response to the same poem: "'Murder'? Head-lice? The overstatement torpedoes the supposedly suggestive conclusion. That the point with head-lice is to prevent hatching rather than kill the moribund adults hardly alters our response."
While most critics acknowledged Wicks's intelligence and talent, not all were equally convinced that the poems in Singing Underwater showed these qualities to their best advantage. Lawrence Sail's critique in Stand was fairly representative. He praised Wicks for her intelligence, originality, and ambition, but was disappointed that "in too many of these poems either not much is being said or you have the feeling that something potentially worthwhile is being attempted but not clearly achieved."
The poet's 1994 collection, Open Diagnosis, won over several reviewers. The book's cover featured a magnetic resonance image of the author's head, a unique form of signature and a reference to what is a recurring subject in the poems, Wicks's recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Adam Thorpe, who critiqued Open Diagnosis for the Observer, wrote that he had not been impressed by Wicks's first collection but praised her second effort, calling some of the poems "startling." Thorpe quoted from "Germinal," which begins: "This is my disaster./ The props were worm-eaten./ The roof fell in predictably." Thorpe continued, "One is never quite sure whether a poem is celebratory or menacing, accepting or resentful, and that is a strength."
Fred Beake, writing for Stand magazine, was less beguiled. He complained of a general movement in contemporary English poetry toward "restricting itself to the everyday" and felt that Wicks's work serves as "an interesting example" of such a proclivity. He also complained that "many of these pieces have not taken on the status of poetry but are closer to entries in a personal notebook." Helen Dunmore, reviewing the book for the Times Literary Supplement, was much more appreciative, echoing her approval of Singing Underwater as "an assured debut." Dunmore applauded "the bloom" on Wicks's writing, the sense it gives of "a fine surprise at the fact of writing itself, and what it can accomplish," and Wicks's "very exact use of language." Dunmore also appreciated the distinction she felt Wicks was able to make "between honesty and blurting self-revelation," so that Wicks "tells us a great deal, yet one does not feel forced, embarrassed, or cornered."
Wicks's poetry collection The Clever Daughter was short-listed for several British writing awards. Andrew Biswell, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, commended Wicks's use of lists in her poems, including a list of the items from her deceased mother's drawers and closet, "the home-made pyjama trousers/with no jackets, the wilting knickers,/ the corset she bought and could never quite/ squeeze herself into." Biswell took issue with the comment Lachlan MacKinnon made about Wicks's first volume, Singing Underwater, that "objected … to 'the cult of the domestic and of trivial subject matter' to which [Mackinnon] feels her work attaches. Yet this collection is by no means narrow in its range, and some of the poems explore unexpected terrain." The collected volume Night Toad: New and Selected Poems continues the poet's exploration while also assembling the poems that have been key to her path thus far.
Wicks's first novel, The Key, concerns a middle-aged woman named Jan Hickman, the divorced mother of two adult daughters who works in a bookstore. Jan is haunted by an affair she had twenty years before with a college lecturer named Devlan whom she met when she returned to school (her daughters were then young children). According to Lavinia Greenlaw in the Times Literary Supplement, "His evasions and manipulations were so effective that, years later, Jan is still intrigued and decides to try them for herself" with a young man, an unemployed architect named Matthew, whom she meets at the book shop. The account of their relationship is interspersed with memories from the affair with Devlan, its humiliations and its compulsions. Yet, according to Greenlaw, Jan "persists in experimenting on Matthew, observing his distress and her own capacity for deceit with detachment…. In both affairs … crisis is displaced into passing mentions of remote disasters, a pile-up, a sinking ferry, a flood." Greenlaw wrote that in the novel "Wicks's achievement is to surprise us with how little we've been told and how much we've been shown, and to expose the freedom to make our own definitions as being particularly useless."
Little Thing is also a novel that shares with The Key an unconventional approach to storytelling. The narrative is almost entirely in the voice of Sarah, a young lectrice in a French university, and it is directed at her absent lover, who left her when he learned she was pregnant. But after describing her life with baby Hannah, Sarah's narrative moves backward rather than forward: According to Justine Jordan in the London Review of Books, "By the end of the book, the students and academic colleagues she is to come to know, if not well, then with a painfully raw intimacy, have retreated into the politeness of 'madame' and Sarah is only beginning to learn their uncharted idiosyncracies." The reader also discovers that the description of life with her "little thing" Hannah that begins the book is a fantasy, that her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. This surprise forces the reader to try to figure out what else of Sarah's narrative is "made up" and what is true. Jordan admired the complexity of Little Thing and its ability to maintain Sarah's subjectivity while forcing the reader to "build the novel out of moments…. The achievement of this complex, suggestive and disturbing book lies in the darkness and silence it evokes behind the language."
Wicks's foray into the memoir genre yielded Driving My Father. Published in 1995, the work begins with a recollection of where Wicks was when the call came informing her of her mother's death: she was, according to Kathleen Doheny in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "in the garden, sun hat pulled down, reading Flaubert, brushing crumbs from the spine of her book." Out of the blue, a phone call came in from a friend of her mother's, "someone who never calls; the friend soon passes the receiver to her father. In between his wails, he tells her that her mother has just died unexpectedly." This kind of detailed memory of a traumatic moment is part of what Wicks's book is about; the narrative is non-sequential, organized by association and ironic juxtaposition rather than chronology. It includes dreams as well as memories: dreams of her father, who becomes increasingly physically and emotionally dependent on her after her mother's death, as a "monstrously lolling baby, a wheelchair-bound cripple whom she pushes over a cliff," as reported by Andrea Ashworth in the Times Literary Supplement; and memories of her mother's first trip to an Indian restaurant, the kite her father built for her with a tail made of sweet-wrapper bows, and the quarrels her parents had which often ended in mirth.
Several critics applauded the poetry of Wicks's language of memory in Driving My Father, but a few questioned the overall success of the book. Doheny admired the way the writer captured the "universal aspects of grief and tragedy" but found the structure of her narrative confusing: "Wicks jumps from the present to childhood and back…. The passages sound choppy, seeming to be thrown in as she thought of them, not woven together because of any common thread." This sentiment was echoed by Ashworth: "Insistently impressionistic, the book circles back over its fragmentary scenes in a compulsive pattern of recollection which can seem more claustrophobic than cathartic," wrote the critic, summing up the book as "unflaggingly courageous, if unsteady in effect." Laura Cumming, reviewing Driving My Father for the Observer, responded more positively to the nonsequential structure of the book, however; she felt it gave Wicks's "father a future; her brief prose-poems make an open-ended narrative, not a final report."
Wicks once told CA: "I rarely make theoretical statements about my work, preferring to let the books speak for themselves. I can say, though, that I have been influenced more by the contemporary French literature I was introduced to as an adolescent and young adult than by the more distant British models that were the conventional school diet of the 1960s. And more recently certain strands of American poetry have spoken to me in voices that I found it impossible to ignore.
"The experience I feel most connected with is a predominantly 'female' one of human relationships and everyday settings: I think at some quite deep level I mistrust the exotic as somehow, for me, inauthentic, and therefore incapable of yielding the kind of multilayered suggestiveness I'm concerned with. Paradox, painful irony, ambivalence—these are my values, both in poetry and in fiction. The French writer André Gide said, 'A good book doesn't leave the reader intact.' Given my subjects and artistic preoccupations, I find the critical debate surrounding my work anything but surprising!
"In my fiction what I would like to achieve is a kind of novel or short story that was at the same time technically inventive and readable—both cool and passionate—an uncomfortable and perhaps in the end impossible ambition! In poetry, I think I only wait for the poem to discover its purpose to me—I am humbler and more passive, for better or worse."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Independent on Sunday (London, England), August 9, 1998, Jo Shapcott, review of Little Thing.
London Review of Books, May 21, 1998, p. 29.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 18, 1996, p. 8.
Observer, May 8, 1994, p. 21; November 12, 1995, p. 16.
Stand, winter, 1993, p. 56; summer, 1995, pp. 53-54.
Times (London, England), April 18, 2004, Alan Brownjohn, "Fresh Departures," review of Night Toad.
Times Literary Supplement, December 4, 1992, p. 22; July 22, 1994, p. 24; April 12, 1996, p. 31; January 17, 1997, p. 21, 23.
Women's Review of Books, April, 1994, p. 19.