Strange Elegies

Mac Wellman

Roof Books


Sunday, March 26th, 2006

The title Strange Elegies both says it all and hardly enough about this indispensably disturbing volume. Indeed, Mac Wellman’s new book includes fourteen long, enjambed, frequently centered thingamajigs made out of words and orthographical markings that look like lyrics and are titled to recall elegies, not of the funereal variety, but of Donne and his audacious ilk: "ELEGY UPON THE SAYING ‘SHIT FLOATS’"; "ELEGY: ON HUMAN HAIR."

Yeah, I said ‘centered.’ One of the Strangest, by which I mean creepiest, things about these poems is the way in which they streak down the middle of the page like a scream escaping directly from the inner crenellations of a madman’s brain or a piece of deadly metal plunging from a disintegrating spy plane and into the kiddie pool in which the reader is taking the air. Needless to say, the Constant Critic interface won’t let me create this effect here, so you’ll have to imagine the weirdness dispensed in "ELEGY AGAINST THE ARGUMENT FROM DESIGN," when

I encounter my fur
I’m flying from.
Furious and were
wolfish. What
irks me
furs me, foldingly
transparent to the poet’s weird.
Ravel to riddle
to end king cheese’s
domain. Do it
Star. Go
to floor and hurry
debouchment. The true linear
horizontal’s a
fruitless impact. My
eyes tickle

We may hear a slew of poets colluding in this passage (Auden, Berryman, Dickinson, Alfred Noyes and Philip Jenks) but the queer mood, swoony enjambment across brief phrases, metaphysical declarativeness and pinched dimensions give these elegies their own shuddery identity. Though the poems have the density of dramatic monologues, or maybe of letters both written and read in dreams, their speaker seems an illusion of the syntax and the poems’ strange properties, more than the persona these serve to illustrate. He is the thing called "I" who exists in (and as?) a vertical universe populated by such agents as "Rider," "X, " "Y," "Five," and other appellations bestowed according to syntax’s (poet’s?) whimsy. In "ELEGY UPON ANY ITEM OF WHICH THE SPEAKER DOES NOT KNOW OR HAS MOMENTARILY FORGOTTEN THE NAME,"

So: I’m
not an
I know the name of anymore—
; nor dare.
up to here in absence
of there &
climbing inside
the porch-
wall, without a
fur of care…
& Rider
an "it" now. Ouch!

If we sense a speaker here, we sense he speaks from a place made of paradoxical coordinates— "here in absence"— which change shape as we read across lines— "here in absence/of there." Given the bonelessness of these poems’ wendings, and the acrobatic tricks they play on the reading eye, one begins, after many readings, to wonder if the entire volume is populated by cats.

It would be more apt to say the volume itself is feline, made of felinity, dexterous, fungible, keen, slightly unnatural, resourceful, and maybe (to think Poe-ically) undead. This world seems an inchwide, vertical version of our universe, both anywhere and nowhere, moonlit, and, in the (left-justified) "ELVIS ON THE MOON," both Styxy and planetary:

All care to the windy
coast cost
is banished by thought’s bone,

Round the hard, chill
charred hill of change,
from under my feet. Just
the fur hears the bare fly.

A furry turns to asphodel…

As that "furry" suggests, this is also a world made of threads of ink and sound, rising and falling, in which a "fury" hides inside a "furry," "cost" is banked up in a "coast," in which "thought" has "bone" and "fur" can "hear." Maybe sound, then, is this river’s deciding current, and logic the enthralled rider following just behind, on shore:

Night with rider in its
ripcord for a tentflap
bollide colossus
ups the ante.
Moon stolen by a whip
for a cap’s bill. Stone
saving up a
crazy day.
Rider still assails the


Again, it is Wellman’s special knack for the lunacy of language that lets us see how close that second-most-generic of articles, "the," is to that most sacred, lyrical, and intimate of addressees, "thee."

It’s possible to read Strange Elegies as mini-theater for the cochlear and optic nerves, or perhaps as duets played upon them, performances not interior to a monologist but to our reading selves. Our own silence is strange in this dimension, even furtive. Are we voyeurs, eavesdroppers, assassins? Are we landlords, demons, demigods? Aren’t we, at least and at most, complicit, always already implicated in the real events of this language? Is ‘Rider’ ‘writer’, or is he ‘Reader’? As "ELEGY UPON A SUSPICION OF UTTERANCE" insists, "This, too, is a reality." Shudder.

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