ALLEN BRAMHALL Reviews
Roman Exercises by Donald Wellman
(Talisman House, 2014)
I begin this review in an unorthodox way: quoting a back cover blurb. David Rich, who I don't know, calls Wellman “the quiet cartographer of our new century's catastrophic dawn.” The phrase is full of what's going on in this book.
Just to be clear, I'm pretty crotchety about blurbs. Usually, anything that much exceeds “Poem book good” makes me wonder what the blurbist is getting from writing them. I don't mean a copy of the book and many thanks, I mean what artistic fulfillment do they enjoy in their blurbing. Here, tho, Rich's phrase aptly suggests the many-hued nature of Wellman's work. It's the adjectives in the blurb that do it: quiet, new, and catastrophic. All three seem central to Wellman's work here.
The quietness is of introspection. One notices the person quietly in life. It is a life of literature and nature and introspection. The intersections are many.
The first section of Roman Exercises, nearly 50 pages long, makes reference, as Wellman states in the Foreword, to “a long chain of allusions to bees and beekeeping.” The humble bee has been much mentioned and extolled thru the years. Wellman mentions Book Four of Virgil's Georgics, one more example of what I have not read. I did a search, and found this, a translation of the first line of Book Four: “Next I’ll speak about the celestial gift of honey from the air.” My goodness what a nice image. “It must happen / as if awaited,” writes Wellman (“Balcony”).
The quiet I speak of here is not strictly meditative, there's a peace in anxiety too. Wellman frets the past—autobiographical snatches—and frets the future. The past is personal, the future impersonally catastrophic. Images of natural decay, human and ecological, flow thru out the book. “Incremental change becomes cataclysmic upheaval.” (“Endgame”)
To me, the method here is some Charles Olson, some Ezra Pound, some Ronald Johnson, piecing things together. At times the voice is plaintive and delving. Other times, Wellman projects a scatter of images this side of phantasmagoric. “Kentridge of multiple / projections.” William Kentridge is an artist who creates films using palimpsests of drawings, layer upon layer. Wellman thus.
“As I sought to conclude my work, the shibboleth of Ezra Pound asserted its unredeemed presence, enticing me to cross into terrain where I was loath to go although the music emanating from within those groves enchanted my soul.” It's a rough ride, this book. Bees carry thru it, their energy, their production, their wandering, their completion within the hive. They hearten.
Roman Exercises feels like part of a larger work, or perhaps program more fairly describes my sense of it. The literary stimulation of other artists continually manifests. The lyrical passages are the easiest to read. Allusions dodge me at times, but then reading always is a growing experience. The personal disasters aren't news, they never are. Their weight settles into the world's decay. Words are existent densities.
The first personal singular pronoun, which I always approach warily in poetry, becomes destabilized. Wellman quotes Zukofsky:
Bees / are I's
What sense do you get of that? A notion of the individual, of seeing, of extent. Emerson's transparent eyeball, perhaps. This is a poetry to study, because Wellman sees himself in the flux. That last phrase has several meanings. Language at least we still have. Roman Exercises maps a murky world.
Re. Allen Bramhall: A diminishing flow of poems, a continuing insistence in watching superhero movies with my son, an increasing interest in the healing, lifebound elation of creativity, and some websites: