JON CURLEY Reviews
The Cranberry Island Series by Donald Wellman
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2012)
who had been a person is now a sign
then the shadow of a sign
then the ghost of a shadow
Robert Kelly, Fire Exit
Donald Wellman’s sprawling The Cranberry Island Series purports, at least in that most provisional of places—the preface—to be a combined poem-and-prose meditation on the self in ethnographic terms. He archly asserts: “I draw on ethnography in order to investigate how a being, or a self, comes to understand his or her standing or location in the world, his or her Instantiation.” Quite an ambitious project, whether one is writing a book about personal identity or contemplating it while staring into an unperturbed puddle—even putting the ethnographic angle aside—and Wellman succeeds if success can be counted as ontological crisis or incomplete representation. This uneven, messy, and multifaceted volume exhaustively engages the self through the wavering concentric lines of art, life, myth, and the contingent relations of all these interconnecting fields (or islands, to best express the book’s key metaphor). Its inability to achieve a fulfilled sense of identity, its considered lack of coherence, finally, give it honesty, negates the durability of ego for protean, possible forms, and shows in process how the human sphere, like the universe, infinitely, interpretively expands. This is an odyssey of imperfection, a testimonial of the inevitable evanescence of an embodied mediated self, satisfying because of its sounding of inadequacy. Like a seafaring Beckett, Wellman navigates a fleshly question mark surrounded by barely visible beacons of meaning, projections of Sirens, their light taken in by the poet. Sometimes the flares and flashes are bright, though some dimmer still.
Wellman’s work has no truck with postmodern preening about non-representational identity and I do not intend a postmodern-styled conceit in praising the featured fragments of being as the expected imprecise properties when the self tries to translate self from mindscape to page. No, the dispersal of the selves’ (not self, selves!) residua, their presence moving flittingly in the wake of past invented forms for articulation, provides a vertiginous narrative of multiple frames for the questing poet to find refuge in and then move on. Again, in recourse to the prevailing maritime context, George Oppen’s “Shipwreck of the Singular” becomes for Wellman the bounty of pluralized, contingent personas, kept unsteady and yet buoyant.
To self-mythologize is already to stray from the realm of rational consideration, finding roots in a cloud or, for Wellman, in local New England waterways surrounding the Cranberry Islands in the Gulf of Maine. From “Water-man”:
Wellman is water man, water carrier, tender of the springs
Is he half-man, healer that plays the water drum?
Does his mind keep time with the time kept by the ensemble?
He is a various man, a rogue man. He who opens the moon-gate.
Tidal man, fish are his thoughts, for him fish are speech,
golden bream in the russet waters
He envisions himself almost a hybrid form, communicating in his environment with a seamless, water-like diffusion. This recourse to multi-fused forms seems appropriate for a wide-spanning hybrid history that traces family ancestors, pre-historic and conjectural mappings of various locales, childhood memories, the massive influence of Charles Olson on his poetics and sense of place and displacement (Olson’s daughter’s, too), anecdotes about his poetic career, family dynamics, including the death of his troubled brother, the Vietnam War, and on and on. The sometime jarring juxta
positions erode the boundaries between sections and their themes, bleeding together the various contents so that they generate an unwieldy but lasting and alluring interdependence. Just as Wellman the water man conjoins with the element of his dwelling, the tableau erected announces a logic of association which ultimately liberates the self from having to choose a particular shape to possess.
The myth-meandering in which Wellman occasionally partakes aligns with a materially-focused stocktaking of rock, bone, and shoreline, describing in pared and precise, seldom sensuous detail, the hard fact of geography, geology, and archaeology. These passages mostly eschew the heightened emotional or subjective frisson reserved for prose interludes in stripped, virtually objective renderings of place as in the following two examples:
Footprints on frozen
tussocks of bog turf.
Wind owns the heath.
Frost bends the sedge.
Ice – the coldest seed
The heart slows.
Rock and bog cranberry
Belong to the heath family
A rib bone, light as paper balances
on stems of cotton sedge
Subarctic orchids, petals, compass
Flow lines in rock, trending south and west
Life begins here
Wellman the water man here plays Antaeus’s naturalist cousin, surveying the insentient realm into which the human/poetic voice is cast. The ecology lyrically spelt begins in its exacting inventory to exhibit the kind of layering effect manifest in Wellman’s craft. In its formal designs, The Cranberry Island Series, accrues conjunctions and disruptions, points and counterpoints, abruptly veering from one concentrated personal and historical investigation to the next. There is no symphonic sweep just the abrupt, propulsive sidelong movement into different zones of exploration and exhibition. A more cohesive, systemized organization would have seemed false, as if the various strains, stripes, currents, and concerns of any life could be summed up, streamlined, or made fundamentally certain now or at any time in its existence.
While certainly any extended discussion of that other New England poet, Charles Olson Gloucester, Massachusetts, especially in a personally proximate context, is sure to be interesting, here, that mentor’s dominant shadow seems at times overwhelming. Moreover, the repeated Olsonian refrains—dwelling on the man and his poetic philosophy, his historical archiving and regional affiliations—can at times seem to be unnecessary scaffolding. The Wellman self, striking across its life and imagination with such passion and power, need not pause to prostrate at the master’s plinth. He has—or the self has—or his selves have—all the energetic propensity to invent, reinvent, and recollect without recourse to this large figure and his mammoth legacy. The decision to devote so much space to him seems not impertinence but a slight detour from the marvels of Wellman’s own mythopoesis and the inner-workings of his practice.
Fittingly, there is no closure to The Cranberry Island Series, no climactic upsurge, final pronouncement, existential reckoning, or investigatory conclusions. The search for self has become more the self’s search, and on and off many islands of feeling and forms, it moves amphibiously, at one with water and land, matter and spirit, myth and history, individual and communal identities, this tide and the next.
Jon Curley's most recent book of poems is Hybrid Moments (2015). With Burt Kimmelman, he co-edited The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory (2015). He teaches in Newark and lives in New York.