Murat Nemet-Nejat reviews
Is Writing Poetry Barbaric After Colony Collapse Disorder, an Ecological/ Post-Personal/ Metaphysical Barbaric Hymn: Donald Wellman’s Roman Exercises (Talisman House, Publishers: Northfield Massachusetts, 2015, 81 pages)
Paragraph 1 follows:
I am an honest bee, my beautiful one, an honest bee.
The first poem in Donald Wellman’s haunting book Roman Exercises has the following line in it:
The line embodies, almost in totality, the alchemical project underlining the book: to transform one kind of richness, natural and social—epitomized in the golden color of honey—into ‘the liquid of poetry.’ This transformation occurs against the background of the slow-motion real-time ecological disaster of the disappearance of bees (CCD: Colony Collapse Disorder) in the western world where colonies of bees are vanishing for no explainable reason. The process is weirdly reminiscent of the HBO series The Leftovers, where five per cent of the population of a town mysteriously disappears overnight. Only here the vanishing is geographically much more endemic, and in some colonies up to half of the bee population is lost. What is left over in the hive after the disaster hits it? Here is how Wikipedia describes it:
CCD [Colony collapse disorder] is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder)
One might as well be describing contemporary the United States after the financial collapse: supreme richness, concentrated among several queen bees (Wal-Marts) devoid of customers (their workers) to sell to. Here is how Roman Exercises describes this relentless cycle of sterility, quoting from the 19th century French symbolist poet Remy de Gourmont’s Natural Philosophy of Love (a ‘classic of environmental pornography’) translated into English by Ezra Pound: [See Note 1]
… a queen [approaches] a male, sucking him with her proboscis, offering him honey, stroking him with her feet, and finally irritated by the coldness of her suitor, mounting his back, applying her vulva to the male organ which Réaumur [Note 2] represents as covered with a white viscous liquid. (‘Post-human exercise’)
Love has turned into rape (alchemical lead). Everything in Roman Exercises occurs against a background of consuming desolation, an ecological and spiritual holocaust. In one poem the book makes this connection, implied in the title of the review, explicit:
Wellman weaves continuously the poems with images of bees and indirect references that remind the reader of a time when bee keeping was an integral part of an ideal state of humanity: man as a social animal. Occasionally, the reference is even the faint echo of a dead metaphor, a vestigial DNA molecule of a vital past: ‘[the] drone of traffic and hvac systems articulate the city (‘Amber bliss’). It is this simultaneity of a desolate present woven with images, the vision of a more human past, and its desperate future possibilities, that gives the poems in Roman Exercises their haunting, melancholy beauty. It is in this simultaneity, superimposition that one of the alchemies in the book occurs, transforming the lead of the present into ‘liquefied song.’ Nowhere is this potency of absence more powerfully and gorgeously illustrated than in the poem ‘Taygete (fourteeneers).’ Taygete is one of the seven stars in the Pleiades and also the nymph that Artemis her companion turned into a doe to protect her from Zeus’s advances; in other words, a creature both animal and human:
Sisters in the Pleiades do six alone serve as logo for
Subaru, of aircraft, automobiles? Corporate history
doesn’t resolve the riddle. Is it a difference in the tissue
of oriental skies?…
Is it Taygete who is absent from her place among
the cosmic gyres…
… The question arises in reading
the Fourth Book of Virgil’s Georgics, [Note 3] a footnote among
allusions to the role immortals and demigods play
in human production. Through their agency natural
forces render fecund fields and reward the labor that
sustains the growth of plants and animals. A drop of
translucent honey softens the acids of ordinary
wine. Virgil provides counsel on managing the hive:
Omnibus una quies operum, labor omnibus unus
all as one to rest and work by turns for posterity
and feed the larvae bedded in the cells of honeycombs.
A dangerous reverie for one who’d rather sting his
host with barbed insults, rapacious mockery, the wasp in me,
than submit the ego to state authority. I looked up
like swollen grapes hung on the swaying laurel limbs. Many
dulcet voices in the summer wind becalmed my anguished
heart with promises of Parnassian joy, so does each treacly
droplet stir the tongue to recite names and parentage of wood
and water sprites and seed the text with knotted veins, to
pollinate with motile force tansy and aster, ‘absences
and densities’ that constitute the reading of the poem.
The ‘wasp’ in Roman Exercises is embedded in the very fabric of the ideal society of the ‘honey bee.’ Its presence that instills a drop of poison into that perfect fabric — like the snake in paradise — is implicit in a passage from Cicero’s De Officiis that Roman Exercises quotes:
Against the Aristotelian assumption that human beings are social beings fulfilling their true nature within society, a nihilistic claim of ‘speculative’ subjectivity is implied where human beings truly fulfill themselves by following their vision and desire. This alternative possibility bifurcates Roman Exercises, runs against and subtly undercuts its melancholy, elegiac tone of ‘liquefied song,’ giving the book the electric feel of a science fiction poem. A visionary dimension runs through it.
The driving underlying pursuit of Roman Exercises is to delineate a post-human (post Holocaust) consciousness where the bee-eye and human-I — contrary subjectivities — join in a poetic—entomologic / human—android:
Taygete: the absent seventh sister of the Pleiades; a being, human and animal (and vegetal) simultaneously.
The following passage is from ‘Gloucester,’ the third poem in the book:
to my multiform eye:
human brain lay
on the ground
cornflower, wallflower. (italics my own)
Right in the middle of the book, Donald Wellman’s own translation of Paul Celan’s ‘Weggebeizt’ follows immediately after ‘Cicero’:
radioactive wind from your speech
the confused talk of worn-out
poem, no poem
the way through human-
penitent’s snow, to
glacier rooms and tables
in the time crevasse,
waits, a breath crystal,
witness. (‘Eaten Away’, italics my own)
An insect’s (bee’s) prismatic ‘multiform’ eye and ‘the hundred-tongued’ language of a poem: here lies Wellman’s vision of a ‘barbaric’ poetry after CCD. Poem after poem in Roman Exercises, the point of view of the speaker is, for instance, that of a being moving on the walls of a honeycomb or in the roots of a rotting plant. It is this prismatic, alien, dynamic perspective that contains the visionary heart of the poems, giving them their punk, other-worldly beauty. In the poem ‘Melville’ Wellman delineates the place of bees and their relation to the poet’s consciousness in the creation of his poetics:
works bees like a drone, a whirring bass,
on every page, while the fancy
travels in corkscrews
sucked into the labyrinthine tangle of ancestral roots.
Cross species: germination of animal and vegetal matter,
molds and worm infested meats,
give rise to bees. (‘Melville’)
Examples of this fusion abound:
sea roses, grizzled barbs
erupt. (‘Elegy to Ted’)
amplifies the pounding heart.
I breathe the musk
deposited on the walls…
Meditation seeps like honey dew
and adjusts the breath. (‘Milkstones’)
To be ardently post-human is to reconfigure the incalculable abyss between animal and man into a trickle of subjunctive excrescence. (‘Post-human exercise’)
of future selves; then sew the folds to make the purse
I carry with me….’ (‘Amber bliss’)
In ‘Post-face,’ the final text in the book, responding to a question by his son about the place of emotion in his work, Wellman imagines himself as a lead guitarists with long hair with a Jesus complex. The image to me is eerily reminiscent of Blake. In the penultimate paragraph of the book, Wellman makes the connection explicit:
[Note 1] Both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were admirers of de Gourmont.
[Note 2] René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683-1757): Eighteenth century French naturalist to whom de Gourmont is referring in the text. Chains of multi-layered connections (from Réaumur to de Gourmont to Pound to Wellman in this instance) is quite characteristic of the structure of Roman Exercises.
[Note 3] Wellman states in the foreword to the book that reading Virgil’s Georgics was one initial inspirations in the writing of Roman Exercises. Book 4 of Virgil’s Hesiod-like didactic poem is a fascinating manual on every aspect of bee keeping in Roman times.
[Note 4] De Officiis, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Translated by Walter Miller. Loeb ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913.
You can read Donald Wellman’s article Expression: (the materialization of form and the transhistorical baroque) at http://poeticsresearch.com/article/donald-wellman-expression/.