Thursday, April 16, 2009

Prolog Pages by Donald Wellman

Prolog Pages ( $14.95) (Ahadada Books, 3158 Bentworth Drive, Burlington, Ontario Canada L7M-1M2), published 2009.
By Donald Wellman

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

Donald Wellman’s Prolog Pages contains topics ranging from art and artists to literature and writers to travel and countries and states and cities to culture and identity. Published in 2009 by Ahadada Press, Prolog Pages is a compilation of journal and poetry entries based on observations and personal thoughts that Wellman writes about from his travels and knowledge of Mexico, Spain, and the United States.
Right from the start, as soon as the reader sees the beautiful, artistic cover of Prolog Pages, the reader realizes he is about to take a wonderful, creative journey into and outside of the mind of poet/writer Donald Wellman. The book is filled with references to other sources. Sometimes poems contain different languages like Spanish and French or have been translated from foreign languages into English.
A professor at Daniel Webster College, New Hampshire, Wellman has not written an easy read. He has created a current day, experimental book that the reader needs to read with a dictionary, thesaurus, and/or computer’s internet close by, unless that reader is a scholar on Mexico and its history and cultures, both present day and past. Sometimes his poetry and journal entries are easy to understand; other times, the reader finds Wellman’s written lines somewhat confusing and nonsensical. This lost and confusing feeling that the reader gets is just what Wellman is trying to achieve, as he often writes in a Dadaistic, sometimes nihilistic style. Sometimes this sensibility never leaves the reader; other times, Wellman eases the reader out of it through his use of clear, decisive imagery and metaphor and syntax. Please let me show you what I mean. On page two of Prolog Pages, Wellman writes a short, two line quote:

Horizons give perspective.
Here they have been abolished.

If Dadaism is “a way to express the confusion that was felt by many people as their world [after World War I] was turned upside down. These is not an attempt to find meaning in disorder, but rather to accept disorder as the Dada, using it as a means to express their distaste for the aesthetics of the previous order and carnage it reaped” , then Wellman
seems to be suggesting here that like World War I when the “world was turned upside
down”, the words on the pages that follow have lost their “perspective”. Or, in other words, “here they have been abolished.” Wellman has given the reader a clue on how
to understand the pages of this book he is about to read – that is, you probably won’t clearly understand what he is writing all the time, as in Dadaism. It’s not surprising that Wellman has used Ahadada Press for publishing this 118 page book.
Through his rejection of the “Horizons”, Wellman sets the reader up for a confusing, chaotic journey. The reader probably wonders what is going to be rejected! As he writes mostly about his travels through Mexico and the United States, Wellman writes about traditional culture and aesthetics. Sometimes they are rejected. But, unlike in Dadaism, most often they are cherished. Through these journal entries and poems, Wellman writes with such detail and imagery, that the confusion of Dadaism tapers away and the reader just remembers the beauty of the written lines and the visual images Wellman has conjured up in the reader’s mind. In Prolog Pages, Wellman seems to be searching for personal meaning of nature and its truth in the surrounding world , whether it is in Mexico (such as Mexico City, Granada, Tepotzotlán) or the United States (such as Chicago or New Hampshire).
In the first entry, a poem called “Previously”, Wellman directs the reader in the direction that he would like the reader to head in hopes he will understand Prolog Pages. The first two stanzas of section 1 read:

If something or someone with properties similar to those of a machine had been wanted
then the impossibility of truly sharing might have been circumvented;
but, at the time, who dared ask?

So I fled to the opposite end of all earthly lands.

Here Wellman gives the feeling to the reader that nothing is worthwhile, that life is has no point, so the speaker runs away from this society in which “something or someone with properties similar to those of a machine had been wanted” but unfortunately was never attained. The speaker says that the “properties similar to those of a machine” didn’t work. In a Dadaistic way, Wellman confuses the syntax and the reader by writing “then the impossibility of truly sharing might have been circumvented”.
What the reader expects the speaker to say is something like this: “then the possibility of truly sharing might have been circumvented”, meaning that sharing may gotten around this restriction. But Wellman doesn’t say this. In a sense, Wellman writes Dadaistically and in doing so offends sensibilities of the sentence structure as well as of the readers’ train of thought. Wellman understands what he has done, that he has probably confused the reader, and in a humorous way, concludes the first stanza by composing this line “but, at the time, who dared to ask?”
He concludes the first section of “Previously” with the final line, “So I fled to the opposite end of all earthly lands.” The speaker sees the chaos and tries to escape it.
Now, Wellman has set the tone, a feeling of loss and confusion, for the book. The
speaker has traveled to “the opposite end of all earthly lands.” In Prolog Pages,
this land appears to be Mexico.

Wellman has created a speaker who has traveled extensively through Mexico and Spain, something that Wellman himself probably has done. The detailed accounts like in the poetic journalistic piece called “Granada” (p. 22) show the professorial side of Wellman as he is always educating the reader about the places the speaker has visited. Like in many of his poems, the speaker tells about external experiences and then brings the reader into his personal mind’s thoughts:

In what sense did I earn the privilege
Of sitting in the courtyard of the Fountain of the Four Lions?
To quench my thirst with waters from Lanjarón?
Or to write in this notebook, its cover incorporating Caneletto,
His disconcerting 18th century gentlemen
Admiring the campanile.
Advice, I have heard repeatedly, warns the traveler not to bathe in the lagoons of Venice.
At night, looking over the valley of the Daro toward the Alhambra
The view approximates my conception of heaven.
Looking up into the vaults of Palacios Nazaríes, that vertigo returns.
Possibly in my childhood, a different castle on a different hill had a similar effect? Briar Rose?
As if I were constrained to ask what is next, but I have not found anyone to whom
I am willing to pose
The necessary questions.
In murderous dreams I am my mother
My body becomes hers again.

In “Granada”, Wellman succeeds in accepting social customs, which is the opposite of what Dadaists artists do. He has taken a broad subject of traveling in Granada, avoiding “the lagoons of Venice”, “looking over the valley of the Daro toward the Alhambra”, “Looking up into the vaults of Palacios Nazaríes” and internalized it something personal and somewhat violent for he writes “In murderous dreams I am my mother/My body becomes hers again.”
Then in “Earthenware: Oaxaco” (p, 87), Wellman switches the structure of content around. The speaker tells of concrete images that go slightly universal. He writes about seeing:

Earthenware: Oaxaco
Four petal compass, stellate
The shoot curls within the pod

Horned whelks, honeycomb snails adhere
To the cosmic rim.

Charcoal layers
Her skirt sweeps the floor
Ribbed shell
Bared-breasts, wasp woman
Of summer skies

Amulets of molded
kernels, exhumed
from crevasse, royal tomb
sacred ears,
fed on blood to gives human strength
to human gods.

In “Earthenware: Oaxaca”, the reader probably needs to reach for a dictionary or a thesaurus. Words like “stellate”, “Monocotyledon”, “whelks”, and “Amulets” are probably not in the typical reader’s vocabulary, thus making the poem a bit confusing and foreign to him. It’s typical of Wellman in Prolog Pages to select words common to the place where he writes about. And once the word or words are deciphered, sense to the poem’s or the journal entry’s meaning is achieved. In “Earthenware: Oaxaca”’s first stanza, Wellman moves from the simple image of a “Tin-glazed/Four petal compass…
to the cosmic rim” Unlike in Granada”, Wellman has gone from concrete to abstract, universal thought. Also, he writes about the Oaxaca’s culture where a “skirt sweeps the floor/Ribbed shell/Bared-breasts, wasp woman of summer skies”. This woman seems to be an offering to “human gods”.
Perception plays an important part in Wellman’s writings. The poem is still a little confusing but the images are perceptively wonderful. As written on the bottom of the
previous page (p. 86), Wellman explains:

Expressive artifacts abrupt on felt realities, universes of feeling.
My model is Charles Olsen’s Mayan Letters. I am an outsider, participant
and observe, traveling through the land, learning how others perceive
themselves, discovering new perceptions of my motives and practices.

Also vital to understanding Wellman’s Prolog Pages is that aesthetics play a major role. Art is everything. In Dadaism, there’s no action to find reason. Disorder is accepted as a norm. Artists express dislike for aesthetics. But, in Prolog Pages, Wellman writes about art and aesthetics, especially that of Mexico, in positive historical and cultural perspectives.
Granted Dadaism’s confusion is always an element in many of his writings,
Yet Wellman obviously appreciates Mexico and its social, cultural, and physical beauty.
He references or writes about artists like Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, writers like Brecht and Elena Garro, and photographers like Mariana Yamplosky and Ed Rusha in articulate, vivid poetry and journal entries.
As Wellman writes in “Tepotzotlán”(p. 95):

…What can be said about the role of art in creating a national
consciousness when its burden is historical fact? To transform without
transport denies blood lore and ritual, enshrines compulsion.

Wellman has created a form of Dadaism that is trying to see the “Horizons” and regain what “ha(s) been abolished.”
Prolog Pages is a personal journey of identity and discovering meaning in aesthetics, culture, history, and religion. It’s a valuable book to read for those educated in Mexican and Spanish history and culture as well as those who are interested in expanding their knowledge of Mexico, Spain, and Dadaism. You might even learn a bit about yourself during this read!

1 comment:

  1. Donald's poems are truly gorgeous and wondrous and worth every ounce of effort to unpack. And still to be left with more wonder! It's been a delight to have come across his work recently and even nicer to see it so generously treated on this blog. Cheers.