Book Review Archives

Dead Letters

By: Alan May; Illustrations by Tom Wegrzynowski and Alan May
Reviewed by: Carey Scott Wilkerson
BlazeVOX, 2009
$16, Paper

In a time when perhaps too few poets are willing to explore the ontological rift between language and meaning, discovering Alan May’s book Dead Letters is an occasion both for a new mode of celebration and some old-fashioned investigation of the poetic project itself. This daring collection—by turns experimental and surreal, meditative and poignant—is indeed a powerfully imagined and, finally, astonishing achievement.

Here are poems of arch complexification, executed with styles of grace glimpsed through the skeins of contemporary paranoia. Moreover, it appears that among our poet’s preoccupations are the irruptive forces that reveal life as a kind of child’s game, only with impenetrable rules and troubling consequences both for failure and success. At every move, the lucky reader is not only witness to the poetic turn but also implicated as a point on the axis of May’s grand schema.

As a pure marveling love of language and its sonic properties, one cannot find a more joyously inventive provocation than in “Inconstancies”: 
        Each held his own internal each 
        Her own boisterous they wore 
        Their leather mouths the frenzied jar 

        The skirts like fields each wore each body 
        She combed her pockets reached for drink 

        After crucifix release to assembly 
        Resemble torn handkerchief 

        The pastor called 
        In the voice of 3rd 

        The night 
        On palomino flocking/ surround 


        The spirit transplanted to fern 
        To outlive that will outlive

May’s gift for reverse-engineering the paradoxes of daily experience invites us to wonder at the epistemological commitments of his own book, and this is perhaps central to the very disconcerting point he makes about what we accept as the given world and how we live inside these self-generative impossibilities. This puzzle is quite brilliantly dramatized by Tom Wegrzynowski’s and May’s charming, alarming illustrations punctuating the text. The drawings here become part of a thematic thread leading us closer to some terminus of poetic knowledge, the only kind that will save us in the end.

This is a poetry of those closely observed moments between all the epiphanies of received “poetic” experience and is thus emblematic of a rigorous logic sustaining every line, from the whimsical intorsions of a personal perplexity to the dread musings of a darkening dream world. And it is precisely May’s careful attention to the counterfactual texture of the irreal that distinguishes these remarkable poems from mere exercises in the surreal and imputes to his imagery a kind of integrity beyond that which attends most forms of radical displacement. We are fully admitted into the world of the Dead Letter and addressed in voices of dazzlement, despair, and delight. Alan May’s book is an elegant, deeply engaged, and strikingly beautiful invocation of the ghosting modalities of poems on the page, in the head, and out here in our own strange world. July 2010

Carey Scott Wilkerson teaches at Columbus State University, was recently a visiting writer at Clayton State University, and is co-founder of Dead Academics Press. His book Threading Stone is published by New Plains Press, which will release his second book in 2011.