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The Man with many Voices

Poetry review
by Jonathan Wells
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

Jonathan Wells

Jonathan Wells’ new book of poetry excels in varied subject matter, perspective, and technique. While he possesses an original voice, it is as if he has many voices running up and down a musical scale. Most poetry in the United States tunnels into monologue. Wells invites dialogue. His poem “Dialogue without Words” begins: “The falling leaves do not make a poem / unless they fall through you, from you.” Such deep and intimate interiority remains unusual in American poetry. Perhaps it arrives here through a subtle Buddhist influence, as in “my fingers worry the rope / of longing that leads past my self.”

Wells exhibits a knack for metaphor worn casually on the sleeve in phrases like “the flam of raindrops” or “a song that oak leaves will not finish” from my favorite poem “The Backwards Calendar,” which should appear in anthologies. Likewise, “An Armenian Wine Maker in the Copper Age,” which you will find printed on our new poetry page. What I enjoy about this poem is first of all the risk of dealing in a different era and culture. Usually such approaches awkwardly fail. The landscape is given a quick sketch before moving into the characters, father and son at work. The final stanza unites father and son in a surprising perspective as they contemplate the blackbirds, traditional poetic symbols of death (the subject of what is Wallace Stevens’ most famous and notable poem).

His voice paints musical textures. Perhaps his former job as a Rolling Stone magazine editor has helped shape his sensibility. From his poetry it is evident that he has an interest in classical music as well as pop: “The notes splinter in a waterfall by Bartok” from a moving homage to his father, “Purple Blue.” Sometimes his poetry slyly approaches quotable adage: “Love slows down the pendulum of our labors” or “Relaunch the immortal humming of the bees.”

Amid casual conversation Wells wears a mild, almost unconscious, undershirt of French surrealism: “The sky calls for me with phosphorous” or “Was it for me the somersault from her pocket / the day the wind shooed winter away?” Difficult to sneak in that demotic shooed. What I like about his use of technique is that Wells does not call attention to his craft as he spontaneously muses on life and folly.

Not shy about being personal he can toss off lines like “To drink the sun directly / from the tap he sat down by the window.” Here is poetry from the source, poetry without affectation or narcissism, poetry that moves and engages the reader, poetry that echoes with charm, poetry like a refreshing glass of mango juice or wine with hours of pleasing aftertaste.

Jonathan Wells, a member of the American Academy of Poets, is the author of The Man With Many Pens from Four Way Books. He lives in New York City. He recently read at the Millbrook Library. You can order the volume at your local bookstore or go to: