Monday, February 02, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Strange Wisdoms of the Dead by Mike Allen

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

I thought Strange Wisdoms of the Dead would be one of those attempts to brainwash me into speculative poetry but leafing through the pages of this book is something more massive. This is the Mike Allen ensemble, compiling not just his poems but his fiction and collaborations as well.

The elephant in the room of course is Allen's poetry and that dominates this book. Whether he's talking about time sharks, spiders, or decapitated heads, Allen evokes visceral images that surprise and entice. If you're just looking for variety, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead delivers as the poet tackles fantasy, science fiction, horror, and an array of tricky and fanciful poems. "Morse Code" for example tackles the title through more "natural" means, evoking the buzzing of insect's wings to replicate what seems like a monotonous sound. "Momentum" on the other hand is a real rollercoaster and don't worry if it's not readily apparent how to read/recite it--that's part of the charm.

Another impressive aspect of the book is its division. It's broken into four sections and at the end of each section is a fiction piece. While I wouldn't identify the stories as the best of the best, they certainly leave an impression. The first story, "Humpty," for example, is both fanciful and tense, diving directly in the action and by the time you reach the end, there remains a sense of dread that a longer or more complicated piece couldn't capture. The fourth section is also interesting because this is where Allen showcases his collaborations with other authors/poets and while there's a difference from the rest of his work in the book, it also gives us a glimpse of the end-result of such fusion.

My one regret is that Allen's poems need to be re-read and savored. A hundred-plus page book is already a lot when it comes to poetry and going through it in one sitting doesn't do it justice. The format is certainly to be lauded, from the sequencing to the combination of poetry and token prose. If you've been following Allen's body of work, Strange Wisdoms of the Dead features some of his more daring and experimental work and so you might want to check this out for that. Otherwise, this is a splendid collection that you must get for its breadth if nothing else.

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