The Weary World Rejoices has its unadorned moments of grief, punctuated by moments of energetic wit and intelligent levity.
I will preface this by stating up front that I have always liked a little bit of snark in my poetry, and an unlikable, even mean-spirited narrator. There is something trust-worthy in a bit of self-pity, a vulnerability in admitting one’s least admirable qualities. Steve Fellner manages to walk this edge in his newest volume of poetry, The Weary World Rejoices, between a trustworthy if splenetic guide to pop culture, human relationships, with an unforgivingly sharp eye to the ways we try to deceive ourselves and each other.
In one of the funniest poems in the book, “Ode to My Friend Who Recently Won A Prestigious Poetry Book Contest,” he invokes the spirit of Catullus (after invoking the spirit of Cavafy in his first book, Blind Date with Cavafy:)
Now you have a book. You will win even more
prizes and readings and the love of men
who bore you. Bookless, hopeless,
I will sit at home with my beloved…
In the poem, he not only tweaks the self-pitying side of the poetry business, the petty jealousy, but also his own tendency to see a cosmic balance sheet with love and success on opposing sides.
Sure, there’s a dark side to this book: a series of poems on Matthew Shepard’s murder, literature professors who also deal crystal meth, pysch wards, dead boyfriends, crime, disease, the end of the world. But my favorite poems in the book balance serious subject matter with a light touch. The cover gives us some insights into the contents of the book: in a photo, a bunny figurine waves a flag with understated, sarcastic enthusiasm (“yay”) above a littered floor of discarded party detritus – empty bottles, confetti, and condom wrappers.
The first two sections cover territory from the highly personal to the universal. In “The End of the World,” Fellner imagines a world of magic hats, science fiction scenarios and dead bodies:
…It was like a science fiction
movie. Foreign people doing odd things, vehicles collecting, dead bodies
littering the ground. I wrote the names of the dead on slips of paper.
These whimsical scenarios allow Fellner to give us insight into his internal landscapes: an ode to Miss Piggy becomes a dissection of an abusive relationship, an inane comment by former President Bush becomes an opportunity to entertain absurdism. In “Doctor’s Note,” a man becomes mysteriously allergic to music and does his best to avoid it. In “Secret Ingredients,” a woman allows her friends to believe she possesses a secret ingredient that is, in fact, nothing, and this secret destroys her friendships. God also appears at surprising junctures throughout the book, mostly viewed with some ambivalence, as in “Psalm:” “Mental illness: a busted/ Advent calendar…Remember/ no matter what/ / Jesus will take a number.”
The third section focuses solely on the implications of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was killed in 1998. These poems are unsettling in both the way they acknowledge the tragedy and also his efforts to try to say something significant about it. From “Ode to Matthew Shepard:”
Matthew, O Matthew, you died in a field. Is an elegy anything
more than a taunt? A way of saying: Look at me. I’m still alive.
Is an elegy anything other than a compliment to oneself? A way of saying
I’m special for recognizing you’re special. Is an elegy anything
other than saying: Free drinks on me! A way of saying: One last round.
Since Fellner makes fun of himself as often as he does the absurdities of the world around him, his insights feel resoundingly honest and earned. The Weary World Rejoices has its unadorned moments of grief, punctuated by moments of energetic wit and intelligent levity. This is a collection that entertains as it surprises and sometimes horrifies; it strives never to bore you, even as the narrators worry, complain, and try to help us decipher the world’s mysterious spectacles.