Zachariah Wells’s Sum opens with an epigraph from Fernando Pessoa that declares, “In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people, thinking and feeling differently.” At a glance, the formal eclecticism of Sum seems an attempt to represent this multiplicity: Wells employs free verse lyrics, sonnets, epigrams, and even a villanelle – “Dream Machine,” after Ted Hughes. Hughes is not alone in acknowledgement here: of the 30 poems in the collection, 18 are either after or dedicated to someone else, from well-known poets such as Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins, to popular culture figures such as Sloan or Richard Dawkins, to more obscure names that many readers won’t recognize.
Such acknowledgments might appear to contribute to the volume’s eclecticism, yet the voice that emerges remains notably consistent. Wells is a poet who delights in sound patterns – internal and end rhyme in particular – and, despite a poem like “Noise,” in which the speaker complains of tinnitus in his ear that “makes its nuisance presence known when I sit / before a blank screen wondering what to write,” Wells’s ear hears clearly, his “frequency among the quick.”
Highlights include “Squalid,” which recalls “the dollars / squandered down urinal drains in bars / of dubious repute,” and “The Parkinsonian Reflexologist,” which mixes clichés to sometimes hilarious effect: “If you get caught fucking the dog / deny the devil his Scooby-Doo.” “Magic Man,” in its celebration of the retired Blue Jays player John McDonald, is a paean to the underdog, one “Consigned to ride pine for lack of thunder / in his bat.” Appropriating Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” Wells traces the inscape of this infielder, “sensei of the second sack.”
One puzzling component of Sum is its division into three parts. I have read the book over several times and cannot discern any logic to this division. It serves to extend a thin volume by a few pages, but there does not seem to be any thematic consistency within a particular section, nor any notable difference between them. In this sense, Sum remains simply the total of its – at times quite interesting – parts.