Book Review: Whelmed

Whelmed, Nicole Markotić, 97 pgs, Coach House Books,, $18.95

It is unclear exactly how whelmed expects itself to be read. Formatted like a dictionary or encyclopedia, but devoid of that form’s usual utilitarian purpose, Markotić utilizes a dictionary’s layout without taking advantage of that layout’s primary purpose. The alphabetically-organized dictionary structure is near-perfect for searching, finding, and consuming short definitions, one or two at a time—with its reader having approached the tome with a specific question already in mind. whelmed flips this expectation, asking its reader to approach the ‘dictionary’ with an open mind, and to consume chronologically, completely.

In the face of the dictionary’s typical status of book-as-tool, Markotić instead uses this format to dance—her prose-poetry is rhythmic and fun, often-times impenetrable until read aloud. whelmed itself is an experiment in word-splicing—chopping the prefix from the suffix and rearranging in a playful search for meaning, like a mis-matched pile of M&Ms or fridge magnets.

Take, for example, her entry for ‘-combobulated’, appropriately scattered across the page: “dis-open the stanza, half-witty and enfranchised | whimsical decomposing | even the experts probe cretionary hand-holding.” Her entry for ‘ins’, interspersed attractively with ‘outs’, erupts into everything from “surmountable? | capacitated? | evitable?” to “furiating, no? | freakingcredible, right?”.

This approach, though it allows Markotić a unique angle of insight into everyday speech, may be hindered when placed within the confines of a print-dictionary. Cordoned-off individual definitions and a strictly enforced alphateticalization—both necessary paratexts to the print-dictionary form—prevent Markotić from gathering momentum or building upon thoughts from poem to poem. Similarly, in spite of a generously included index, the arbitrarily-ordered dictionary form prevents any one definition from standing out among its contemporaries, rendering the entire collection a single event, and the index unnecessary. whelmed is strong, clever prose-poetry, but it may be too faithful to the print-roots it parodies. (Joel W. Vaughan)