Steve Fellner’s collection of poems, The Weary World Rejoices, has much more weariness in it than rejoicing, but that is only because, as he writes in the first of three odes to Matthew Shepard, “Explanation never // satisfies. It / always wants // something / like redemption.” Fellner is not trying to explain what it is like to be a gay man in 21st-century America; instead, he is trying to redeem it by showing the varieties of that life as it actually is.
One of the main ways he does this is to present readers with absurd situations, often framed by the openings of poems, to remind us that such a life is full of absurdity. For example, a poem about the first time he has sex is titled “Ode to Miss Piggy” and begins:
The first time I made love,
I heard your karate chops
swishing the air,
punctuating my head
hitting the headboard.
As he moves out from this opening, Fellner shows us a scene where the speaker is having sex for the first time with a man whose children are being entertained by watching The Muppet Show, while their father is in the bedroom with the speaker. The contrast of innocence and the loss of it is only heightened by how the situation must be kept secret.
The absurdity of life is reinforced by the following poem, one of three prose poems Fellner writes with his husband, Phil E. Young, titled “Doctor’s Note,” which opens:
His doctor told him that he was allergic to music. This explained the sudden rashes at the Scottish bagpipe festival, the nosebleeds at the high school chorus recital of Carmina Burina, the deep red welts that appeared halfway through a set by the band Sparklehorse at the 40 Watt club.
In this poem, Fellner (and Young) remind readers of a life lived without something essential, a theme that runs throughout this collection, as the speakers of the poems are often looking for something that is missing from their lives, which they often fill with sex that they admit is meaningless while looking for love.
The opening poem points to these two extremes as the speaker of “Globalization” remembers his sixth grade geography class where “We needed / to memorize the world. / I started with Antarctica, / then Zimbabwe. I’ve never liked / middles.” When describing himself as a student later in the poem, he says, “Much to my shame, / I still can only remember one thing: / the correct answers. / Everything is either true or false.”
Of course, life is not simply a beginning and end or true and false, and Fellner shows us the complexities of it, especially in the final section, a series of poems about Matthew Shepherd. However, he does not address Shepherd directly in most of the poems, using the metaphor of a crossword puzzle or crafting a scene where he sees a student in a bar one Saturday night to talk about what happened to Shepherd. In the final of three odes to Shepherd, Fellner describes a conversation with a poet who writes poems in the voices of people who died in the 1918 influenza outbreak. He worries that she is co-opting their stories—a fear she does not seem to share—but he ends his poem by saying that he is trying not to do the same with Shepherd: “I promise, Matthew, // I will never speak / for you. Only, I hope // near you.”
Not all of the poems, though, focus on the weariness that comes with being a persecuted minority in America, as there are moments when Fellner’s speakers find happiness, if only fleetingly. The best example is his poem for his husband, “A Love Poem for Phil.” While the poem does begin by referencing trips to the psych ER, it moves to sharing sundaes at Friendly’s and ends by saying:
See the exclamation
are for you. I promise
there’s more where
those came from.
The collection’s dedication reads, “for the young gay men / who never found a way.” In this book, Fellner is trying to show that some gay men do find their way and that there are moments of rejoicing, even if they are few. This book is not an explanation of this fact, but it can give glimpses of redemption.