Kinetic Poetry: Erin Mullikin on Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon



Whim Man Mammon, Abraham Smith, Action Books



Whether you do this before, after, or while reading Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon, I ask you to do one thing: listen. Listen to Smith read his words for the sound is musical ( It simultaneously calls to mind Gillian Welch’s Hell Among the Yearlings (“Carol, remember when,”) and the disjointed lyricism of Tom McRae’s self-titled album (“Every little meth”). Smith’s debut book of poetry is a hymn not to be soon forgotten reverberating with voice, words, rhythms, and feeling. Mostly importantly, the Whim Man Mammon poems are stories, histories, and legends, whose malleability allows them to become so much more. 


I finished Smith’s book in one night, pausing only to re-up on cold beer or to smoke a menthol cigarette; I needed cold fuel for the reading.  Whim Man Mammon is a journey where you feel (un)safe in a blanket of sound. I had to listen for Smith’s poems incorporate sound as power:

for rights

to the sweet talker’s scent

me and this hawk knock around

time runs out when I think of

basketball I think of sweat

bong times run



hawk does not (Honey Hawks Knocks Gin Drinks Against Me)

While Smith does not employ traditional form, he does make use of assonance and alliteration, time-honored sound devices that assist the pace of his work. It is pace that is one of the most crucial aspects of Whim Man Mammon for it is a collection that talks, talks loudly and talks back. Smith creates his own language as Whim Man Mammon overflows with bizarre lines and images, such as, though not limited to, “spanish your vein” (18), “to the hill monster” (21), and “I shall shell-weave you” (47). Within the strange boundaries of these pages, the reader begins to speak in this tongue. It grows and it grows on you. While Smith isn’t breaking any new ground form wise, he is exacerbating those fields already tilled by previous poets. Smith’s absence of conventional form, lack of punctuation, and erratic capitalization echo the strains of e. e. cummings (Xiape), who also bucked the school of formalism. Writers with startling ethos most often employ this rite of passage; however, Smith breaks boundaries well in his debut. 


Significance rises up throughout Smith’s collection, but the title of the book holds an essential key in understanding the harmonious reflections as a whole. Having Whim Man Mammon as the title of the collection is quite suggestive. Perhaps the strategic word in the title, ‘mammon,’ will conjure two references, one Biblical and one literary though based on the Biblical. “Mammon” in the New Testament simply means “money” and leads to the more significant allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Milton’s epic, Mammon is the fallen angel who advocates hard work to make Hell more Heaven-like refusing to serve God ever again. Out of all the demons mentioned in Paradise Lost, Mammon seems to be the one most closely related to the common man. It is this connection that speaks most volubly of Smith’s work. Smith’s poems resound with the life of the common man, and they do so without the effort of hesitation.  To read Smith’s work is to transform yourself temporarily into many men: a grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s, a farmer, a meth addict. This, too, highlights the malleability of Smith’s poetry. These polarities of the everyday bring life out of the Wisconsin dust in Whim Man Mammon. Milton’s demonology only fuels that resurrection, and while the uprising is beautifully mastered, it is a revival that dodders on the precipice of noise.


If Smith’s book lacks anything, it is clarity.  Whim Man Mammon is text art, a combine of postmodern fragments with the symmetry of sound bytes. There are moments where one feels unsure of what is happening within a poem or what is happening to yourself as you read. There is some incoherency in, “Yes the / bless the / train eyeballs designed from / glass might be on them and the socket / is rude if exposed so hurry them man / if you will to / japan by way the second fat fish hollow roll” (Smith 36). While this is only an excerpt of the poem, when read in its entirety, I still feel lost and unable to get my bearings. I can deconstruct the said excerpt, say that I believe Smith is referring to the bright headlights of a train, but that is where understanding and coherency ceases for me. Even without a proper understanding of the meaning behind it all, there is always the sound, and the sound is what propels Smith’s collection. So, with sound that moves as Whim Man Mammon does, who needs clarity anyway? You do not have to comprehend fully each line, each fragment to enjoy the work. Truly to dive into Smith’s symphony, you must hear him read or you must read his works aloud. The sounds that drive this collection are, indeed, raw, surprising, and ultimately unforgettable.


It’s appropriate that Action Books published Whim Man Mammon for Smith’s poems are movement. The poems housed in his debut are kinetic:  they are created from energy, and in turn expel energy. To see Abraham Smith read his poetry is to watch a man on fire for the word. His tiny frame shakes and his boots stomp out the rhythm of his past and man’s collective past. When the honey hawks knock him, he’ll knock you by setting words to the natural pulse of beating wings. What Smith provides is a balance, a give and take, and this equilibrium mirrors life on its most fundamental plane: the accuracy of time, the beat of the heart, and the power of breath.