Poetry Review: John Mulrooney’s “Spooky Action” — The Primal Playfulness of Existence

By Michael Londra

Spooky Action succeeds at its ‘unreasonable’ mission — to supply poetry that sears the mind, charms the heart, and uplifts the spirit.

Spooky Action by John Mulrooney. Dos Madres Press Inc, 103 pages, $20.

Spooky Action, John Mulrooney’s latest book of poetry, contains his finest verse to date. And that makes this volume a considerable cause for celebration. The title refers to Albert Einstein’s infamous 1935 attempt to discredit quantum theory, concepts which contradicted his belief that the universe is nothing if not rational — “God doesn’t play dice.” For Einstein, quantum entanglement was “spooky action at a distance.” The idea pivoted on a paradoxical assertion: paired quanta, such as two electrons, could be inextricably linked together over millions of light years. Thus if something happens to change the spin rate of one, the other electron would instantly adjust — “spookily,” as if via telepathy. Today, science has established this as a verified fact. Perhaps — if Einstein had read more poetry? — he might have been more open to the primal playfulness of existence. In these pages, Mulrooney suggests that the universe works like a poem — counterintuitively, enigmatically, beautifully. Spooky Action supplies abundant proof.

“New Year’s Eve, Gloucester Harbor” kicks the collection off, transporting us to Cape Ann, where “break lights like cigarette ash/ hover in the grimy thaw.” It is an opportunity for taking stock, remembering that “once there was a god in everything,” but with the coming of “revelations…at the drawbridge,” all that remains is intense yearning, an echo inside the poet’s mind making “a sound like lost luggage” that “tells you to scratch your phantom limb/ and you do.” Memory becomes our “spooky” limb, a ghostly presence of “strange angels” around us, too much to bear: “we balk we blink we turn away.” Mulrooney then shifts outward to link this internal meditation to a larger political context. He takes compressed note of the perils of climate change in two haunting lines that capture where we are and where we might end up: “in fire we are lost and in fire found.”

In “Cantata for Mitrovica Stars,” Mulrooney further elaborates on his political frustrations via a fanciful scenario. The once implacably hostile combatants in Homer’s Iliad have grown indifferent to each other. This meltdown serves as a metaphor for the upside-down absurdity of our current historical moment. Given what is currently at stake in our troubled American democracy, the Trojan War was small potatoes:

If history

has taught us anything

pseudonyms are truer names

than those given by invented

saints and fallen heroes…


Achilles bums a smoke

from Hector and shuffles.


Also in the ideological vein: “Wallahi le Zein” could serve as a caveat to the upcoming presidential debates:

             my demon lover is a photon

rising from Zuccotti Park—I heart the republic

of the burning libraries of the sky

Mulrooney is just as handy at spinning metaphysical riffs, which can erupt unexpectedly, teasingly, as in these lines, a melodic variation on human emptiness:

the void that is or is not

a void that is the nothing

or the something that is worse

than nothing.


Mulrooney is a serious, at times earnest, poet, but he can also be hilariously funny. In “After Ange Mlinko,” Mulrooney supplies a number of pleasurable punchlines: “so many things Mao said/ Martha Stuart said better.” Some of the amusement comes from how dexterously he juggles pop and high culture namechecks. Amy Winehouse and Eusebius effortlessly rub shoulders on the same stage with The Ramones, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hüsker Dü, Paul Klee, Ornette Coleman, and Taylor Swift, along with an infamous character from a renowned ancient Greek mini-series. “Oedipus Rex at Sheepshead Bay” offers the whole satiric shebang: celebrated director, modern art hero, old time movie star: “Ken Burns might be asked to make a documentary…that day when Bill and Jim went to see the Giacometti sculptures in Manhattan…a photograph…on the second floor landing…(was) a man in a suit Clark Gable would have worn.”

For Mulrooney, topography serves as a kind of moral geography. Atocha in Madrid, the Staten Island Ferry, even the now vanished former Manhattan institution Gem Spa — these are more than addresses. They are sacred places ripe for inspiration, like Tintern Abbey was for William Wordsworth:

Cambridge is a low and pointy city,

Boston always waiting for its bulge to be noticed

New York a cabala of shifting translations

that I enter

my eyes new


The poet confronts his anxieties in “Cantata for Mitrovica Stars.” Comparing himself to a leaf, he converts his existential disquiet into a futile gesture of resistance worthy of Samuel Beckett.

a leaf folding

             in on itself

is a private mutiny.


“Rustcraft Road Revisited” elaborates on this same pyrrhic determination: “our names a rusted crosscut saw/ our lives the cleaver that teaches us to cling.”

“Entanglement at Solstice” is Spooky Action’s centerpiece, a Cadillac of a poem. A plea for hope, its recurring references explore transcendence through the values of interconnectedness:

Coltrane loomed

and lashed from

the speakers in

the apartment where

the print of Girl before

Her mirror hung

in this city

the chess masters

pack up the plastic



their movement


their action spooky

the girl with

the Girl before

her Mirror on

her shirt


in the parting light

the particles of

which are like

so much of

your own life.


Along with media celebrities and highbrow artists, places and philosophy, absurdity and science, these pages fizz with homages to such interesting folk as poet Fanny Howe and international peace activist Padraig O’Malley. Paying tribute generates considerable passion, such the emotion in these stanzas from “On Amtrak, After Hearing Gerrit is Gone:”

You lie in state at Stage Fort Park—

your voice the milk of stars

a passage opening in the thicket—

the earth’s mouth a door to the infinite—

the route, the way,

the map of the way.


Spooky Action succeeds at its ‘unreasonable’ mission — to supply poetry that sears the mind, charms the heart, and uplifts the spirit.

Michael Londra writes poetry, fiction, and criticism. His work has been published in The Fortnightly Review, The Blue Mountain Review, spoKe, Boog City, and will be included in New Studies in Delmore Schwartz, edited by Ben Mazer, forthcoming from MadHat Press. He lives in Manhattan

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