A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
For nearly thirty years, George Wallace has been a mainstay of the New York / Long Island poetry scene. Performer, publisher, and literary activist, he carries on the tradition of Whitman and the Beats, striving heroically to counter the culture’s neglect of poetry. In his best work, pieces such as “Stuck on the BQE Thinking about Jimmy Schuyler” (available on YouTube), he mingles a raconteur’s zest for literary history with observations on life in the Big Apple. Even in his frequent digressions we trust him not only to entertain but to lead us to life-affirming discoveries.
Although his latest book, A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles, abounds in long, enumerative rants a la Sandburg and the Beats, some of its most compelling pieces are straightforwardly narrative. “A la Vecchia Caverna”—a vivid, ambivalent retelling of a boyhood encounter with a pedophile—is a marvel of indirection and restraint. Not until the end are we told what the man is doing with the boy, “his tongue, / waxy, sour, not quite ripe, entering my mouth.” And yet the poem’s insistent repetition of key images—cherries, crayons, the boathouse where they meet—creates suspense and a sense of unease.
Similarly, “My Father’s Felt Fedora” is a teasing vignette of family life, its complexities and mysteries. The narrative itself is spare and allusive; all we are given is the almost surreal image of an older sister wearing her father’s felt fedora and dancing for him with a “glitter bowl” between her knees, the 7-year-old brother an uncomprehending witness to the event:
it was a mystery to me then,
it’s a mystery to me still…
leaning back in his easy chair,
highball in hand, my father’s eyes
would go clear and calm, resolute
Was the father sick? Is the poet hinting at incest between the father and daughter? Neither the poet nor the poem seems to know, yet the poem haunts us with its insistence on “the strange intimacies, the unspoken truths” of family life.
“A Canoe Full of Monkeys,” another of the narrative poems, is more direct but no less effective. The title, a euphemism for teenage sex, captures the poet’s adolescent determination, not lovely, or lyrical, but insistent, to be rid of his innocence. In the course of these few lines the narrator, with the help of a Catholic girl and some Colt .45, goes from wide-eyed innocence to hungover experience. And when he was done, he observes that:
done I was a man I was alone –
and I grabbed a hold of a sumac
bush and puked it all up and swore
a promise not to tell anyone
this story ever and I never have
Notwithstanding his skill with narrative, Wallace is a restless stylist, never content to linger in any one mood or mode. Prose poems vie with long-line fantasias vie with lyrics of tighter prosody. “Mother Earth PMS Space Junk Blues,” for instance, employs a bardic list to produce a dystopian cosmogony:
…She gave birth to
151 houses on stilts, and took them for
walks by the muddy sea, this place
would be better off if flashlights
could fly, said Mother Earth.
Behold, I give you fireflies!
Then she gave birth to a giant
with 1000 eyes. This place
would be better with a little more
mayhem, said Mother Earth.
She was beginning to cheer up.
At times he is a nature poet of great tenderness. In “A Radio Believes It Is Singing This Song” we encounter delicacy of both thought and language:
A river looks up at
the sun – I am fire,
says the river, I am
the mountain in my own
belly, rumbling stone
by miraculous stone
to the sea.
At other times, he approaches the world with invective. In “A National Anthem,” for instance, we sense the ironic bitterness of someone repeatedly disappointed by this great country of ours:
I love you, Dear Agent Provocateur, Purveyor of Heter-
Pour me a drink
I am hooked on you
Here is a poet who, despite or possibly because of his characteristic ebullience, suffers disappointment deeply. The many poems about romantic love chart its harrowing complexities. “Show Me What You Worship,” a stone-age love song to an ill-matched lover, comes with a disclaimer: “I know you see demons where / I see gods, no point arguing / a thing like that….” Whatever we have in common, the poet tells his lover, it’s not values or a belief system. Similarly, “Late Night Ballad for Runaway Lovers” offers a barroom plaint for the desperate and ill-met: “love’s / a pop top interlude / between this and that.”
There is no want of ambition in this poet. Just as Einstein superseded Newton, Wallace seeks to supersede Whitman, creating a Super Self that is more than human, not just American but cosmic. In “Spring Is Hung Up in the Sky,” he proclaims, as Whitman might: “What grows in the chambers of this heart grows in your heart too,” but then enlarges on Whitman: “…who calls me a man doesn’t know the half of it, I am broader than that, my skin is the color of outer space and I am a galactic wind waiting to land.”
Despite many good and interesting poems, A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles doesn’t always show Wallace at his best. Sometimes his title is the best line in a poem. At other times Wallace seems to take Ginsberg’s dictum, “First Thought, Best Thought” too literally, allowing his expansive, associative temperament to lead him astray. Consider these lines from “This is America Waiting for a Ride”:
…kiss ’em like you used
to, with the devil with the shot glass with the billboard
the silver bullet the tin can – kick it down the road
Weighed against the book’s virtues, however, these are minor lapses. Stuck in a traffic jam on the BQE, one would be hard-pressed to find a more agreeable companion than Jimmy Schuyler’s protégé.