Jesus of Walmart
New York Quarterly Books
Reviewer: George Wallace
One might wonder, given a title like Jesus of Walmart, what kind of admixture of commentary poet Richard Broderick is going to offer concerning the presence of the sacred and the profane in contemporary American society.
What immediately comes to mind is Ginsberg rummaging through a supermarket in California, in search of Whitman and Lorca. Or perhaps alternatively, the kind of smirking patter a blue collar country comic might offer on the American conflation between puerile religiosity and crass consumerism.
In fact, Broderick, with a strong track record in the world of Minnesota poetics, provides neither of these. This is no mere exercise in iconoclasm or a stand-up routine—but a starting point for the exploration of the state of the reverential…where it is to be found and where it has been corrupted by the institutions of men and the realities of existence.
If you’re looking for some kind of miracle in the eggplants, Jesus of Walmart is not the place for you. It’s not in the vegetable aisles Richard Broderick inhabits. A bag of lettuce has the sweat of 12 hours toil and fear of immigration officials wrapped up in every bite. A discount department store offers “everything you want / but nothing you need”; i.e., bobbleheads, beads, and marked down DVDs, “with no purpose at all except gathering dust / or tripping you up.”
Neanderthals stare inwardly, wordlessly acknowledging their doom.
Auto junkyards are testament to the amnesia of our good intentions.
Cities are inhabited by Grendels, devouring each other.
Even Adam and Eve, returning for a nostalgic visit to the Garden of Eden, find the old place a little disappointing. “How much smaller it was than we remembered,” they declare. The caretaker left behind to keep the place up has done a nice job, but they’re a little taken aback that “the olive tree that seemed to touch / The heavens themselves and whose lowest branch / We could not reach when we stretched on tiptoes” is not much more than a shrub in the center of a little clearing.
And yet. A greeter, hired at the local Walmart, is a secret Jesus, beaming in an upbeat, radiant manner at the meek, the damaged, the outcast, and the lost, reminding them of “special savings / they’ll find if only they keep searching.”
Walmart may be a land of sugary cereal and plastic sandals, but with Jesus of Walmart inhabiting the place, it’s
…always open, offering light,
offering the chance that when the price
of going on even another day seems
beyond reach, you’ll find what you’ll need
and it will cost you little, it will cost you
“Just heed my words,” says Jesus of Walmart. “Have a little faith.”
Broderick almost makes you want to. In a number of the poems, we’re offered a tentative sense that it might be possible to heed those words of hope and solace. A rainy day is an opportunity to transcend boredom and become transported with reverie into oneness with the rain. Home is a holy place as expressed in “Sundays Spent Working At Home”—“a book in a bath,” “a glass of wine,” the sound of a “child’s voice in the next room.”
But books left out in the backyard at night can end up swollen with dew in the morning. And houses can be inhabited by the ghosts of fathers in the basements, “bumping their heads on the exposed beams / trying without success to pick up tools.”
In the poem “Stop and Go,” for example, Broderick explores a wistful scenario—a character is caught lingering in an isolated Midwestern crossroads town, where loneliness consumes its residents like a dull ache and their lives are reduced to the ordinary and mundane. As with Pinsky’s Long Branch, places like these move you to tears—through dullness, then through irritation.
There is no curing or salving what’s wrong with small-town life. The only mercy, Broderick suggests, is to move on when the stoplight turns green.
If anything, the poet doubles down on the oppressive silence of these small places. Silos are cleats stuck into the sky to hold a Midwestern town in place. The real harvest is darkness, “another year’s containment.”
To approach a world like this as an outsider is akin to being a refugee, newly arrived in a strange land, and perplexed by the meaning of the chattering he overhears.
Life can be narrow and mundane in Jesus of Walmart, though Broderick longs for more, pleading for an existence as infused with inspiration as a book of Spanish poems.
He tries to take solace in the possibility that nature will fill the empty space we inhabit. Moss is a blessed thing because it “keeps for us, who might otherwise despair / the jewel green promise of our renewal.” Sunflowers are a reminder that it is possible to see the cosmos as a place where “everything is one and yet, like us, infinitely various.”
But even nature carries its tragedies within it. Peonies are taut as cocked guns. Hydrangeas are white-haired ladies, burdened with memories of the dead.
A river recalls the child drowned in it, crops damaged by a hailstorm. “Every river is a reminder…of what has happened / at a distance / in the past / somewhere out of sight,” he writes, “whose heart has thawed // Whose heart remains / locked in winter.”
In the end, Jesus of Walmart is a book of poems locked in a deadly waltz with the materiality of existence. More wistful than sad, more hopeful than joyous, these are poems which, in the aggregate, are more yin-&-yang than utopian, proffering a grudging nod to the duality of things, rather than the ecstatically sacred dance of transcendental bliss some might wish for, especially when faced with vapid materiality such as this.
But as Richard Broderick points out, it’s a dark day that doesn’t brighten past dawn. Take a dreary day, deep in it, as an opportunity, he says, to disappear into its “soft breath (and) quiet voice…(and) palate of subdued colors….”
Have a little faith.