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A SIMPLE BLUES WITH A FEW INTANGIBLES, by George Wallace
(Foothills publishing, 2016) 

Reviewer: CL Bledsoe

 

Wallace’s thirtieth collection opens with “This Is America Waiting for a Ride,” a rollicking call to arms that establishes many of the themes explored throughout the collection, such as the romantic ideals of freedom and blues. He refers to “the great road trip” as an escape from a drab existence, and says “the road is everything.” He explains the malaise he hopes to escape: “the great roadtrip was never meant to/swing this way, too slow”. Wallace’s narrator feels that he no longer fits in to his life:

… Camus watching with
his hat on tight, Camus watching and time on his hands,
hands dipped deep in the blue ink and whistling like
time is a bebop straitjacket.

In “October Runs Like a Be-Bop Shakespeare,” Wallace continues this theme of dissatisfaction. He states, “… autumn doesn't do it like it used to I need to go up country, pop wilderness into my mouth.”

“I Was On Fire When I Got Here” is a self-portrait in road dust and world-weariness. It begins:

I was on fire when I got here, from the inside out, 
from the bottom of my heart, my heart busy dying
the slow death of a hundred years, my heart beating
like a bonfire, beat hobo lying dead in the burning
bushes …

As the poem progresses, it shifts to a love poem, addressing a woman and describes how he finds her attractive: “your strange/wrists, the elegant nape of your neck,” and later, “a bee tattoo/nestled in the wisps of your elegant turned up hair, the/pure elegance, pure elegance. I was on fire when I saw you, /the curve of your mouth.” As with many of Wallace’s poems, the ending explodes the scene as the reader is given the scene, “I was on fire when I saw you, your husband’s/angry expression, the hostess and her frozen smile, from/the bottom of my heart, from the moment I saw you.”

Not all of Wallace’s poems are focused on these Bohemian ideals, though. “A La Veccia Caverna” begins as reminiscence from the poet’s youth:

They spoke Italian down by the boathouse,
When I was little I mean, a la vecchia caverna
said the old man, he picked me up, he put me
on his lap, barn swallows darted here and there,
a crow sat under the old black sun …

Wallace populates the poem with vivid images, such as, “all that summer I bit/the heads off crayons and wore a coonskin cap”. But troubling images creep in, “I bit the heads/off crayons and cursed him, and kept coming back/for more” until the poem ends with a shotgun-blast revelation of abuse. “My Father’s Felt Fedora” begins with the narrator’s sister dancing for her father’s attention:

I am trying to explain things
I will never understand, for
example my sister by lamp-
light, waltzing with a glitter-
bowl between her knees, my
father’s felt fedora tilted on
her head …

Wallace describes his father as troubled, focused on “unfortunate certainties,” and the girl trying to distract him is a redemptive image. The poem ends with the image of the two children waiting for their father to return home, watching out the window.

It’s a difficult childhood, Wallace describes, in “Brooklyn, 1956,” “And momma is crying like a teapot, always crying –/crying herself to sleep crying herself awake crying/herself into ecstasy and misery and frenzy and relief, /over nothing”. I found these portraits of Wallace’s childhood to be the most compelling poems in the book. He avoids easy conclusions and presents complex situations clearly with interesting language.

“Traveling As a Man” joins the road-as-destination theme and Wallace’s focus on his father, “this was my father, a Buick of a man who never hurt another man without a good reason, voice like a wheel barrow, heart that needed filling up…”. It’s a beautiful poem, made more powerful by Wallace’s struggle to express his love, “sometimes I’m tongue tied when I try to talk about the whites of his eyes, how he handled me like a farmworker handles peaches in a crate,

Breath like salt, lips sweet as pipestems.”

Wallace’s focus on his father is telling. Much of the book explores the idea of escape from a world the narrator doesn’t fit in with. His father, then, is the person who should’ve shown Wallace how to fit in to that world. Instead, Wallace got an example of quiet desperation, a man sacrificing his own wants and needs for the sake of his family. Wallace, now an adult, struggles with that same gender role. He was taught to work a factory job, support his family, and feel only limited emotions like anger. It’s only when he is free from the capitalistic constraints of society, i.e. on the road, that he truly blossoms into a way of living that allows him to grow and feel, to experience and appreciate beauty. The book closes with the poem, “Like a Peach Tree Blossoming In Winter Rain,” which is a love song to “the city.” Here, Wallace is trying to find beauty in the noises the city makes “singing to itself at dawn, when no one much is listening”. Finding the beauty in noises many would consider annoyances—and finding the beauty in his own troubled childhood—shows Wallace coming to terms with the world he was taught to see and the world he would like to see. He closes the book with these lines, “Like a peach tree blossoms out in winter rain/I could blossom out yet, with your song."