A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles
by George Wallace – Review

George Wallace is a PostBeat poet.  

A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles by George Wallace

As defined by the ground-breaking Whitney Museum show of 1995, the era of 1950 to 1965 can be considered to be the time brackets of realized Beat art, literature and film.    In spite of the “Beat is an on-going state of mind” viewpoint,  PostBeat, already absorbed into the lexicon, means simply “those who follow influenced by Beat methods of composition.” 

Wallace seems most influenced by Jack Keroauc and Charles Bukowski (the latter often included in Beat anthologies, but more coterminous than an easy fit) with their occasional surrealism filtered through Bob Dylan.  But he also shares with their work the reporting of images in an Objectivist way (as derived from William Carlos Williams).  This is especially strong in my favorite poems in this collection, where Wallace’s memories are “self-selecting vividness,” to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg.

A LA VECCHIA CAVERNA

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, he was old,
old as the river, a mud track led down to it,
sunlight shouldered thru a tulip tree – he smoked
cigarettes, rolled them himself, I didn’t know that then,
this is a hollow for bears he said, he leaned close,
put his hand over my mouth – all that summer I bit
the heads off crayons and wore a coonskin cap,
he smelled like river water and cigarettes, see
this tree,
he said, I cut it with a knife, a mule
was pissing in the field, I needed to piss too,
he pulled me closer with his bony hands,
his skin was shoe leather, his lips an ocean
of mud – he took me to the boathouse many
times that summer, told me to call him uncle,
and he brought me cherries, waxy, sour cherries,
plucked them from a tree, he said, not quite ripe,
life’s a bowl of cherries, he said – cherries normally
grew so sweet down by the river – I bit the heads
off crayons and cursed him, and kept coming back
for more – the cherries ripened, the boathouse
was painted red and white, his nails and teeth
cut me like a knife – to this day I cannot eat a cherry
or open a new box of crayons for my son, without
imagining old men speaking Italian, or his tongue,
waxy, sour, not quite ripe, entering my mouth

This a brave and accurate account of pre-pubusecent mind, with its mix of purity, the forbidden and the attentions of the loving predator in all its confusions.  Such unformed empathic feelings are further explored with this next poem.

MY FATHER’S FELT FEDORA

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, she knew that it
came down to this, what it
takes to make night go easy
for a man who, all he wanted
was to take refuge in the ashes
which grow like death from
the end of a cigar, she exacted
some kind of joy I suppose
out of distracting him from
the unfortunate certainties,
it was a mystery to me then,
it’s a mystery to me still,
I was all of seven, she was
incomprehensibly thirteen,
leaning back in his easy chair,
highball in hand, my father’s eyes
would go clear and calm, resolute,
once again an incorruptible, stainless
steel kind of a man, the kind they
advertise on TV, I tell you, I’ll never
understand it, my sister dancing rings
around his chair, flirting with the edge
of the carpet, him laughing and clapping
his hands, it was their secret, she was six
years older than me, very wise, very wise –
a lot of things from those days are a mystery,
the strange intimacies, the unspoken truths,
even now it makes me slightly ill to see a woman
in a felt fedora, or think about the two of us,
camped til dusk by the rainy window,
waiting for his car to pull up

Again, to stay present with this uncomfortable vulnerability is amazingly striking, that very weird awakening knowledge that there is something sexual going on in his own body, his sister’s body and his father’s body, at once innocent and secret beyond comprehension, probably dirty, the gestalt of sex that permeates everything, like a real memory of what Freud called “the polymorphously perverse” where the entire body/world is erogenous before puberty, (though perhaps an Edenic state as Neo-Freudian Norman O. Brown later qualified).

Finally this is brought into the light with Wallace’s sexual initiation. 

A CANOE FULL OF MONKEYS

Instead of going to the dance
we fucked behind the Knights
of Columbus where they have
since built condominiums I was
15 she said let’s not go in just
yet, how she knew this spot
on the side of the hill she
never explained, the Colt .45
was her idea too her cousin
worked in the deli and he got us
some I couldn’t open mine so
she bopped it on the side of
a rock and handed it to me,
catholic girls have all the right
moves and also freckles and lots
of hair she didn’t smile or
look up she just took a swig
and I took a swig it was dull
and flat I never tasted beer before
it was like a Saint Christopher medal
in my mouth I drank down two
she drank four and then her face
was in mine it was like an orange
jack o lantern her tongue fat and
bumptious searched for mine
and found it and she put my hand
under her skirt and said here you
go, a canoe full of monkeys –
I remember pebbles stuck to
my knee and where was my socks
and then it was over before I knew
what hit me and she pushed me away
wiped her ass on an old log and
left me there for dead – it was
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
I am true to my promises

It is interesting that as memories become more “adult,” this will be the last of the more overtly Objectivist accounts.  Instead, poems about women in maturity turn metaphorical.

 

I WAS ON FIRE WHEN I GOT HERE

…your mouth a precarious childhood in gym tights and
high expectations, frozen in the lights, ignoring rules
and ranks, societies, procedures, unyielding to anyone,
your hips unsteady as an immigrant ship, towards me,
towards me! A tugboat cruised New York Harbor, Charlie
Chaplin about to make the same mistake, conqueror, conquered,
fallen, your silkbright eyes, your fingertips and fatal glances,
at me, at me…
 

Wallace also uses the time-honored form of the rant, like this next one.

ALLEGORY ILLUSION BEAUTY FEAR

Francis Scott Key waves his beautiful red white and
blue suede shoes – it’s an American flag, Baltimore’s
got a shiner, o beautiful for spacious skies, o what
a morning a continent wide, burning with stars and
money and plenty of juice for grandpa and gunpowder,
got to keep the poor folk down, a single jaundiced
eye surveys the dawn, Atlantic, Pacific, there is no
other ocean for us, no other word for it, surrender
Dorothy, this is your captain speaking Paul Bunyan
takes an axe and crushes the surface of Lake Erie in
the morning, water rises up iridescent as mallard wings,
there’s an unqualified squabble from here to heaven,
in Denver, in Albuquerque, o freedomland o look what
we done to you babe, I didn’t mean to hurt you honey,
o lookie look look, look me straight in the eye, tell me
you don’t know how much I love you and Walt Whitman
lay down your mighty pen…
 

One can easily imagine this poem, when read aloud, being a crowd pleaser.  For me, this is the weakest of the styles that Wallace uses, because that sort of audience feedback can be seductive.  Wallace loses his ground in the rants because their spontaneity is no longer anchored in with the images of his direct experience.  It’s a much harder form to pull off well.  It is why Ginsberg’s “Howl” succeeds and its lesser imitations do not. 

Likewise, Wallace’s enthusiasm for Beat, bebop and blues sometimes turns fan-based.  Phrases like “beat hobo” or a title like WE BURNED OUR WAY TO NOWHERESVILLE are probably good to avoid. 

Still, the best work of Wallace in this chapbook is first rate, haunting, precise and fearlessly unarmored.  I’d rather end with his words than mine.

 

A RADIO BELIEVES IT IS SINGING THIS SONG

…Mira! says the river –
Mother, look at me!
But the rain has no eyes
 

A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles
by George Wallace
Foothills Publishing
$16.00
review by Marc Olmsted