Poppin’ Johnny: New American Poems
by George Wallace,
Three Rooms Press, 2009,
116 pages, paperback, $15.00,
Buy the Book
I’ve often thought of George Wallace as a sort of psychic channeler, so thoroughly does he inhabit the zeitgeist of this age. Fittingly for a poet well – steeped in Walt Whitman, Wallace writes in the voices of multitudes, a sometimes – risky choice, but one Wallace pulls off with credibility and near – perfect pitch. His characters are not caricatures. Though at times broadly drawn, the people who inhabit these poems are accorded respect, even reverence, by a poet whose clear sight is balanced with a deep compassion for the factory worker, the deli clerk, the bartender; for Sally:
waiting for the number eleven downtown which will take
her from that waitress job which even with tips and
kissing ass it doesn’t cover the cost of rent gas groceries
and electric not to mention a babysitter.
Wallace is not and never has been a “political poet” in the naysaying, finger – wagging, sense of the phrase; neither is he a purveyor of the tiresomely introspective, unstructured work incomprehensible to any but the cognoscenti. He is, in the spirit of Whitman, the quintessential populist troubadour; a culturally rich historical context pervades his poems; a seemingly organic understanding of the times, the times of our parents and grandparents.
This poetry flowers forth from the real world, though sometimes the “flowers” are scraps of trash blowing along in the exhaust fumes and gutters of a down – and – out city street. You can almost hear Tom Waits or even Frank Sinatra as a ghostly accompaniment behind these lines:
This is for the guy on nightshift who never knew
a minute of financial peace just a working stiff
sweeping it all up gum sticks candy wrappers
and white plastic knives sweeping it all up in
the rich american night penniless as the day
he was born smoking too many cigarettes.
With his audacious take on American mythology and the overflowing abundance of his painterly imagination, in his poem “That’s You, Man” Wallace re – contexutalizes characters from American popular culture in the jazziest of recitations:
see that kid staring into the midway lights?
see that farm boy hopping off the greyhound? you! you
you you! you are sexy as a stick of dynamite you are
tasty as a ballpark wiener you got plenty of mustard on
you. you are stronger than demolition dust you are
happiest when closed before striking you are horniest
when your lungs fill up with high grade petroleum
Wallace writes a hell of a love poem, too — his work can be dizzyingly erotic:
i loved you once like a fisherman on the edge of
a river, with his fingers to his lips, tasting the
morning air for salmon. i loved you like man
on a horse entering an undisturbed cove. like a
whaler in his scrimshaw dream of hearts and
flowers. like a ship’s mate who catches first
sight of land.
Wallace’s “New World Love Song” echoes the Song of Songs, with a little Pablo Neruda swirled in:
i am breaking bread with the angels
i am walking in the promised
land and o my love she is
a grove of almond trees
she is exotic she
climbs like a
Aptly subtitled, these poems are “new” — so fresh, you can smell the rich, complex soil clinging to their roots — American soil, indeed. Highly recommended.
— Nancy A. Henry