Poppin’ Johnny: New American Poems

by George Wallace,
Three Rooms Press, 2009,
116 pages, paperback, $15.00,
ISBN: 978-0-9840700-2-2
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 doesnt 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 ships 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

          gypsy wagon

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