Barry Wallenstein
The Ridgeway Press

Barry Wallenstein’s At The Surprise Hotel and other poems

Reviewed by Ronnie Norpel

The Ridgeway Press, 2016; 117 pages; $16.95
SBN-13: 978-1564391414, paper
ISBN-10: 1564391418

Barry Wallenstein’s At The Surprise Hotel and other poems is a jazz-inflected collection of character sketches and world-weary experience. Wallenstein’s status as a veteran of the jazz-poetry scene shines through them all.

In “The Sommelier Says,” we are reminded how a glass of “best red” can quell a riot, if only for a moment. In that same vein, Wallenstein’s poems smoothly distract his reader from ever-present day concerns and transport her to the Surprise Hotel for some choice sipping.

The hotel denizens are a colorful pack: the sexy-decrepit mountain climber Francoise, still lost in the clouds of high altitude; Nelly’s guest in Room 508, evincing polite propriety while radiating persistent funk; Lizard Loungers with their “off-season aerial acts;” and the “crafty fellow” from 403 and his “profusion of rats.” The exact location of the Surprise Hotel is indeterminate–which echo-location might remind a hometown New Yorker of the Hotel Chelsea in its heyday, but could just as easily be that crazy pension where you stayed with your caballero in Barcelona that one year. (Barflies will be barflies, and so will some poets.)

The “and other poems” are equally on point and dishy, offering short stories in snapshots. “Street Signs” reminds us to watch where we are going and that we are always being surveilled, yet ends in humor “with a zip in his step and a zap in his pocket that the camera hadn’t caught earlier.” “Love, The Telemarketer and the Janitor” is a perfectly short tale of modern romance gone awry, while Wallenstein’s juxtaposition of “Poetry Writer” and “Poetry Reader” finds us holding hands with Winnie the Pooh and Marianne Moore.

Alas, we are called back to all that trump-petting jazz swirling around us, side-eyeing the epigraph for “Climbing Ambition”: “He knows only the sins of children, of wanting more and to be first.” A Freudian slip turns it into an epitaph. Then there is the final line of “What Was, Was:” “For every *was* in time’s fast memory, an *is* trumps the *was* every time.” The reader ponders “Murder In The Ranks,” and wonders whether, as the poet claims, “the revolution’s caught fire.”

I’ll meet you at the Surprise Hotel for an adult beverage, and we can discuss it across the aisle.

Actress and writer Ronnie Norpel is the host and producer of the eclectic variety show TRACT 187 CULTURE CLATCH, featuring poets, prosers, actors, comedians, singers, tap dancers, hula hoopers, and musicians, gigging bi-monthly on the Upper West Side since Feb. 2011.