George Wallace
A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles

George Wallace, A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles

Reviewed by Carolyn Alifair Skebe

George Wallace’s new collection of poems, A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles, is nothing short of a wild ride through sound and sense. The title A Simple Blues is, however, simply understated, considering Wallace’s widespread use of blues metaphors and rhythms that range from slow, deep Southern blues to upbeat, staccato bebop blues, to improvisational jazz blues, and finally to the off beats of funk. The blues, a black American folk style that expresses the persistent tension of traumatic history, the ribaldry of sexual pleasure, and the politics of social relations, is an exceptional means through which he unfolds the collection, balancing seemingly disparate topics under an umbrella of an intensely ‘bluesy’ feeling. Drawing from his background as a musician, Wallace nimbly uses linguistic and metrical variation to represent, intensify, and to even, make beautiful the deeply troubling and subversive themes of trauma, sexuality, and coming-of-age in gritty, working-class, Northeastern cities. The structural variation generates interest and surprise, lending to, without distracting from the collection’s larger aims.
utilizes the highly wrought staccato, alliterative style of bebop with the lengthy style of Whitman to underscore how a capitalistic and commercialized America consumes its men. Note the piling up of the guttural, Germanic phonemes “g” and “k” repeated across a seemingly never ending iambic line to generate momentum and, at the same time, illustrate the corporality of men’s work in steel factory towns:

O no, o no, o no no no Miss Fourth of July drunk by the campfire…and o her mulish temper and o her talking back, and her racked up men with metallic skin – skinny men, fat men, muscle headed men, gold bond men  – no one could stop her no Grease Gun Jake no Feedbag Joe no coke dust dipstick tin shield sawdust sheriff

Contrastingly, the slow beat and repetitive structure of Southern blues appears in “THIS IS AMERICA WAITING FOR A RIDE.” The poem adheres to a line between 11-14 syllables, reminiscent of the 12-bar blues structure, and uses assonance of “o” and “i” to elongate the meter and effect a dissonant “blue note:”

this is the great road trip the big rodeo and the road
is everything, the great road trip was never meant to
swing this way, too slow, slow like this, like the blues,
like now is the time – the blues in F a simple kind
of tune, ‘til you try to play it at the crossroads of
ecstasy madness and death

Those last lines “at the crossroads of/ ecstasy madness and death” epitomize the collection’s integration of poetic style, which was heavily influenced by American Beat poetry of the 1960s and French Surrealism. Both ecstasy and madness unite their respective impulses to heighten affect through both an experience of – through the use of psychedelics – and representation – in language – of ecstasy, madness, and death. In keeping with blues tradition, the “crossroads” directly references Robert Johnson, arguably the best American blues musician, whom met a tragic, untimely death following the recording of his beautiful, “mad” songs that confront the darkness within.

His appearance, albeit indirectly, suggests a larger aim of the collection: to question the role of the poet in America today. Is the poet a narrator, a musician, a collector? And how can the poet confront the darkness without alienating an audience? As the book segues into poems about childhood trauma and sexuality, the music serves to lighten the content, balancing the tension between the lived experience and the limitations – or possibilities – of language to represent the dark experience. The “tune” – the sound and sense – moves in and through the poet. In the eponymous poem, Johnny Jackson, a folk blues musician, mitigates the “intangibles” through the “simple blues.” He:

…worked that tune,
no more no less than the music of the
universe passing thru that man, from
the gods and for them

In Wallace’s world, the tune is played through the poet: the conduit for the “music of the universe,” the ages, the divine. Within this context, the traumas are one with the poet, the music, and the universe. In “SPRING IS HUNG UP IN THE SKY” the speaker declares, “who calls me a man doesn’t know the half of it, I am broader than that, my skin is the color of outer space and I am a galactic wind waiting to land…I am alien seed my blood flows freely in the tall wet grass of centuries.” The poet participates in the singular “uni” poem “verse” that is all of time flowing through the present in the body.

In this frame, the traumas can be heard, and they ring with ecstasy and incredulity. A molested, seven-year-old boy of “A LA VECCHIA CAVERNA” can speak of his experience with both disgust and a tender astonishment: “he pulled me closer with his bony hands,/ his skin was shoe leather, his lips an ocean/ of mud.” In the same way, the boy describes the intimate relationship between his father and 13-year old sister in “MY FATHER’S FELT FEDORA:”

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

In “BROOKLYN 1956,” the father returns: “And oh yes it’s always poppa how he haunts you, poppa/ with his hands in your face and his drinking habits, poppa/ thru iron bars or sitting in the back of a cop car.” Again the staccato repetition of bebop “k” is simultaneously heard and felt as a the “pop” of a gun or the light lilt of a dance move. In the same poem, the mother is a kind of impotent protector with elongated “o” in the perpetual act of emoting: “Womb of an air raid shelter. Screaming crying momma shouting/ ironing and washing and nothing to show for it and nothing fits.” In “DADDY” the boy imagines his own birth as a bomb “exploding” into his father’s life:

I explode and
explode, in the one
dream you cannot
shake, I mean, the
dream in your belly,
the wormhole in your
heart, I explode like
barbed wire and
butterflies, boom
baby boom

These painful images are mitigated and become beauteous because of the sound of the words chosen. In a contrastive poem, the brash and American working-class father who represents masculinity fraught with alcoholism, violence, and machismo is also a complex, tender, and loving man. In “TRAVELING AS A MAN” the boy reveals his father to be: “The man who raised me up in the naked air like a black cherry flowering in spring, strong legs, compact body, architecture of a man, traveling as a man, the man I learned to measure myself against, measure of all things/ My father, and every horizon I have ever known.”

In growing up, the boy struggles to become the kind of  “man” his father represents. In the poem “A CANOE FULL OF MONKEYS,” seduced by a fifteen year old girl his age to skip the high school dance and hang out behind the Knights of Columbus, he experiences his first sexual encounter with a female. What might have been a celebration of manhood given the context of the previous poems, serves only to reify the boy’s feelings of abandonment and neglect, which he experiences as death:

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 –

These narratives sandwiched between lyrical phantasms can be best understood as emotionally raw, Beat-like ‘telling it like it is’ and surrealistic, image-driven flitting from image to word to line: “a poor choreography/ danced across a map/ of low distinction, it’s a/ bee’s life, ain’t it.” Just as the bee pollinates the vegetation from any setting, be it of low or high distinction – the weeds grown up through the sidewalk cracks of a city street or the lush pastures of the rural landscape – so too, these poems explore the urban grit, the silences, the unspoken traumas – the intangibles – by exposing them and bringing them to flower inside the music of poetry, a language of felt-sense:

It is a new year, I could blossom out from these walls that bind me yet, from this
jazz that holds me in – it is a new year, I am not done yet, I could sing a song, for
anyone who’s sober enough to listen

Like a peach tree blossoms out in winter rain
I could blossom out yet, with your song

Buy this book. It won’t disappoint.

Carolyn Alifair Skebe is a poet and visual artist living in Albany, NY. She is author of three books of poetry: Thin Matter, “Water Is the Blood of the Earth,” and Postcards: Les Lettres d’Amour.  She teaches composition and poetry at the University at Albany.