“What’s a good American / boy to do,” asks George Wallace in his new collection of poems Poppin’ Johnny (Three Rooms Press, 2009) “after he’s been / bitten by pandas?” You can smile if you want to. It’s a good question asked by a great poet in a fantastic book that doesn’t attempt to provide any answers, at least not explicitly.
In Poppin’ Johnny, Wallace is quintessentially and unabashedly American, stealing capitals from proper nouns and undressing run-on sentences, bitten by and finally surrendering completely to the magical beast that is poetry. You may recognize some of the players. Tinsel town is here. So are Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and the BQE. Conversations with the nightshift guy and the baseball fanatic turn surreal in stream-of-consciousness list poems. The voice is familiar. The voice is you. No. Wait. It’s not you. It’s someone you know. It’s the voice of a country reinventing itself in a new century while riding the crosstown bus and daydreaming of Magellan.
While there’s a ton of Beat-esque riffing going on here (he’s both a scholar and an adopted child of the generation), there are also poignantly-crafted moments of clarity and wisdom that can only come with years of deep practice, experience, and alert ears. Consider the way Wallace handles an interpersonal relationship in “Before Everything Is Over”:
because i am doomed to live with you even when i am
without you – you with your incomplete shoulders. you
with your rainbow colored lips.
you with your empty hands. your perfumed silence, your
perfect elegance. you, with the sunlight that leaks out of
your darkness and into my world.
The relationship poems in this book are unlike most relationship poems because they seem to be as specific as they are universal, private and public at the same time. They are situated tastefully next to poems (from “The Handwriting On The Wall”) about “the rough and tumble spirit of the American people,” and how that spirit “will carry us through / i can still see the handwriting on the wall.” Wallace transforms the familiar and even, at times, mundane into the realm of the fantastic, reveres the common—which is and has always been, to this reader, the most beautiful part of the American experience.
There was another Long Island poet who wrote about America as if it were the center of the universe, who swam the deep waters of the relationships around him. Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself” that, “if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles,” as if his memorial after death would be the entirety of the land itself. 150 years later, George Wallace closes his song of himself similarly, with one noticeable variation: “if you want to see me / go look up at the air / if you want to see me /go look where the birds go / and the sweet angels migrating.” Look up indeed, America. Everything is going to be okay.