Reading George Wallace’s collection of 48 poems A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles is a kaleidoscopic, whirligig experience. It is a rushing, often breathless torrent of images, allusions, emotions, evocations and even snippets of song lyrics — “it’s all in the game” and “trampled out the vintage” and “up against the wall Motherfucker.”
There is much about this collection that brings to mind the improvisation of energetic, experimental jazz. Maybe those are the “intangibles” of the title. For sure, the poems themselves are far from simple.
At the core of this book seems to be a frenetic effort to live in the face of death. We are, Wallace writes, “a cornfield/of harvestable souls.”
We are the fruit, and we are the pickers. Wallace’s poem “Hauling Peaches to Paradise” concludes this way:
bee’s life, ain’t it, I mean
the price of admission
to an execution in the
park, go ahead keep saying
you’re done if you want but
you’re not — you’re hauling
peaches to paradise, too —
what a joke — all toil in the
This book is filled with mythic figures, such as the woman of “Concrete Jaime” who is so alluring, so yearned for that the speaker of the poem says, “I wanted you so bad I would have cracked my head open on the sidewalk and fed you my eyes.”
There is a mother in “Brooklyn, 1956” who “is crying like a teapot, always crying, crying herself to sleep crying herself awake crying herself into ecstasy and misery and frenzy and relief, over nothing, which is better than this ravioli machine you call a family and Jesus, deader than the dead and something like hell and the overcoat of gloom.”
And a father in “Traveling as a Man,” who is “a Buick of a man” and one who, the speaker says:
…handled me like a farmworker handles peaches in a crate.
Breath like salt, lips sweet as pipestems.
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,…
“Into the sun”
One of the most memorable characters of A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles is “Offroad Fourwheel Busted Up Collarbone Rollbar Miss America” who calls to mind Pecos Bill, John Henry and Paul Bunyan:
And here’s what’s important — she loved herself, her body her muscle her calves her skin her ankle thigh hip-high highheel boots she shuddered and waves like the prairie grass she secretly wanted to be — she loved to be outside herself, she loved and she loved and she needed to be loved.
She may be the embodiment of the United States, this woman who “Leaped out of the darkness & into the sun.”
“This terrible, wonderful enigmatic American song”
Wallace’s collection includes two riffs on the U.S. national anthem. “Allegory Illusion Beauty Fear” begins: “Francis Scott Key waves his beautiful red white and/blue suede shoes…” and concludes: “this terrible, wonderful enigmatic American song.”
In between, there are lines about “men giving birth to tennis courts and mansions and college/dorms, and women giving birth to each other, pressing their heads like flowers into the pages of dictionaries, bibles and fashion magazines…”
The other, called “A National Anthem,” reverberates with some of the same themes and images. It starts: “This is my patch of green…” and includes these lines:
I have eaten napalm from it
and fetched and carried
and been kind to strangers
and got out of jail free
and did not covet my neighbor
and his condominium of wives.
And, near the end of the poem, Wallace writes: “O bowels of earth, o beanfield and immigrant ship, this anthem is for you and this anthem has no memory — I am up against the wall Motherfucker — your cabanas and cops your country clubs and car dealerships your titty bars and strip malls and mighty soul explosions/…I am hooked on you.”
The natural world beckons in these poems as something distant, something yearned for. There is a plaintive quality to “October Runs Like a Be-Bop Shakespeare,” in which Wallace writes:
…let’s go running like be-bop Shakespeare in deep October, naked thru the forest, with hairy armpits and bosoms flying…I want to drink you, sister, drink your eyebrows up, your curly hairs, your ample architecture — I want to taste you brother — devour the sweat and bear fat of your dirt-flecked chest…
And, again, in “Thunder through the Chase,” the speaker finds himself at an art gallery in Pittsburgh, listening to a soccer mom earnestly expound to him and his friend about the Mingo tribe of Native Americans.
And something moves in me like mountains, like spring water, like wind racing through timber, something moves in me like thunder through the chase — the forgotten urge, the lost desire — to run through dimlit cracks of her forest — to cover my chest with sweat and grease — for her, for her — to die for her and bring home wild game
“The forgiveness song”
In A Simple Blues with a Few Intangibles, nervous tension predominates. There is an urgency, perhaps echoing the Gwendolyn Brooks lines: “This is the urgency: Live!/
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.”
These words and thoughts and poems of Wallace are in a whirlwind that doesn’t stop. The poet doesn’t try to pin much down. He’s there to gather, as evidence perhaps, the shards of existence, scattered mishmash like so many pieces of random, incomplete puzzles.
And, amid all of this, there are moments of respite.
In the final poem of the collection, “Like a Peach Tree Blossoming in Winter Rain,” the speaker says he has never regretted
the noise a city makes when it becomes too big….
Or the small noises a city makes, singing to itself at dawn, when no one much is listening, I have never regretted that, the forgiveness song a city sings to itself, more beautiful than the yank of fiddle, than the blown pride of flute or jackhammer
Even in the whirlwind of the city, there is a forgiveness song to be found. And maybe the song not only forgives the city but also the listener.
Halfway through this book is a poem the title of which is another way of describing the whirlwind “Bent Pistons, Kites Flying in the Harmless Wind.” It is mostly about a farm crew working hard to harvest — or is it to plant? — peas between rows of corn under the watchful eye of the crew chief.
And, amid all the work and movement and garbage and bees and wasps of the landscape, there is
a young boy dozing in the tall sunlight, dozing in the tall grass, all uncut, all his shirt buttons undone.
Yes, we are “harvestable souls,” but, in this life, we can find moment to “doze in the tall sunlight.”
Patrick T. Reardon