Review by Roy Robins
by Barry Wallenstein
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10113
2012, 221pp., $18.95
Drastic Dislocations is a selection of poetry from Barry Wallenstein’s six previous collections–from Beast is a Wolf with Brown Fire (1977) to Tony’s World (2009)–and includes more than sixty new poems. The selection is a shrewd one, exhibiting the poet’s peculiarly skewed and entirely unpredictable vision of contemporary life.
From poem to poem, stanza to stanza, Wallenstein’s tone shifts smoothly from robust to restrained, jubilant to jaundiced. He is a master of the almost invisible transition, the seemingly effortless metamorphosis of meaning and mood. He writes as vividly about the simple splendor of a summer day as he does when evoking what Delmore Schwartz described as “the famous unfathomable abyss.”
If existence is an abyss, it can best be fathomed, for Wallenstein, with family, good company, sensual experience, and, of course, the poet’s beloved jazz. (Many of these poems have been performed publicly, with live jazz accompaniment.) With its elastic inflections, Wallenstein’s verse is full of grace notes and blue streaks and surprising sideways turns into dreams of despair and cold-eyed self-assessment. He portrays pain authentically–which is to say, painfully–but also writes movingly about that most artistically unfashionable entity: human happiness.
Many of the poems in this volume are affirmative, full of an optimism that feels equal-parts European and American, simultaneously measured and carefree, open to every sensation, made buoyant by the bliss of infinite possibility. Whereas in his early work, one gets a sense of a poet who does not love quite enough, in his most recent verse Wallenstein seems to possess within him inexhaustible affection.
He writes most tenderly about his family. “Ballad,” a conversation between the poet and his deceased mother, is especially accomplished:
What are you doing my darling son?
I’m sitting in this boat, dear mother.
And where is your boat my son, pray tell?
At sea in the distance, my mother.
The poem, with its melancholic reverie, its intermingling of past and present, child and adult, question and answer, memory and dream, is simple and savagely stirring. The nursery-rhyme form carries the reader a long way, but the underlying sense of loss and anguish takes one further still.
A similar sequence in “Tony to His Mother” includes this invocation:
Mother, if you can see me,
imagine a well-carpeted iceberg,
thick enough for an eight day week.
And I’m alone on it
in a very comfortable chair –
a Morris design.
And we’re drifting out to sea,
the berg, its luxuries and me.
This stanza makes apparent many of Wallenstein’s skills: a commanding, unforced, authentic voice; a sharp wit and unexpected turn of phrase; a strange blend of boisterousness and resignation; the gentle, even restrained, specter of sadness; the almost reflexive movement between the abstract and the exact.
“Father at 85” is equally poignant and probing. The poem’s final line–“He still wants more.”– registers like a jolt of electricity. It is as powerful a refrain as Philip Levine’s “You can have it” or Frost’s “Provide, provide!” or the words that close out Delmore Schwartz’s “America, America!”: “More: more and more: always more.”
It seems fitting to follow Wallenstein’s family, his children, their history, from inception to adulthood, through the inter-leading rooms that form the house of this book. Here is Wallenstein in “Four Weeks to Birth”:
Our genes are hiding in the belly of a fish
in the skin of a belly
in the belly of a fish
micro-hints of dancing ghosts.
In “Jessie Beforehand,” he describes his daughter’s fetus, which “swims in the famous lucidity / of mother’s love and our confusion.”
Wallenstein’s verse veers, too, between admirable lucidity and not always artful confusion. There are times–most frequently in Tony’s World–where he exhibits a tendency toward unnecessary abstraction. In these instances, his jazz métier begins to feel less like an asset and more like camouflage for cryptic sentiment. But it is possible to be both jazzy and precise, both cryptic and exacting.
The titular protagonist of Tony’s World is an elusive alter ego, reminiscent of the Henry of John Berryman’s The Dream Songs. Tony is part hipster, part hustler, part self-hater, part self-infatuater, part cynic, part romantic. He is wholly compelling and his voice comes alive on the page. At once urban prophet and holy fool, Tony is deliciously defiant and defiantly himself–he is Wallenstein’s most memorable lyrical conceit.
Wallenstein shares some of Berryman’s gifts: the structural formality counterbalanced with a conscious restlessness; the manner in which daily experience is refracted through a lens of absurdity and intemperance; the relentless pathos; the tempering of idleness and self-indulgence with something close to existential panic; the inspired zigs and zags; the peremptory serve-and-return delivery of set-ups and punchlines. Here, for example, is Berryman in The Dream Songs:
Henry rested, possessed of many pills
& gin & whiskey. He put up his feet
& switched on Schubert.
His tranquility lasted five minutes.
And here is Wallenstein in Tony’s World:
Tony reads the news
smokes a joint
bites his lip, spins
and goes out to see the stylist
to have his hair turned red.
Perhaps surprisingly for a poet who has spent most of his life in Manhattan, some of the finest poems in Drastic Dislocations concentrate on the country rather than the city. Wallenstein rarely romanticizes nature, nor does he attempt to desensitize or demolish it. He is attentive in an unpretentious manner, aspiring toward understated Impressionism and gentle self-expression. The marvellously meditative early poem, “A House in the Mountains,” celebrates simple pleasure and a lovely calm, as its speaker spends hours “watching a valley / move through color and into the dark.” The naturalism in later poems is poised between classical evocation and a mordant, modern wit.
Elsewhere in the collection, Wallenstein frames his verse within the Brownean dramatic monologue, subverts fairy tales and simple rhyme, and re-makes myth. He excels at interrogating the intersection between the earthly and the outward-bound. Memorable poems include the wonderfully wild “Roller Coaster Kid,” and “A Turn of Events,” which feels like Robert Frost by way of Sam Peckinpah.
Wallenstein writes candidly about “the gathering grace of–going on.” Whereas many poets become weary with age, Wallenstein appears to feel both freed up and fired up, experimenting with form and unafraid to explore life’s pleasures and perils. His best poems are powered by an incantatory groove, amplified by conceits that are as poignant as they are witty and deft. Drastic Dislocations demonstrates the consistently high standard of his work these past thirty-five years.
Whether one is a longtime admirer or engaging with Wallenstein’s verse for the first time, this is a vibrant and valuable volume.
Roy Robins was formerly the online and associate editor of Granta magazine. Prior to that, he edited New Contrast, South Africa’s oldest literary journal. He holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Cape Town..