wallacecoverGeorge Wallace
One Hundred Years Among the Daisies
Stubborn Mule Press

Reviewer: David E. Poston

One Hundred Years Among the Daisies is a 138-page incantation. I read much of it aloud, pulled along by its “voluptuous doxologies,” by the sheer hypnotism of the phrases and endless sweep of the lines. Alternately consoling and challenging, lyrical and gritty, it is marked by a fluid and supple disregard for the conventions of capitalization or punctuation. These poems are exuberant, unabashedly in love with the world and words, in keeping with the poetic tradition in which they are grounded: Pessoa, Ginsberg and Snyder, Pablo de Rokha, Frank O’Hara, Antonio Machado, and, most of all, Walt Whitman. Echoes of Whitman can be heard throughout, as in the ending lines of “Lavendar Tee and dogtag chain”:

I fly away and i return, the mist of the worldsoul is my
spring and my mist, and spring returns, and i return.

Life’s no ending, winter holds no dominion, resurrection is
a gift to the young and of them, christ keep singing to me.

“Any act of love or human charity can bring the walls of a city tumbling down,” Wallace writes in “We are bigger than flowers”; and the sheer audacity of those lines reminds me of Ferlinghetti’s famous description of poets as “constantly risking absurdity.”

That over-the-top audacity is endearing rather than off-putting, even when he spins out phrases simply because he is in love with the sound of his words, when he “shovels shit like Dr. Seuss in kindergarten…” (“America the beautiful”). In the poem “Cendrars’ monkey,” he manages to meld echoes of Dylan Thomas, Dr. Seuss, and Jefferson Airplane in the space of three lines.

Much of these poems’ incantatory power lies in the use of repetition, both of phrases in individual poems and of images—most notably of birds and flight— throughout the volume. Within poems, the repetition of key phrases and, often, the recurrence of titles in the ending lines of poems help bring dramatic closure. “If rocks were huckleberries and every oak leaf a message from god” is a good example:

If I had a deep front porch and straight back chair, and
a watchful dog to sit with me and interpret the meaning
of storm clouds brewing; and a wife who loved me back,
and woke with me up like birds wake me in the morning;
and a grandchild learning the alphabet on the floor; you
might never hear from me again.

Characters and landscapes recur as well, particularly the Balkan peninsula. Coretas, the shepherd boy who discovered the Delphic oracle, Orpheus, and—in several poems—Jason and Medea all figure prominently. Albania and its national hero Gyorgy Kastriotis are celebrated. We find King Nebuchadnezzar turned into a beast of the field, Lazarus, and Baba Yaga with her chicken-legged cottage. The poems also celebrate humbler characters: olive pickers, bartenders, campesinos, the poet’s Russian grandmother. The best poems here sing mightily, such as “Good morning rainbird with ocean in your wings,” which sweeps across the Pacific from the Mekong to Big Sur, through time from Cortez to Teddy Roosevelt to My Lai.

When Wallace raises his voice in protest, it is equally powerful, as in the poem “Ass forward thru oceans”:

Who in the alley? blood. Who in the church aisle: blood.
Who in the workboot the hymnal the corral? Who in the
vestry who in the grave, who in the bunkhouse in the
last lost Las Vegas gambling den?

And standing naked and proud on the human trafficking
auction block, who?

In “He remembers the sun, the only light he sees,” we find these powerful lines:

And of course the injustice, there is always the injustice,
anyone can smell it, any man who is a man can taste
it and it cannot be tolerated or spit out, injustice over
tabletops, injustice across valleys, injustice over the
hearts of men and the astonished bodies of women

And revolution is a seamstress stitching men together …

In a series of love poems early in the volume, such as “To take you up whole, to drink you up whole,” Wallace is not afraid to risk sentimentality:

But I loved you long and love you still, at your work, in your
sleep, deep in your cup of womanhood, solitude and regret,
though I have reached for you my whole life, like a monk with
his lonely chalice of symbols and dreams

There is an almost film noir quality to poems such as “The crease in his smile that ran straight through her heart”:

… her world was transformed she could hear her
heart beating above the whisper of the hydroelectric dam
down at the lake, above the patriotic music on the radio
set, it was all jackhammers of desire and static, static,
static and okay, and he was crazy as ahab and thick as
hemingway, he was a missing shoe in search of its mate,
but it felt honest lying next to him …

Wallace pays homage to Vincent Van Gogh in a series of ekphrastic poems. While the poems beautifully render details of the paintings that inspired them, it is the lines which Wallace has taken from Van Gogh’s letters that bring the artist’s complex genius to life. “Terribly alone, forever young,” for example, adapts a line from Sainte-Beuve to illuminate the tragedy of Van Gogh’s suicide: “… 37 or a hundred, a man in whom the poet will not die is young forever.”

These lines from “A Persian Rose” might serve well to describe both Wallace and his poetry:

And I am a man, I take a stylus in my hand and press these
words into my flesh, and my flesh is soft clay and i am a
poacher on the endless plains, I am my own pastorale,
composed entirely of bone and flesh and in the idyllic mode,
song of a man who composes freely, blue as an opioid, and
this is a script of nails, a man etching heaven in a song …

The last two poems provide a coda for the collection. “Emenescu’s Waves” reprises the book’s depictions of the simple, timeless, and beautiful cycles of human existence and the world. The Russian grandmother (from the earlier poem “The dancing cottage”) reappears:

A woman of luck, a woman of hope and stubbornness,
strong of hip and endless carriage, impossibly strong,
who might have danced in palaces but she was of the
peasant kind, a woman who lives on in your own quick eye
and the quicker steps of our own children as they walk
out with us through snowy fields and out along the open
shoreline, who walk as i walk, with my collar up …

That poem ends with the benediction, “There is no death at all, all is well, take my hand.” The final poem in the collection, “For this my heart, the revolution,” ends with

I prepare myself for this
For love, for death – for this
My heart the revolution

Those short lines bring the book to a close, and what a long, strange, stirring trip it has been.