You Can't Be Serious. Ronald Wallace. Parallel Press. University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries. Madison, Wisconsin. 2015.
When I first read You Can't Be Serious back in December I avoided reading the Author's Note at the beginning of the book. When I'm reading for the blog I always avoid introductions, notes or any other sort of preamble to the poems. Today's book of poetry is never looking for prior context. (Of course we always read these notes afterward).
So, I liked these poems a lot before I realized that the poems in You Can't Be Serious are all constructed in such a way that "the last words of each line of each poem, read vertically top to bottom, form a haiku by a classic Japanese master."
It's brilliant stuff.
When I read You Can't Be Serious again last night it was like each poem was a main course, the haiku an illuminating dessert. This is the cue for Wallace to take a big bow.
The Wisdom of the Old
I thought when I got old that I'd be wise. Wearing
my vast learning lightly I'd find myself a
source of wisdom for others. If you looked in the paper,
you'd find me quoted on most any subject, the robe
of knowledge trailing from my shoulders. Even
my enemies would marvel at my sagacity. If
you had an insoluble problem, I'd solve it. It
would be a no-brainer. I'd be the sage who gets
to explain everything. Turns out, I was all wet.
The older I get the less I know. Here I am picking
through the alleyways of my memory looking for flowers
and finding only trash, a panhandler who, in
better days, had what passed for a brain, but now is the
wacky preacher who won't come in out of the rain.
Ronald Wallace is a "Wascally Wabbit" by every stretch of the imagination and as coy as he is clever. These poems roll off the tongue like you'd written them yourself, they go down as naturally as a drink of water. These poems are ripe with moments that are familiar to us all.
Our morning read was a scream. Milo, our head tech, read the poems and the Kathryn, our new intern, read the haiku. The rest of us leisured at their feet as though we were in front of a warming fire in the hearth on a snowy night. It was morning bliss.
You Can't Be Serious
A writer who can deal with murder, barbarity, horror--with
"tragic elements"--is the greater artist, said the young
Anthony Trollope, than the writer of the mundane. This leaves
me out. "The mild walks of everyday life" are what I
gravitate to. The neighbor's sudden dementia--would
that count as horror? Could barbarity be something like
mistakenly digging up my wife's favorite lemon verbena? To
poison the pesky chipmunks, to do my best to wipe
them out--would that be considered murder? I far and away
prefer the milder walks of the lesser art--the stroll in the
happy diurnal, the observable day-to-day. Tears
are plentiful enough in this life without me putting in
my own two cents. Tragically unambitious, I'm your
chronicler of the commonplace, a ramble in Trollope's eyes.
Today's book of poetry admires You Can't Be Serious very much. As much as Wallace proclaims the anti-Trollope stance and trolls the quiet conventional corners, he has no problem at all taking on the big subjects like abortion, gay rights, politics, sexism, religion and so on.
The fact is You Can't Be Serious can be very serious indeed while remaining entirely Basho/Issa tongue in cheek. Serious as a heart attack, serious as two grasshoppers can get. That's when you know there is a master at work.
Bully for You, Mitt Romney
We held the gay boy down and cut his hair. Hey,
it was fifty years ago, and we didn't know, you
know, that he was gay. It was just a prank. There
is nothing more to it. He's dead by now, anyway. do
you think I'd do that today? We'll of course not!
Look at this smile. You can see it wouldn't swat
a flea. Let's have some other questions. Marriage? The
union of one man, one woman. We don't want to fly
in the face of sacred conventions. Abortion? It wrings
my heart to see an innocent fetus murdered, his
teenage mother bereft. Let's leave it in God's hands.
The elderly, the indigent? Give them work! If they're on
the dole, they'll never be useful. The gay boy? On bended
knee he came on to us. We gave him a knee.
It's a dreary grey Wednesday here in our nation's capital, spring is trying to come through the clouds and there may even be a bit of sun on the horizon. It doesn't matter, You Can't Be Serious has already made our day.
ABOUT THE AUTHORRon Wallace is the author of twenty previous books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction and criticism. He co-directs the creative writing program at the UW-Madison, and serves as editor of the UW Press Poetry Series which he founded in 1985.
He is currently Halls-Bascom Professor of English and Felix Pollak Professor of Poetry and the recipient of three distinguished teaching awards, and prizes from his previous poetry collections from The Council for Wisconsin Writers, The Society of Midland Authors, and the Wisconsin Library Association. In 2005 he was awarded the first George Garrett Prize of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for his service to writers and writing.
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, he has been a Wisconsin resident since 1972, dividing his time between Madison and a forty-acre farm in Richland County’s Bear Valley.
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