(ABR Associate Editor)
The Ridgeway Press
117Pages; Print, $17.95
ABR is fortunate to have on its editorial staff many prominent writers and critics. From Our Own is a feature devoted to reviews and discussions of their books.
The Greatest Action is by the Wound
Joy is boring. Fulfillment and contentment—though sought after—are not very interesting once achieved. There’s a reason why stories end at “happily ever after.” What is left to say once all tension and conflict has been resolved?
In At the Surprise Hotel and Other Poems, Barry Wallenstein explores the small and inevitable ruptures of doubt, regret and loss that break through the surface of happiness and create a blemish. Despite his focus on flaws and ulcers, the collection isn’t melancholy or morose. In Wallenstein’s hands, joy isn’t diminished by its wound; instead, the little sore or spot of blood makes the joy all the more palpable, and its vulnerability increases its value.
In “The Child,” for example, Wallenstein evokes the bucolic scene of a child climbing a tree, “limb by limb ascending / into the highest leaves.” It is a lovely and apt metaphor for a child growing, learning, and aging. However, the poem’s gaze shifts suddenly to “where the lawn below resembles desire / to live like the grass—to love long, / to set down seed and die.” Wallenstein invites the reader to indulge in this idyllic image of a child in a tree and all its connotations: freedom, communion with nature, fearlessness, and the uncomplicated physical prowess of youth. Yet he does not allow us to linger there, quickly reminding us of the consequence of aging: dying. While the introduction of death could risk a depressive turn, it instead turns what could have been a pat—or even cliché—image into an emotionally and philosophically complex one. At the same time, by exposing childhood’s impermanence, Wallenstein makes it more—not less—precious.
Wallenstein is also skilled at finding starkly beautiful moments in the shadow world of the transient, the lonely, and the maladjusted. The title poem is a 19-part narrative sequence describing the lives of the denizens “At the Surprise Hotel.” In the first section, Wallenstein sets the scene with a brief description of its halls:
Carpets, not new, not frayed, cover the ancient scars caused by somebody dragging something from somewhere no one remembers. Surely there are heroes here deserving prizes. Nevertheless – they are modest, restrained at their varied stages.
The first part of the stanza hints at a macabre demimonde, where gruesome acts are so common that the particulars aren’t even memorable. Yet, even here there are heroes, individuals who have conducted great acts but are, at the same time, “modest” and “restrained.”
At the Surprise Hotel, not only can the heroic coexist with horror, it can exist within horror. In a place populated with louts and loafers and “sucker punch senders,” a Jewish bridegroom can delay his wedding to make room for Palestinian taxi driver and his family. He asks his bride, “Might we change the date from the 12th to the 14th / and add four more place settings? / The family’s name is Sanwar, Yehia Sanwar.”
Wallenstein is successful with these incongruities partly because of his focus on the messy, contradictory humanity of his characters. Nelly, for instance, is a staff regular with a soft heart who “prefers her woe / in thimble-sized glasses.” The other part of Wallenstein’s success is his language and pacing. Wallenstein, a practiced performer of jazz-accompanied poetry and a composer of jazz lyrics, incorporates jazz elements into his writing. An urgent, syncopated rhythm drives these poems forward and lends itself to sharp transitions between images and tone. In the fourth section of the poem, Wallenstein begins, “A lout walked in / pressed a button / no one arrived.” The language is prosaic but the tone is clipped, omitting conjunctions that would smooth the sentence out. Seven lines later, in describing the staff’s reaction to the guest, Wallenstein writes, “ears stopped / our cool looks set / and ready for his...