Poppin’ Johnny by George Wallace

“what’s a good american / boy to do after he’s been / bitten by pandas?”

-George Wallace, “Bitten by Pandas”

Fellow Pacific MFA alumnus George Wallace recently sent me an autographed copy of his new book, Poppin’ Johnny. It’s terrific.

Poppin Johnny by George WallaceThese poems are anything but quiet. Like the cartoon call-outs when Batman hit a bad guy in a punch-up scene, these poems are loaded with “pow,” “bam,” “biff.” But for all their muscular gestures, these poems also convey sensitivity and irony–sometimes at once. As much as Wallace has been called an inheritor of Kerouac, his heady and ecstatic proclamations can also be traced back to Whitman. Consider these lines from “Starlight! So Much Starlight”:

[…] i saw starlight in
the coffins of the mad. i saw
starlight in the eyes of a dog.
i saw a man with a tin badge
he wore starlight on his chest.
handcuffs have it electric lights
have it window shades drawn
at night. […]

These are poems obsessed with cars and dames, liquor and baseball. But beneath the brass-band bravado lie the horrors of “My First Dance”–shaking a grown man’s enormous sweaty hand, being pinned and kissed by a fat girl, drinking punch from a paper cup, and sympathizing with the “four-legged madness of a dog / who was trying to do nothing more / complicated than just get away.”

Yet even the most intimate moments are told in a vernacular slant, like when the speaker realizes in “How it Worked” that his lover is kissing him goodbye for the last time, and says, “i laid there like a pizza delivery guy with too / many pizzas to deliver who has fallen off his bicycle and / onto some wet pavement. i laid there like bambi on ice, / like flipper on a plate, and i looked back at her like roy / rogers trying to figure out what is wrong with his faithful / horse trigger.”

These are poems as rough and vulnerable as manhood, as full of hope and heartbreak as the new world. If you want to know what America feels like in your mouth, read George Wallace out loud.