Ronald Wallace writes with great clarity about common, everyday subjects: relationships with his family, including his memories of an ambivalent relationship with his father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis; nature and things bucolic, especially life on his farm and his observations of animals; food; and people he has known. The poems have a confessional quality to them. Reviewers have used the word “honest” to refer to his voice and “moving” to describe the effect of the poems, which are characterized by an openness and willingness to reflect on aspects of life that are not always pleasant. Linda Falkenstein points out that every one of Wallace’s collections has contained a poem about worry; it is also the title of one of his chapbooks of fiction.
Contrasting himself with the Language poets, Wallace admires “clear accessible language, the sense that you’re hearing what the poet really does think and believe and has done or seen or experienced.” Two additional characteristics of Wallace’s work that reflect trends in contemporary American poetry are an interest in traditional forms and the use of humor.
Besides his books of poetry, Wallace has published more than five hundred poems in magazines and anthologies. His later work uses closed forms extensively. Having grown up believing free verse to be “the only form of poetry worth writing,” Wallace says he never expected to be considered a New Formalist. Although closed-form poems appear in some of his earlier collections, Time’s Fancy includes many more.
Plums, Stones, Kisses, and Hooks
Wallace’s first book introduces the topics of family and nature, which are the mainstay for much of his work. Several poems focus on his father and children, and in some of the poems, Wallace writes from others’ points of view, such as his father, his daughter, a bullhead, a cat, a hippopotamus, and a medicine man.
“Oranges” is characteristic of how Wallace develops metaphor. The poem begins with the eating of an orange. Then,
I walk across the lake.Ice fishermen twitch their poles untilperch flicker the surface, quickand bright as orange slices.The sun ripens in the sky.The wind turns thin and citrus,the day precise, fragile.
The orange in the poem acts as both tenor and vehicle. For the reader, the poem creates the impression of unified experience, with the various characteristics of an orange becoming a means of apprehending other things. Such description represents experience in a fresh way and “makes it new,” in the words of Ezra Pound and the style of the Imagist poets.
In “Oranges” and in other poems, Wallace uses nature not so much as an end in itself but rather as a means to reflect on the human. In “Prayer for Flowers,” the qualities that help plants thrive become goals for successful human life: “Show me the disguises of coral root/ that I may go unnoticed among enemies,/ the tenacity of columbine/ that I might thrive in the unlikely place.”
While there is little rhyme or formal verse, the sound of the language, through assonance, consonance, and alliteration, sometimes rises to music, as in these lines from “Cleaning House”: “You feel this September enter your head/ to sweep up the clutter of summer:/ its tractors and grackles, its harvests and roots,/ its skies stuffed with sunshine and pollen.”
Tunes for Bears to Dance To
In terms of his personal relationships, the poems are revealing and not always complimentary to Wallace himself. In “Picture of Two Bugs, Hugging,” he describes the situation of a daughter believed to be disabled: “At six months, white, unlovely as a slug,/ the doctors clucking their tongues: Microcephalic.” Later in the poem he describes his feelings: “How I wanted/ to swat you away, smash those cries/ against wall or ceiling, take you by your/ furry legs, and pin you, sprawling, down.”
The passage above includes the characteristic extended-type metaphor. “Wild Strawberries” too uses nature metaphorically to examine relationships, as Wallace writes about picking strawberries with his wife. The poem reflects on the challenge of marriage and, along with others, points out the fragility of human relationships.
The poems are not all solemn, however; Wallace shows his sense of humor in a number of them, sometimes mocking himself. In “The Assistant Professor’s Nightmare,” Wallace the professor is impressed with his lecturing ability (“all the pencils nodding their heads/ in astonishment”) until the shaking head of a teaching assistant rattles him:...
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