Words Worth Your Time: The Romantic Spirit in La Serenissima

A Review of La Serenissima by Wallace Barker

by A. E. Weisgerber

I became acquainted with Wallace Barkers poetry via his publications in Neutral Spaces Magazine. I enjoy his imagery, and am altogether fond of the Neutral Spaces vibe, so when I saw Barker’s first collection was on pre-sale I paid for a copy. Here’s my review. – A

La Serenissima by Wallace Barker | Ohio: Gob Pile Press, 2022 | ISBN 9798788922140 | $12.00

Austin poet Wallace Barker‘s debut collection of 146 short poems-of-place has nineteen chapters, sorted by travel destinations. Each destination contains three to twelve curated poems. In them, the speaker travels with wife and children to Europe and the Americas. Their travels have highs and lows, the middle punctuated by the stuff of life.

La Serenissima begs the question all autobiographical texts must address: how can one separate the trivial from the meaningful? I read The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, and this is one of WCW’s concerns from the get-go. What moments does one select to ennoble in poetic form?

When Barker’s speaker states in Hawaii, “I don’t know how to be in this world,” he touches upon a notion William Wordsworth observed two centuries ago: we are too much with this world. The duality of being in the world and moving on its mountain paths, swimming in its sunken caves, or trying to get extra chips with heuvos rancheros, and yet making time to journal and write poetry is the poetic concern of La Serenissima.

Although unattached to any district or place in this travelogue (as Wordsworth was to the Lake District of England), Barker does find meaning in the familiar and in the self.

Green Flash

I have missed many sunsets in my life
and I suppose I will miss many more

today I saw a pink and blue sunrise
light dust the low hanging clouds

I heard footsteps as my son awoke
emerged from his bedroom

everything inside the house and outside
bloomed with new day birds stirring

in palms then squabbling among fronds
preceding the activity of flight

wind picking up and a breeze crossing
tides recede as gravity fields open

from the moon's loosening grip.

			-- Wallace Barker 

Awareness of natural forces ebbing and flowing is balanced in the collection by man-made stressors.  In Barker’s collection, cognizance of employment and work always runs in the background.

While in the Yucatan, the speaker “dreams of neglected / office labors / some distant land,” and later says “I woke drunk to twenty-two work e-mails / asking all sorts of difficult questions” in Portugal. The views in Santa Fe and Durango are impeded, and “the mountains recede / amidst waves of calls and emails.” Americans who travel while keeping an eye on work can relate with the loss of an iPhone, and the feeling that work demands do not take a vacation. There exists an underpinning of what Lorca might call an ‘essential melancholy.’

Rose City, Bridge City

Grass is growing on the streets
some sunny day in green Portland
shell shocked from a five-hour flight
we crossed too many time zones

forty-eight emails when we landed crowding
my mind like a headache physically

constricting my neck beneath
my ears Esmé told me she read
every Greek myth in the book I gave
her some of them multiple times

city of roses, city of bridges
ripcity in the spring
I bought a Garfield book
for Esmé then sent more emails

the world still revolving but 
its pivot now in the northwest.

			-- Wallace Barker

Barker’s collection had me dig out my old Jack Stillinger 1965 introduction of the Selected Poems and Prefaces by William Wordsworth, from my studies with William Doreski. I enjoyed revisiting old annotations. Of Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World Is Too Much With Us,” Stillinger says it’s a complaint about the ‘regular action of the world’ and its ability to “deaden the poetic spirit.”

This poetic spirit remains burning in Barker, however. Wordsworth writes in his Prelude, “I was left alone / seeking the invisible world, nor knowing why. / The props of my affections were removed, and yet the building stood, as if sustained by its own spirit.” The cool thing about Barker is that he takes his best props, his wife and two children whom he loves, along with his intellect, finding great joy in doing so.

Sunrise

Maggie Gyllenhaal didn't see us
at the Heartwood Restaurant
she was watching a girl
her daughter I guess

the margaritas were
expensive but worth it
almost spicy and
mezcal sipped
tastes of leather

how many years do we get
on this planet is there an 
opportunity to sign up for more?

I love the sun I love the food
I love people when they're happy
as if happiness was a permanent
condition or possibly could be
given sufficient light.

			-- Wallace Barker

Barker’s speaker may be experiencing a tourism that (Wordsworth again!) is out there “getting and spending,” but it’s okay. It’s a means to access nature. Wordsworth might expect to feel out of tune; here in Barker’s poetry, the speaker has lucid moments of synchronicity.

In a DM convo, Barker stated an affinity for poets Robert Lowell and Ariana Reines. I recommend La Serenissima to lovers of poetry and travel. It will resonate with readers who are 1) occupied with the demands of modern employment, 2) are figuring out parenting, especially traveling with young ones and all the “desultory buffet ticket packages” it entails, and 3) find themselves longing to encounter more natural beauty. 

5 of 5 stars.

NOTE: “Green Flash,” “Rose City, Bridge City,” and “Sunrise” are here reprinted with the author’s permission. The header image is The Picnic (1928) by Henriette Wyeth. Oil on Canvas. Photo taken by A.E. Weisgerber April 2022 at the Michener Museum.

Review work. May 2022. @aeweisgerber
Review work. May 2022. @aeweisgerber

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