A Review of La Serenissima by Wallace Barker
by A. E. Weisgerber
I became acquainted with Wallace Barker‘s 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.