A Measure of Conduct by Barry Wallenstein

Barry Wallenstein
Ridgeway Press ($12.50)

by Stephanie Rauschenbusch

Sly, wry, ironic, pitch-perfect for off-rhymes, these new poems in Barry Wallenstein's fifth book play with and tease out happy and unhappy endings. In the poem "A Measure of Conduct," a log-borne earwig is, after much thought, not consigned to a fireplace fire, though "in an absent state, I confused / action with inaction, smallness with / next to nothing."

Georgia O'Keeffe's giant painted versions of tiny things tell it no better:

The green spadix is back-dropped
against the lightly striped spathe,
a flower canopy for Jack
the erect her of the piece, on his pulpit,
a kind of throne.

(Jack-in-the-Pulpit: Song and Flower)

This miniature man seems to be the same fellow we meet in "Small" who asks the doctor to make him small "and a little calmer than before." He uses his small size to creep into his love's pocket book and sit on her lipstick "in a desirous trance."

Then we have the ending of the "famed aviator" whose parachute falls and whom we see as though the wrong end of a pair of binoculars:

A dull opening up of everything human
onto water—
so hard he failed his form
on impact
and the churning, schussing heavy
waters—never soft except in cups—
partitioned him further…"

(A Famed Aviator Meets His Death)


The tone of these poems is light, amused, witty, observant, ready to change and turn at a moment's notice, possessed of a dancer's grace. A fine example of this dexterity is "Apostrophe to Dr. Trope, Anesthesiologist." In this fictive letter to the doctor of poetic images—"tropes"—we have an operation, real or virtual, and then a dream:

Dr. Trope, I've dreamed of you
standing here at my bedside—in white,
a gauze mask dangling from white thread.
I ask you about the laws of poetry, probabilities,
the range of tropes.
Do you know how many there are of you?
I'm a devil to ask:
are there little Tropes at home?
Mamma and Poppa Trope still alive?

"I'm a devil to ask" signals the poet's playful teasing and could be the epigraph to the Tony poems—a portrait finely and imaginatively assembled from the many personae of a "street artist," con man, pothead, resident of the Hotel Splendide. A man living in "the backlands of blank" ("Happy Birthday Tony") where "Some oblivions are brightly lit / and dappled with spasmodic action . . ." ("Tony's Brain"), Tony goes invisible ("Anonymous Tony"), dyes his hair red ("Tony the Pothead"), reassures his dead mother that jail time is like floating on an iceberg ("Tony to His Mother") recites his numbers-running past ("Tony Hears the Music") and hides in a tunnel ("Tony the Trader"):

He swishes, spins, stops, sits down
cross-legged on a carpet, 4 by 6
and signed in the weave;
he stacks his goods with soft precision,
fooling himself with false division
for practice, he practices
a cloud break in a thunder clap
shakes him to the derelict day; erect,
he jots a note and a name
a column of names.

Two of the Tony poems cut deep. One ("Tony's Blade") starts: "Blade imagines it has memories . . ." This speaking knife ominously feels it needs sharpening. It is, and isn't the butcher's knife in "Tony's Dad" the butcher who carries Tony "across a river of blood." The memories here are exact and terrifying, when we begin to see Tony as the poet's mask, or doppelganger:

The fat in the slaughterhouse,
in the stone room
adjacent to the killing rooms,
would clog in the drain
and the steers' blood puddled
high enough for a young Tony
to need either hip boots
or a lift onto father's difficult shoulders.

At times this Tony sequence seems novelistic in its complexity and subtlety. Wallenstein, a professor at City College, New York, "performs" these poems with a jazz combo, the music putting extra pressure on the words. These poems have the earned seriousness and humor of Yeats' Crazy Jane poems. They and the rest of the poems in A Measure of Conduct are built around the knowledge of "love in its practical conjurings" ("Salvation").

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000