In the last decade, the University of Illinois Press has published 20 volumes of poetry. Considering the financial risk involved, publishing a poetry series in itself is a laudable act; more importantly, the quality of the work has steadily increased to the point that now one eagerly awaits the two volumes issued by the press each year. Michael Van Walleghen, whose first book, The Wichita Poems, was published by Illinois in 1975, was awarded the Lamont Poetry Prize for his second collection, More Trouble with the Obvious.
“The Confession,” the final poem in Van Walleghen’s first volume, anticipates many of the themes and subjects of the new book. In this poem, too, readers are introduced to a persona that Van Walleghen will employ in his second book. I would guess that he developed this persona, a darkly comic figure with a social consciousness, as a way of dealing with sentiment without seeming sentimental. Van Walleghen’s poems remind us that everyday life can be difficult and that small tests of character can be as trying and invigorating as those tests dictated by the more dramatic, extraordinary events in our lives. But neither kind of experience—common or occasional—are beyond irony and humor.
The speaker in “The Confession,” for instance, is a man who desperately wants to be reunited with his former lover. He hangs around the house pretending to read or work, all the while hoping to win her back by confessing “how everything was all his fault:/the wind, for instance, the heat,/ the water tank that hovered/like a luminous cloud/above the front lawn trees.” Readers can’t help but feel sorry for this character, and yet we can’t quite feel serious compassion for him. His guilt is excessive, his confession so outrageous that the more he laments, the more the reader is taken by the disturbing comicalness of his condition. Yet this is a character who believes in such conspiracies: the poem ends with the persona eyeing a bunch of “day daisies. . .dying in a white vase” which “O, become a sad posy/of funereal flowers.”
Many of Van Walleghen’s characters are, at heart, the same person: a sort of underdog who is at odds with others, compulsive, obsessive, cowed by authority, and confused by the complexity of the world. Van Walleghen’s mask owes something, perhaps, to John Berryman’s character, Henry. Like Henry, Van Walleghen’s persona (variously referred to in the first, second, or third person) is an American Midwestern male who speaks colloquially, feels guilty often, and likes to confess in public. He’s gloomy, fearful, lonely, and—also like Henry—irrepressible. But while Berryman’s character is full of rage and is sometimes bullying, Van Walleghen’s is seldom mean; he never plays the braggart. In More Trouble with the Obvious, he’s more likely to be gentle to the point of self-effacement; if he seems to brag, it’s really a mild boast that the reader understands as pride in survival, a small measure of self-esteem to counterpoint the larger dose of self-reproach.
Van Walleghen’s persona is besieged with dilemmas, and though most of them are ordinary, even mundane, he manages to transform them into major crises. In one poem, a man bothered with mice in his kitchen believes he has “a problem so overwhelming, he throws the I Ching right out the window.” An escape artist performing a trick underwater stays there so long that the police “have cleared the bridge/ and let the grave-sized hole/through which he dropped/ freeze over,” Worse, when he finally returns to town, proud for having survived and “waving his last obituary,” he finds his resurrection to be a hollow victory: there is “no one who remembers” who he is.
In “Mistakes,” the speaker is again musing about his failings, addressing himself here in the second person:
Although readers might expect that by the end of the poem the situation will be corrected, it is not. Van Walleghen is not interested in telling stories which end in epiphany and change. Our lives, according to Van Walleghen, are not like that: we repeat our mistakes, learning nothing except that we are, indeed, prone to error. Still, his persona understands our expectations and shares in them as well. In “Fun at Crystal Lake,” he says “I like happy endings, don’t you?” The persona in another poem seems to answer this ironic question when he says, emphatically, “of course it’s all hopeless!” In the final couplets of “Mistakes,” even “some freezing bird/fumbling at the porchlight” has no chance of getting warm.
You’ve lost your key
and the landlord is sound asleep.
No, it’s worse than that,
it’s the wrong house entirely.
It’s even the wrong street.
It’s seventy below zero
on this street, your car
is buried in the snow,
and the river of smoke
from the stove factory
means absolutely nothing.
The speaker in “Termites” is so overwhelmed by an exterminator’s prediction of worsening damage in the basement that he stays up all night “feeling the house shake.” By bedtime, he is “afraid of everything. . .as if these termites were all my fault” Still other poems find the speaker worrying over a dying tarantula plant, a hangover, crab apples falling on his lawn. The world demands this character’s complicity, and he is incapable of denying it.
As these poems are not celebratory, neither are they destructive; the persona’s intelligent, comedic propositions somehow manage to keep even the most satirical poem from lapsing into sarcasm. And while a certain witty detachment saves the persona from sentimentality, his physical involvement in these staged dramas keeps him from withdrawing into the safe, noncommittal vantage point of parody. The persona is always both participant and observer.
If Van Walleghen’s theme is the individual’s inability to cope with the complexities of ordinary life, his subject is almost always small-town existence or the lives of workingclass people at play in the country. In many poems, including several of the strongest pieces in the book (“The Sibyl at Snug Harbor” and “Fun at Crystal Lake”), Van Walleghen chronicles lives which are encumbered by the paraphernalia of the working poor: aluminum siding, hair curlers, cornflakes, clock radios, liquor stores, Eisenhower buttons. In towns with literary and misleading names such as Homer or Villa Grove, the persona is torn, in Christopher Lasch’s phrase, “between romance and reality.” Van Walleghen tells his stories in an unadorned style, trying to illuminate these lives by presenting them as clearly as possible.
More Trouble with the Obvious contains several kinds of poems, including a handful of prose-poems scattered throughout the volume. These poems seem to me less successful than those written in Van Walleghen’s characteristically lean, run-on, short-line style. The latter poems are elegant and musical, filled with surprising and imaginative line breaks and clusters of active and original adjectives. The prose poems, by comparison, are intentionally flat, which causes the poems to rely too much on voice and expository structure. What is lost is a kind of tension created by Van Walleghen’s gift for understatement and the heightened sense of music evident in the line-poems. When the “flat-out, midwestern voice” is combined with the natural flatness of prose, the experiences described tend to level out, and the event becomes trivial/What might be gained by this form is hard to say: certainly the prose poems are able to incorporate more and different kinds of language and experience, but the form seems to bring out Van Walleghen’s worst quality—an occasional tendency to sound self-consciously whiny.
Two prose poems which do not share these problems are the title poem and “Walking the Baby to the Liquor Store.” Both are among the most moving and successful poems in the volume. “More Trouble with the Obvious,” which I’ll discuss here, is about the difficult and artless ways in which we come to learn about sadness in the world. The speaker is a man who, with his wife, has found a fallen bird. He brings it home to feed it “the baby food and hamburger of an old routine we know by heart, the ritual we’ve learned as children.” But the bird dies anyway, and in the speaker’s hand: “a heart attack,” or so his neighbor tells him. After a brief passage in which the speaker contemplates his role in the bird’s death, the poem fixes on a more serious parallel in the speaker’s life: the death of a friend in childhood. With real power and delicate organization—Van Walleghen includes only the most telling details—the speaker recounts his reaction to his friend’s death, his inability truly to understand death’s consequences, and his willingness to believe, out of frustration, that his friend died “from eating donuts every night for supper.” After a more general meditation on death, the speaker says, with deep irony, “there must be something we can do.” The poem ends with an anecdote about the time he and his friend found the kite they had been wishing for in a garbage can, intact:
We just believed in miracles as though they happened all the time. We thought the birds we found needed milk and bread. We thought when they got big they would be our friends, do us wonderful favors, and keep us company forever.
As in many of the poems in More Trouble with the Obvious, the speaker’s voice in the title poem is fully human in its depth of feeling, moving in its instructive simplicity.