Review by Allen Strouss
It Can be Solved by Walking is a collection of poems, writings and photographs in search of the place of self and collective (human and nonhuman) in an urban ecosystem; a reflection on and response to Ted Nordhaus and Edward Shellenberger’s statement that “Humans have become the meaning of the earth” and poet, George Oppen’s assertion that “The meaning of the word here contains the meaning of oneself.” Published by CityLit Press, 2012.
Jennifer Wallace teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, MD. She is a poetry editor at The Cortland Review and a founding editor of Toadlily Press. Her chapbook, Minor Heaven, appears in Desire Path (Toadlily Press, 2005). In 2009, she directed a short documentary, Inter:View, A Conversation About Nature and the City. Her photographs have been exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art and at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She has written essays for exhibition catalogs and literary magazines; her poems appear in numerous journals and anthologies, including Entanglements, an all-new collection of ecopoetry from EarthLines magazine. www.jenniferwallacepoetry.com
The mind is its own place…not exactly. Or with many complications, is the answer given in It Can Be Solved By Walking. The mind of the solitary walker in Jennifer Wallace’s poems does make, but also finds. And as the walker goes daily through the ordinariness of an alien, contemporary city (Baltimore), the place becomes that thing both made and found, home.
I keep coming back to the idea of home in reading these poems, although that may be too blatant and loaded a word for Wallace’s sense of place. In an author’s note at the end of the book, she writes of looking for a “psychoecology” that is the city. Still, I’m struck with how the book is a tacit argument against the sentimentalism that wishing makes “home” so, a dissolve of anyplace/no place made by simple decision. Place in these poems confronts, must be confronted. That has something to do with the particular place described: the book is haunted by the public topic of the dying of major American cities. But Wallace’s Baltimore, if shabby, is still vital with the lives lived in it. Those lives become lived into the walker’s life.
What the walker encounters includes the people of the streets and sidewalks, and, surprisingly, the animals of the city—pigeons and the occasional rat, but also the occasional hawk, even bald eagles. Unseen lives are a stronger presence:
At the station, passengers enter the city…
They inhale a new world; it feeds them.
Each out breath amplifies the streets.
The pigeons perch in trees growing with their memories.
There is a consciousness of all that stays unknown, also a presence in being unknown:
A squirrel on the wire running…
Is it running? Or something more squirrel-like—
Not: “I want that walnut,” but something
squirrel-voiced or voiceless.
A mind can’t know what it is.
The poems are arranged in three groups. Those of the first section are largely vignettes of things seen daily, with some of the feel of jotted notes. One, “Particulars, holy and minute,” starting with a quotation from Blake, breaks through to a Blakean “infinity in a grain of sand”:
The door opens and closes
and a deep field arrives in t-shirt and jeans.
Outside: the storefront
with its warm yellow light, lonely as Hopper’s,
and a source we believe but cannot see.
But most of these pictures of the quotidian stay with the quotidian, the juxtaposition and relationship of parts becoming a ground, filling in a blank:
where pigeons study the intersection of Aisquith and North.
A particular building
the particular intersection
bus stop, gasoline
burgers and ribs
at rest, a red light
20 drivers: 20 birds
incomplete in our differences, our likenesses.
The blank oppressiveness of the Eliotic “unreal city” is absent, always. Always the act of seeing, something to be seen, happens.
The later poems take a loose form of musings. Through all the poems runs a binariness, of word, of idea, linking a concept and its opposite together:
That I am part and therefore partial.
One lives in a world
is lived in by a world
This is something of a conversational tic in our time, but for Wallace it becomes an instrument, an epistemology. Duality runs through what the walker looks for:
If ‘one truth moves from the inside and one from the outside
and when they meet we see ourselves,’ then I can see a dense muscle
pumping against its hollow core; that fist-shaped organ—
how it beats and beats its delicate wings.
Overall, the out-there is a means (though not reduced to a means) of realizing the inner:
See what the world is like?
A grammar without language
but striving for language.
Endangered if not actual, if not spoken of.
The experience I would call home is where the poems of the book end. The penultimate lyric is the song of an everyhuman quest:
We seek a form, a shape—adequate enough: the kitchen table, mother’s leg—
the thing to hoist ourselves. Barely arrived, we already aim at the sun.
What is wished for? To be tree-like, god-close? Outside of time?
We are preoccupied with prominence. The point, through whatever haze or light,
Always farthest from ‘what is.’
“Something in us knows/there’s something we must find.” All of that—and its goal, after all, is an inwardness:
…We would arrive at the deepest eye, the one
that would let itself be entered, be taken in and taken. What would we, then,
what could we, name the seeker? The carrier of thought, and all its structures?
What is known—at last: a certain rust and beetle-bitten ruin, the sure return
to all we’ve ever feared or dreamed.
The poems make up most of the book, but it also contains a section of city photographs as well as a short prose afterword. The photos, which Wallace writes were some of the working notes for the poems, sometimes could serve as illustrations for individual poems. Others catch the derelict, sunlit eerie solitudes that are part of our troubled cities now. Standing out most are the pictures that show the city interface of the natural and the manmade—vistas of both trees and buildings, birds at home in an iron environment, a nest with interwoven plastic sheeting.
In the concluding author’s note, Wallace writes of how the poems came out of an attempt to write an essay. The essayistic impulse is still in the poems and is one of their strengths. The linked pieces work together like an essay; they find and make their meanings non-discursively, but in an essayistic diction, various, onrushing—no pauses for brittle finenesses—become electric with its discoveries.