LA SERENISSIMA, a poetry collection by Wallace Barker, reviewed by Donald Ryan

Wallace Barker’s La Serenissima from Gob Pile Press. 19 chapters. 19 vacations. Each poem a single sentence, less than a page, recounting moments in instances. Like photographs in a family album, the poems are souvenirs. You may not know the people in the picture or what’s taking place in the background, but within each frame it’s clear there’s beauty in what has been printed and bound.

One of the most striking aspects of the collection is how Barker captures both the serenity and stresses of an American on vacation. A stanza will break a description of paradisical destinations with the undercurrent of “real world” career pressures. As if this place cannot itself be real, an impossible figment, a mirage, a drug trip to be experienced with awe before the inevitable forced sobering into reality:

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

A chimera, work looms somewhere just outside the dream destinations, where “reality” refuses to be forgotten, a lingering sensation remaining in the headspace, despite being temporarily transported.

Barker doesn’t shy from honesty; he weaves it. Stressors aren’t limited to those of the “real world.” They also arrive from his children, the true world that is real to him, from

I was short with my daughter
at a chocolate shop when I felt
she was taking too long to order

to all the injuries, illnesses, and asthma dealt with around the globe. Parenthood doesn’t stop because the scenery changes. Parenthood is as much enjoying time with your family

Miles screams as his sandcastle is swept by the tide
Esmé and Mama snorkel the southern rocks

as it is gathering the unpromised ticks of time,

Global destruction, personal destruction
wobbling on some crazed axis.

Barker encapsulates rather than exaggerates traveling to lovely places with those you love most. Yeah, sometimes shit gets aggravating; it doesn’t matter how picturesque surroundings might be. Therefore, these poems don’t merely ask you to read them, sightsee with them, or relax with them: these poems demand you to grasp the world, not only as a place, but as a metaphor for being fully human. These poems are the spectrum of emotions. La Serenissima is real.

But fuck, whoa! So serious!

Not so, not always. Like any expertly prepared dish, there is balance.

Barker knows when to indulge. Remember, this is still a vacation. He knows when to turn off despite the bullshit of waking:

… still drunk to twenty-two work emails
asking all sorts of difficult questions.

Clonazepam, edibles, fish and garlic cooked two ways, habaneros, salsa, and a whole bar of drinks. To feast and feast well, the minute details of these experiences are necessary. Okay, right, no—we aren’t the ones experiencing them; but what matters is they are experienced. And that this simple fact allows these poems to exist because experiences must be authentic, otherwise a “virgin Mai Tai was cloying and undrinkable” and when vacations become an imitation then the reality being avoided must overcompensate:

calls would be scheduled
all week to discuss a response
my calendar was filling up fast

and back to the “real world” we’ve convinced ourselves is the only real. This is the way things are, the way they mustn’t be on vacation, where the indulgences take form as burdening stressors. Because basically: fuck that.

Sometimes humorous, sometimes profound, sometimes profoundly humorous, Barker’s collection knows when to be reverent and bow before the awe of holy experiences. Lines throughout the globe finding quiet moments even in the most surprising places, like when

On boat day after morning rain
all the light of a new world has
sprinkled docks with golden blooms

is in praise of Arkansas. Or how

Fire and tea candle flame
goes out crackle of wax
flying under canal channels

becomes the church like the “beer in bottles on cathedral steps.” What better time to be playful—

high pitched laughter of children
once exhausting now sweet

—because if God didn’t want us to have fun then why is there so much beauty in such simple joys?

Now I don’t think I can touch on church without providing a confession: I consider myself a reader, anything, everything, if my eyes are on text, I’m scanning. That said, I don’t know pedagogical poetry terms. I know stanza. Line break. Sonnets—as a word rather than the distinguishing features. And isn’t quatrains a thing? However, what I do know is free verse is distinctly American and poems need a rhythm. It took me a moment to find Barker’s rhythm. The general lack of punctuation meant finding my own balance and breaths. Line to line, meanings become an exchange of inhales and exhales:

motorboys zipping thru
traffic perilously close

to the man hanging bags of spicy
peanuts on side-view mirrors

This freedom allows for play within the lines. Lines that blur as synchronized thoughts, trickling down the page. What I thought could be a statement’s end was instead dipping a toe into another idea. And what’s a vacation if not for play? Otherwise, what’s the point of leaving the house? And without quoting, because it needs the culmination to hit the same, the final stanza of the final poem, this destination’s destination, is the most perfect way to end this global, 149 page journey.

The language of these poems invokes something grand, worldly, writerly. They transport. They highlight what’s missing in my work-home-work existence. A sense that exploration is everywhere, not just in books, yet where I’m at this point in my life my exploring is limited. My wife and I recently had a baby in this time of Covid, so even if we couldn’t go anywhere we definitely can’t now. But if I didn’t already think it before, Barker definitely reminds me of what I already know: damn, I could use a vacation.

La Serenissima, by Wallace Barker. Gob Pile Press, February/March 2022. $12.00, paper.

Donald Ryan’s novel Don Bronco’s Shell (Working Title) is forthcoming this fall from Malarkey Books.

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