Barrelhouse Reviews: The Almost Sound of Snow Falling, by Bob Walicki

Review by Scott Weaver

If you’re making a Male Midwestern Quotidian Poetry All-Star team, who’s your starting five? Criteria are simple. Narrative, semi-formal poems; everyday people. Lyrical epiphanies rising from deceptively plain language. Poems concerned with work; poems with cars, bills, beer, whiskey when necessary, and men (mostly silent).

My current five: Philip Levine, Etheridge Knight, B. H. Fairchild, Robert Hayden, and James Wright[1]. This poetry is often associated with working class men. But beyond subject matter, MMQ Poets explore their subjects’ quest of intimacy in the world of silent masculinity.

Bob Walicki’s chapbook The Almost Sound of Snow Falling (Night Ballet Press) fits this tradition. Its 30 poems search for intimacy from an isolation that’s often enforced by the silence that comes standard-issue with Midwestern ideas of “manhood.” How can you connect amidst this quiet?

In one of the first poems, the speaker listens through closed doors to his elderly parents, whom he’s caring for. It’s a winter scene of quiet isolation, but outside there’s life. The speaker hears skaters laughing from the frozen river, “leaving evidence on the ground behind them / where they had just been” (“The Skaters”). Along with laughter, the skaters leave their testimony to this moment and their happiness etched on the ice.

If there’s a way out of the early poems’ isolation, this idea of testifying—creating evidence of your own existence—offers the best chance. While looking at a photo of his mother, the speaker thinks of what’s to come, settling on a final question:

Who will find this picture in a box someday?
Run the smooth length of her face with their fingers—

wonder, who loved her and who did she love,
look at the blank, white back for a date, a name,
and find nothing? (“In The Years Before Color”)

Without basic facts, his mother’s life is lost (as is, by extension, the speaker’s). Only the act of recording her name can save her from this nothing. This power highlights a question that lurks throughout the book: Without personal connections, do we really exist? This is the power of testifying; speech and writing are existential. Here, the power is seen in its absence—he’s failed both his mother and himself.

Quickly, though, the speaker finds a sort of intimacy among men and work. “Rain Leader” opens with him running pipe under an Akron bridge in single-digit temperatures:

First day, it’s “Go down to my truck and get
my pipe stretcher,” and then you’ll realize
there’s no such thing 4 stories down.
First day, men will want to break you,

Fathers, friends, even the speaker: men break one another for no reason other than they were broken themselves. Yet, there’s a strange relief in the breaking.

There’s a welder sitting next to you, buys the first round,
lays his steel hands on your shoulder

like the father who couldn’t bear it.

This is our first hint of intimacy. It comes not from family—the mother and father of earlier childhood poems remain as removed as stained-glass saints. Instead, intimacy comes from the totems of Midwestern masculinity: hard work, hazing, drinking. It’s touching and telling that the two men sit next to one another, eye contact avoided at all costs. Walicki is best when working with surprising emotional leaps: welder to father.

Some poems, though, outleap their original conceit, morphing into almost completely different poems by their end. This can get distracting when, mid-poem, the speaker shifts from second-person address to first. In poems like “Recipe,” collapsing the “you’ and “I” works thanks to the strength of its final image. But elsewhere, merging the reader and speaker has the opposite effect.

But in the final poems, Walicki’s voice grows more confident in address and emotional pitch. The book ends with a hard-won half celebration in an antique shop. After wrestling with family, creditors, and “the working class fallout that settles over everything,” the speaker and his partner duck into the pricey shop to escape the summer heat and a world always requiring more money than you have. No such luck:

Clearly we couldn’t stay there.
The shop owner watching every step we take.

But my eyes are dirty hands that touch everything as we leave. (“Antiquing”)

It’s this seeing and testifying that connects the speaker to his life and partner, creating an intimacy that cannot be erased. Almost’s aim is to testify to the lives of the people in its poems, and the book hits its mark.

 

[1] Don’t @ me! Or do! List arguments are the best!


Scott Weaver’s poems have appeared in Rattle, The New York Quarterly, DIAGRAM, UCity Review, and other journals. Home & Ghost, published by Urban Farmhouse Press, is his debut poetry collection. He lives with his wife, Kelli Jo Ford, and their daughter Cypress in Richmond, Virginia, and teaches English at Reynolds Community College.