BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Louis Gallo
Filed under: Poetry
In a recent interview, Lou Gallo told me that nostalgia is a disease and that he is a “complete, woebegone nostalgician.” He may as well have told me that the sky is blue, for I’d already read two of his new poetry collections.
Halloween and Omens are both so thick with the past that the idea of a year 2010 once again becomes the stuff of futuristic sci-fi. These poems takes the reader into Gallo’s New Orleans childhood of the ’50s, into his wilder ’60s and ’70s, and dip their toes into the ’90s, but rarely do they venture into present day. Which is for the best, because Gallo is a born storyteller, an unabashed sentimentalist who moves forward only by looking back.
In the first two pieces in Halloween, Gallo wrestles with memories of his oldest daughter, “ripped away by black-suited lawyers, / birds of prey, demons of civility.” In the title poem he roams the UVA campus of 1995 Charlottesville during that macabre holiday, thinking of his little girl “Far away on Halloween and all the days.” After visiting Poe’s glassed-off dorm room, he wades through masked revelers and envisions the ghost of Thomas Jefferson leading the charge atop a horse while Poe “stands apart but watches intently.” Thinking always of his daughter, Gallo weighs Jefferson’s brand of idealism against Poe’s starker reality:
What truths are self-evident?
Jefferson’s cool blue reason,
an astrolabe of precision,
squirms in the eye of a raven.
As the party continues to rage—on parents’ weekend, no less—Gallo shuts himself up in his motel room and gives in to a Poe-like darkness:
She fell asleep in my arms
many and many a year ago
I don’t know what costume she wears now,
tonight, on Halloween.
With slow, patient zeal, I mourn the quick.
The powerhouse “Fat Man at the Aquarium” takes Gallo and his daughters into a setting that should provide plenty of Kodak moments, but instead of staying in the present he again finds himself pining for “another little girl, / another daughter, lost now.” He tries to force himself into the moment through the lens of his video camera (“We’re here now with new children”), but a morbidly obese man steps into and dominates the frame—reality again breaking into the idyllic. As the fat man keeps pace with the family, Gallo grows increasingly disgusted and furious, but he cannot shake the man and eventually finds himself sitting next to the man at McDonald’s:
The fat man tears off a paper wrapper and consumes half the
sandwich in a single bite.
… He seems
closes his eyes and davens as he chews, spittle and bits of
inching down his chin.
Even here, in this unsavory but memorable situation, Gallo can’t keep himself in the present, instead looking at this moment as if it’s already lost to the past: “I don’t want him there, in the videos, / in our memories,” and later, fantasizing about murdering the fat man, “I kill him for imposing severity into our memories.” But the severity is already there, with or without the fat man. It’s always there, because for Gallo the true severity is in the passing of time:
And this is the way it will be, always the fat man at our sides,
in our dreams and memories, our futures,
as the film yellows and disintegrates,
as time itself spins off its reel.
The rest of this collection continues in kind—odes to lost time, reflections on friends, family and lovers come and, almost always, gone. Of himself and a childhood friend in “Tyler Avenue” he writes “We were pure occasion,” but looking back now he understands that while “life is not quite over, / it surely hobbles up another street.”
Omens is a bit more surrealist, but even an abstract nostalgician is still a nostalgician. In fact, two of the poems here are titled “Nostalgia” and “Nostalgia II.” I include “Nostalgia” in its entirety:
leftover dynamite in the closet.
Again, Gallo is at his best when telling a story, so some of his stabs at abstraction fall flat, and a couple of attempts to politicize his work ring false. In the poem “Some Presidents,” Gallo closes with a section titled “W,” which reads “When does he go to prison / for how long / and for which abomination?” A fair question, to be sure, but it’s far from original, and it forces this otherwise-engaging poem to end of a sour and stale note.
Still, there’s plenty to like here, and Gallo always brings his work back into his comfort zone. Here he is mourning the element iron in “Metals”: “Sad to think about you, so inert, old, dense, buried.” Next he drums up sentimental feelings about a shirt in “Teal Blouse”:
The dwarf rides by, chugging up the hill
on his child bicycle, wearing the teal blouse
I bought for Ginger from the Victoria’s Secret
This poetry sometimes reads like the work of a man auctioning off all of his possessions on eBay. “Most things gallop away / like herds of dying buffalo,” he writes in “Things.” Give this man an item and he’ll tell you why he misses it.
Lou Gallo may believe that nostalgia is a disease, but he’s not about to organize a Walk-a-Thon. Which is good for us, because his particular strain of nostalgia is a literary treat. Gallo fans will find here all the regret and loss they’ve come to expect from his work, but much of it is delivered with a smirk, and there’s plenty of dry humor to keep from plunging us too far into the depths. When in “New Shirt” Gallo writes “One of these days something really grand / is bound to happen,” the reader already knows what the winking poet truly believes: “It won’t surprise me to wait forever.”