Ronald Wallace's twelve books of poetry, fiction, and criticism include Long for this World: New and Selected Poems and For a Limited Time Only both from the University of Pittsburgh Press. He co-directs the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin and edits the University of Wisconsin Press Poetry Series. He divides his time between Madison and a 40-acre farm in Bear Valley, Wisconsin.
The Humor of the Universe
Who was it said, comedy is when
you slip on a banana peel and fall down
and smack your head; tragedy is when
I get a hangnail? The universe doesn't
care, or distinguish the two, but goes on
about its business of what might seem to us
irony, but, of course, isn't, any more than
our parody of order is ever that. And yet,
we care, all 5.5 billion of us, gods of our
domains, in our houses or hovels, our
forests or factories, doing what we do
best, producing meaning, as if there is
an order to it all, and not just nothingness
and the rending fabric of space. What place
in the grand scheme of things do we have
but to sit on our hands and project ourselves
out into the future, as if there were a
scheme of things, and as if it were grand.
So now I remember why I like the snow:
after a winter of over one hundred inches
(a record, at least) that threatens to make us go
crazy (or to Florida) with the cranes and finches
and herons and swans and all the rest of those
summer visitors— enters all, no long-term
leases here, no home-owners, no rash purchases
over budget, no mortgages or sub-prime loans—
snow remains the best excuse for sloth,
for staying warm inside and hunkering down,
ambition and commitment heading south.
Spring! The sun and every flower's a clown
noodgying us back to life: Get to work!
On every tree a bud, a leaf, a smirk.
Who would have thought I'd end up
with plantar warts, Morton's neuroma,
a torn lateral meniscus, gastro-intestinal
disorders, scoliosis, slipped discs, degenerative
spine disease, sore teeth, general arthritis?
Ah, age! How it becomes me!
But all of these are as nothing
next to the amputations of emptiness,
the stumps of unspecified depression,
that baggage of lightweight meaninglessness
that has become so much a part of me
that I can never leave it behind, now
when it costs more and more to fly,
a surcharge for every checked bag.
I think I used to be happy, I who was
interminably healthy, I who would
never die. But maybe that's just the
nostalgia talking. So many little deaths!
All my life I've been studying
how not to come over to the dark side,
and now the dark side's come over
to me! Recently I've taken up shadow
boxing, and my shadow's been winning!
My constant traveling companion, no matter
how hard I try to pack light.
In Praise of Winter
It was the summer of mold,
mildew and rot, the windowsills
rife with decay, the old
siding warped, or shot.
The nettles and prickly ash crowded
the house, plotting their insidious
takeover, holding us hostage.
And not just to the world around us:
your retina detached, hurled
your sight to the winds that were
hot and heavy and not at all
conducive to respite or reprieve
or seeing at all clearly through
the rank humidity and haze.
But now, November has put
everything on hold. The cold
has frozen the summer in place
under its white veneer. What
a sight! There's nowhere to go
and nothing to be done! Nothing
changes or flows! Everything is
blessedly static and definable —
house, tree, and field, these
solid citizens of inertia, set in
their ways. All praise to winter
with its vitrectomies of light,
lasered tight, its bones bleached
and stowed, going nowhere!