Reviewed by MW Rishell
Intertwined strands of DNA have become a popular metaphor, one that comes to mind while reading The Walmart Republic, a co-authored collection of poetry by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Christopher H. Stewart.
The poems are gathered into five sections, with the first featuring the work of Stewart and the second the work of Lansana. The last three sections are split between the authors – much as the subject matter covers common but not necessarily shared experiences.
The two authors bring us slices of life in the Walmart Republic, a land many call “Flyover Country” where pain and poverty and permanent place come together. The Walmart Republic is not solely a middle-of-the-country locus or a Southern thing, as Stewart shows in “Jamestown, NY,” a poem illustrating the gradual decay of a town, of a relationship, and of “the kind of space this kind of dying / offers.” The placing of “Jamestown, NY,” early in the book may represent the early death of the factories themselves; however, those places in the middle of the country – like Lansana’s hometown of Enid, Oklahoma – have earned their membership in the Walmart Republic not just through the death of industry but also through the loss of pride, the dearth of hope, and the absence of opportunity.
The most interesting works from Lansana appear in section two – works I label as “conceptual poetry” because of the arrangement of statements (of sorts) rather than of full-blown poems with modifying words hiding and directing messages. The result is not a conventional poem but the concept of a poem, with a direct message. All of Lansana’s conceptual poems in this section are entitled “Bible Belted” but bear a different subtitle. Leading is “Bible Belted: Faith”:
i harbor reasons
to kill. pain, history
& blood. don’t know
why i have not.
Lansana’s “Statement on the Killing of Patrick Dorismond” endeavors to understand oppression and how words are perceived by those with less power or no power at all. The parentheticals appearing after the nouns and adjectives in the poem signal such power plays:
a petty hoodlum (cop) shot / killed suspect (Blackman) after
hoodlum (pig) was told by suspect (haitian) that he
(junglebunny) was not a drug dealer (nigga).
This poem about power reaches the apex of its own power when it’s revealed, suddenly, that the speaker is Rudy Guiliani.
Stewart’s poetry tells stories of change and stasis, often occurring simultaneously. Certainly the cities within the Walmart Republic, anthropomorphized, recall their big and burly past. They “laughed, spitting soot and oil / from the gaps between its front teeth.” The speaker values past days that seemed more “real”—“The way the streets smelled like fish and oil”—than streets feel in the present. The speaker likewise regrets the suburbanization of the city and uses the image of an iron staircase leading to Upper Wacker Drive to show that some things, like the author’s voice for example, will always be present even though the city – aging in reverse – works hard to forget them.
Lansana posits that Walmarts are new social spaces where the members of a town may connect for disparate reasons. They are also places that discount what used to be. Walmarts are the monster from Bentonville that has swallowed the Mom and Pop stores and forced the least of these to form a more cohesive community, setting aside their individuality for strength in numbers. Walmarts chase those with mind and vision away from the flatlands (literally and metaphorically) to the cities that welcome them. The irony is that these same spaces are at once oppressive and liberating. If there is a Walmart in a small town, there is surely, too, a sense of abandonment and amnesia: intermittent strands of the Walmart Republic DNA.
But we do remember. As Stewart notes in “The Fix It Man,” “I will be there, with my own father, / alone, as men sometimes are,” and as Lansana remembers in “Elegy,” Gwendolyn Brooks “had knocked enough red dirt / from my eyes to see black.” We are where we’re from, yes. But we’re also where we are, and this is illustrated by The Walmart Republic. Two friends – two poets – that brought their experiences and thus their work together like the intertwined strands of DNA.
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