The Walmart Republic (Mongrel Empire Press, 2014) is a collection of poems written collaboratively by Quraysh Ali Lansana (Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing at Chicago State University) and Christopher Stewart (Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University). The collection is divided into five sections; readers are introduced to each poet in the first two sections: the first features Stewart, the second Lansana. The last three sections include both poets; their poems blend together and speak to each other, but also, paint a larger picture of the American landscape. Both poets explore the heavy topics of decay and death, elegy, class, race, personal and political history, and humor.
For this book, it is difficult to talk about each poet individually because the poems, particularly in the last three sections, become so deeply intertwined. Lansana’s and Stewart’s artistic styles create one large, provocative mosaic of images and cultural artifacts as well as personal and political memories. Each voice enhances the other: Lansana’s powerfully concise and improvisational style complements Stewart’s thick, stark narratives. The Walmart Republic contains so many thought-provoking elements it is impossible for one review to uncover them all. With each poem, more ideas are unpacked; the poetic situation grows more complex.
A definite strength of the collection is the way in which the poets explore the southwest. The cover art is particularly impressive. It shows the image of Big Tex (an iconic statue associated with the State Fair of Texas that burned down in 2012) on fire with a cartoon map of the United States superimposed in front of the statue. A series of poems entitled “Bible-Belted” feature Oklahoma. “Bible-Belted: Found Two” is attention-grabbing: “oklahoma / the birthplace / of the dawes act / tulsa race riot / the reservation / a 900 ft white jesus” as well as “Bible-Belted History”: “okie white men / are a curious herd. / never sure if cowboy / or cracker. skin coated / in dust from 1830 or 1921/ hard to tell. they grow / whiter with age” (28, 30).
Each poet also includes a poem entitled “Will Rogers Turnpike.” Lansana’s version packs an aesthetic punch which is present in other poems throughout the collection. His work is strongest when the lines build up to a rhythm of sharp associative images; it is no different in “Will Rogers Turnpike” when the speaker says: “something dead every quarter mile / what are you, mexican? The kind cracker / asks at a truck stop / amazed to learn / of a duet between nelly and tim mcgraw” (69). Stewart’s version is also interesting since it is one of the few poems where he steps outside of a plain-spoken, observant voice into something more experimental. He takes wonderful risks with lines such as: “And I long for the Great Southwest, / where I could sit in a restaurant surrounded by Mary Kay / porno queens eating fruit salad plates. / Mounds and mounds of fruit salad plates and nowhere / to take them.” (75).
The prose pieces in The Walmart Republic could use more compression, but they also include some of the best moments of the book. For example, in “Brown Sugar,” the speaker reminisces about the Rolling Stones song through a series of memories from the 70s. The most compelling moment of the poem happens at the end when the speaker says:
At that very moment, a revelation: Just who is he [Mick Jagger] talkin’ about? Is he talkin’ about my Great Grandmother, who wore slavery in the wrinkle on her back, yet still held Jim Crow at gunpoint for 99 years? Or my Grandmother, who cleaned up behind the drunken country and western singers and their one night lovers at the Roadside Motel? Is he talkin’ bout my niece Whitnee, who, at eleven, is the same age as Pocahontas when she met John Smith? Whitnee, who has never brought home anything lower than an A on any report card in her life? Is he talkin’ bout my mama? My sistas? My aunties? My cousins? My wife? (84).
This passage is the true center of “Brown Sugar,” where the speaker finds himself in direct confrontation with the racist implications of the lyrics and how they reflect back on the strong, resilient, and intelligent women in his life. This bit of astute, sensitive realization comes at the end of the piece and it is nearly buried. An extra bit of compression could have brought the reader to this heart-wrenching moment quicker.
Another example occurs, in “Wallace,” where a homeless man makes a group of Washington DC tourists uncomfortable with his witty brand of gallows humor:
“My name is Wallace,” says the homeless man as he turns suddenly and faces me, stirring up the air enough for me to smell the street on his clothes, “and a man ain’t nothing if he don’t have a name.” He turns his body to face the crowd waiting in front of the gift shop. “And let me tell you, brothers and sisters, that you gotta have an opinion of [sic] you gonna make it in this town. And my opinion is this: the best nation is a donation!”…The crowd inches closer to the wall. “Anything will help. I’m 100 percent tax deductible!” (65-66).
Wallace’s voice shines through wonderfully; however, his presence is brief. The piece is titled “Wallace,” highlighting the reader’s attention to the homeless character, but it does not stick with him. Various other characters are introduced after Wallace makes his appearance; the piece could have been even stronger if it remained committed to Wallace as a compelling and humorous man.
The Walmart Republic is a pleasure to read because it encourages intimate conversation: it invites the reader to explore the voices of two poet friends as they write about race, class, American history and politics, and how their particular environments shaped them as human beings and as artists.
Originally published in Concho River Review, Fall 2016