Reviewed by Brandon Downing
Wayne Chambliss' The Traveling Salesman Problem is a small book of ten-line works, each ostensibly sent by the author as 'postcard dispatches' to his project managers as he coursed around the country peddling "biological agents, content management software, and engineering services" (and perhaps a touch of snake oil) from such locations as San Francisco, Oak Harbor (WA), and New York City. The book is also a wonderful aggregate of light heartbreak, throwback meter, lost-kid watchfulness, and truly fresh air. It has been a long time coming.
The author has previously published several installments of excellent translations, particularly of the Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, and, while scattered outbursts of his own work have been showing up more frequently in journals, this is the most substantial dose of his work most readers will have seen.
Wayne Chambliss was an underground legend at Stanford University, where rumors swirled about this wild performer of old-style 'verse' who semi-haunted the campus. One Friday, as Spring Quarter was winding down, I caught a ride down from San Francisco to catch a Wayne 'event'. The performance had been advertised only by word of mouth: Wayne was going to do a show right in front of Rodin's bronze doors, The Gates of Hell, sculptural jewel of the University, just before dark. But when we showed up, there was a real crowd gathered up for it, stretched out across the lawn, little picnics at sunset, many of whom, somewhat nervously, seemed to know what was in store. "He's really into Brodsky," someone whispered, but when I heard him boom and trill out the first four or five hundred lines of a middle-aged-persona-lament of the seasons and the arthritis of time--fully from memory --I was thinking about more than Brodsky. This was old throwback oratory of the first, and weirdest, order: pulsing, William Jennings Bryanesque monologue, fiery, fully convincing and fake, elated and depressed. And it was fiction: true theater, seeming to inhabit the desperate pull of bitterness and regret, global consciousness, goofball rumination. It was like the gangleader’s opening speech of The Warriors (1979), translated by James Merrill.
I was quite blown away. This was unearthly shit. Recited by a chain-smoking, surfer-handsome, baseball-cap sporting kid of twenty-four or so who slept many of his nights in the Student Union, having slipped through the grill of the Stanford system a few years before, circulating from couch to couch with his book-bag and toiletries, hitting on smart girls. I got to know Wayne a little bit over the ensuing years, as he cycled through several phases of sofa-surfing, jobs as the 'encyclopedic' cashier at different video stores, the brain behind several brilliant (and perhaps less-than-brilliant) internet start-ups. He has ended up doing just about everything and running around just about everywhere. And that's one of the reasons so few of us have become familiar with his work. The Traveling Salesman Problem should help with that.
While the author's peripatetic condition, and occasional instability, has perhaps prevented him from rooting his work and letting it grow in the past, this rich motif of displacement lies right at the heart of the The Traveling Salesman Problem:
Everywhere now, intimations of North.
Even the little bronze weather vane's attempting a migration.
And cats grow lean in the court-
yards watching the peregrinations
of squirrels with cheeks like Louis Armstrong.
Cinnamon, hickory, chamomile, clover.
Embedded in the eiderdown,
"you reach for a shirt and the day is over."
And words are off-colored as leaves, flecked with the old neurosis,
gasping like wind in the trees. Or else tuberculosis.
And that's the poem. There are about twenty more of them here. His four- and five-hundred line odes of endurance have become, in this short new collection, ten-lined, epigrammatic videotapes of change. With some of his earlier wilderness shed for a brighter sense of purpose and passing time, there remains that clever Britishized need for rhyme, and that ex-patriotic style of line breaks. It’s a real campfire.
Wayne Chambliss is The Traveling Salesman. That makes it even more perfect that his new collection is so titled. Ironically, it's here in NYC--where The Traveling Salesman Problem itself ends all cute and abrupt--that Wayne, always at the perimeter of so many lives and influences, has found worth settling into for a real spell. I can only hope that work like this continues to be the result of his new rooted-ness, however illusory it might be. And while these short poems retain much of the epic nature of his earlier work, here it’s much more graspable and lived: the moment-to-moment flashes of mood, gentle japanese rhyme, shadow puppetry, the weariness behind all that fucking mobility. Let this be the beginning of a lot more Wayne.