Saturday, October 06, 2007

Lawrence Welsh reviewed in Saint Vitus

This is reprinted from


The bio note at the back of Lawrence Welsh's WALKING BACKWARDS TO SANTA FE informs the reader that he has already published five collections of poetry. Those readers who are currently familiar with Welsh's work know that his poetic base is the desert southwest and that he has already begun to mine much of the region from Los Angeles where he was born to El Paso where he is presently living and teaching.

Armed with those bare bone facts, one might assume that Lawrence Welsh is a poet strongly drawn to local color and the romantic Old West, but a close reading of his work only proves this assumption wrong. WALKING BACKWARDS TO SANTA FE is anything but a work of local color. And, while some of the poems tap into the rich tradition of the Old West, the thrust of these poems is toward something darker, something deeper.

The best poems in this collection ping pong between the personal and the hardscrabble life of mountain and desert. The elegy which opens the book, On The 15th Anniversary Of My Father's Death, is a homage to Welsh's origins, a kind of one off Kunitzian salute to a dead father. This is what you do as a good luck gesture so as not to disturb the old gods. This is what you do before entering the primal world of poetry and power.

This poem is a good introduction to what Lawrence Welsh is up to these days. The voice is clipped, elliptical, sometimes hermetic. The poem itself is a tip of the hat to Charles Olson obviously because of the open field way that the lines are displayed. And, of course, that influence extends through Olson to Robert Duncan. In fact, later on in the collection, in a poem entitled Elegy For John Wieners, Welsh refers to Olson and Duncan as well. This poem suggests the basic tension of the entire collection of the literary East with its lingering sense of High Modernism and Post Modernism and the ghost town deserterdness and near death darkness of the Old West.

an old timer says
keep your eyes open
study the shadows
el paso is all shadows...

from-The Elbo Room/Guadalupe

Welsh employs a clipped short line where the narrator is often felt to be hooded, almost invisible, and even when visible somehow withheld. The touch here is also of New York School and maybe just a hint of Language Poetry.

Welsh's voice and style also seem to be caught in that same tension of literary East versus the open hearted West. In the East the poet reveals nothing. He relies on allusion, he relies on aesthetic stance. In the West, the poet relies on the metaphor of the story itself and usually leaves out all the literary allusion. You can see the comparison very clearly in the poetry of Kell Robertson. Robertson tells stories laconically, elegiacally. Welsh suggests stories stoically and at an aesthetic distance.

Can such a tension survive as a recognizable style in a poet who live in El Paso, bordertown, gunfighter town, exile town, narco corrido town? It's a teasingly interesting question to consider. My take is he can, if he continues to maintain that tricky tension in both subject and style. However, my instincts somehow tell me that Welsh is a poet is search of a much larger subject. Maybe something all encompassing, a novel, a long poem, a sequence of shorter poems that somewhere in the future become a long poem, a metaphor is a long poem that somehow fuses Black Mountain, the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Charles Bukowski; Hart Crane first lost in the desert and then lost at sea, and the El Paso of Cormac McCarthy, Mariano Azuela, and John Welsey Hardin. These are all speculations, but poetry is haunted by all the best speculations. I Somehow have the feeling that Lawrence Welsh is searching for the secret metaphor that will define where he lives, where he writes, and where he dreams. A long poem that will define El Paso the same way that MAXIMUS defines Gloucester. And America. The grid for the poem and the myth for the dreams await him.

WALKING BACKWARDS TO SANTA FE is published by Pitchfork Poetry Press- and sells for six dollars

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