The power went out this morning and stayed out most of the day, giving me an enforced Sabbath. I went for a walk, shot some video footage of goldfinches in the budding crabapple tree, and at one point this afternoon actually wrote a poem with pen and paper, using my old clipboard. And I extended my poetry-book-a-day pattern a little by reading long sections of a couple of other books before settling on this one. For whatever reason, Welsch’s somber, resonant voice was a perfect match for my mood today, reading in my strangely quiet living room with none of the usual electronic hums or furnace rumblings.
I first read An Eye Fluent in Gray last November, which was maybe a little too much of a good thing since a number of the poems in the book are set in November in Central Pennsylvania (Gabe lives not too far away from me). In general, I share his fondness both for the color gray and the month of November — the latter especially from half a year away. The title of the chap comes from the third poem, “Life in the Northeast, on a Line from Stevens,” which begins:
One must have a mind of winter
and an eye fluent in gray,
ears conversant in the sting
of slowed blood, in the many ways
to hear snow fall.
Welsch has an eye for the run-down, the worn-out, the spare, the harsh and the barren — kind of the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic translated into rural Pennsylvanian. This is evident even in the two more summery poems that begin the book, the first focusing on “The Oldest Roller Coaster in the World”—
the whole structure lurched
and groaned, as boards popped out
of their joints and snapped back, as metal
whined with strained age…
—and the second, “Black Raspberry Picking by Route 26, Centre County, Pennsylvania,” musing on the recent discovery of a murdered girl not far from the berry patch.
We wanted enough for a pie. Near dark,
fireflies haunted the woods’ edge by the ponds—
scummy effluvium of the water treatment plant,
the backwash of town edged in raspberries.
Welsch writes feelingly both of deer and of deer hunters, and he rarely seems to lose track of our basic mammalian identity. I was struck by this description of a Christmas caroler from “Ave Maria Outside a Small-Town Diner”:
The power of her throat, the creamy
length her voice implies, the purity
of her sound and its prayer:
everything sacred is of the body—
spirit moves muscle, shapes the eyes,
faith lives in the spark of a brain fed
on the lush fat of the blood
and a body’s cache of longing.
But in “Lovely, Dark and Deep,” the narrator expresses skepticism about his felt connection with white-tailed deer:
To meet their gaze, or to think
we’ve met their gaze, to stare back
as they question a windshield,
all that runs through a mind
seduced by the thought of connection.
As if, because we are both born in blood
and both wear hair, because we both
have time behind us watching woods
stir and darken, we invent
what we see.
Welsch places the poems referencing Stevens and Frost on facing pages, then follows with “What the Deaf Boy Heard” (text available on the publisher’s page; audio at Whale Sound) — one of several poems where listening plays a central role.
These are tough poems, all the more so because of their accessibility. The image I can’t get out of my head comes from “Route 422, Cambria County, Pennsylvania”: the state historical marker for the birthplace of another Pennsylvania poet, Malcolm Cowley, turned into a target for passing motorists:
you hear men
throw bottles at the sign, and the skitter of glass,
dainty as a chime.
Yeah, that sounds about right. As the poem says a few stanzas earlier, “This place … reinvents darkness every night.”
Seven Kitchens Press is offering free shipping on all titles this month. Click on the book cover image above to order this one.