The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Laura Orem on Terence Winch
Falling Out of Bed In a Room With No Floor by Terence Winch. Hanging Loose Press, 2011.
We will gather around the ceramic heater
and see if we can pick up
something from the ancestors. They are always
reminding me of our many obligations to keep the old ways going.
I play along. I don't want them consigning me to limbo for eternity.
from "Listening to the Ancestors"
Terence Winch's latest collection, Falling Out of Bed In a Room With No Floor,
investigates the impact of the past on the speaker's present. Taking as their topics lost love, aging, death, loss, and unrealized dreams, these poems could be dark, depressing, and grim. But they are not. Winch views everything with wry humor and deep tenderness, and his skilled craftsmanship, attention to significant detail, and linguistic agility show us a deeply humane and
gifted poet at the top of his game.
Winch is, of course, identified foremost as an Irish-American poet with what we like to think of as a distinctly Irish sense of language. He is also a musician. So it is not surprising that his poems are saturated with sound and music, but their tonal qualities are never mere gymnastics. In other words, the sense of the poem is never obscured by the sound. Take, for example, "Snow Days":
Cigarette ash, dandruff, cocaine,
white blankets whitening the stain
of color, suppressing the noises
of our cold voices in the woodsy
hamlets and cities of our sleeping pain.
I am nodding off now in tv's afterglow
suffusing white bedroom in pink light.
When I dream I promise I'll envision
snoring steamboat captains sailing in celestial
circles round rings of the tree of life,
cheerily chiding, "Regardez le neige!"
while begging for English and breakfast in bed.
The sonic effects do not overshadow the grittiness provided by the physical details. We bounce along with the cadence, but what is being said within that rhythm does not lose its edge. Winch is particularly adept at this kind of balance, using all the tools in his poetry bag to unpackage his poems' visions.
One of the most appealing things about Winch's work, and about this collection in particular, is its sense of being in cahoots with the reader. Winch's speakers are conspiratorial: they say what they know the reader is thinking, and they know the reader knows they know before they say it. In "House Guests," the speaker targets our desire for emotional boundaries and our concomitant and contradictory sense of isolation when we establish them:
I take our guests aside and tell them that they have to accept
that they are not in charge here, we are. They have to behave
in ways that are acceptable to us. For instance, they can't
just help themselves to anything in the refrigerator.
They can't visit pornographic websites on our computer.
We ask them to settle down. This is our home, we explain.
We have to have things exactly the way we like them.
The guests are barbarians. I notice food stains on their shirts.
They are overweight and obnoxious. They're all in the spare
bedroom now, door shut tight. I hear them laughing.
Isn't laughter the saddest sound in the world?
It is, especially when we are not part of the magic circle.
Winch has an almost unerring eye for the significant detail. His poems are packed with physical imagery—names, places, things—that bring the circumstances described to life, almost painfully. Some examples of this can be found in "I Am Dressed as a Gondolier," which bounces throughout the 1950s and '60s describing the kind of details that were important at the time (buses, cars, "letters from Africa," "soda boys at bingo") but seem almost silly now, except for the fact that they are remembered; "Proclamation for My Father 1955," where the actual details of a broken boiler, a shovel, oysters, booze, an angry boss ("fat Father Hammer"), bump against the details of a dream—cats, a bed, "the clean, sweet air / of paradise"—to elucidate the aching heart of the poem: "The thing you most fear in life boils down/to your own invisibility, there for all to see"; and the very funny "The Garbage Sacrifices," which gleefully describes the garbage cans of a 1950s neighborhood alley—"Bits / of glistening fat, bread crusts, / bones, stumps of asparagus, / greasy napkins"—to warn what happens to non-conformists who don't take out the trash.
Winch's penchant for listing details has in places an echo of Frank O'Hara. In "The Elementals," he writes, "Pants tend to mean that civilization will not / back down, no matter how hot it gets . . . . I will not discuss underwear / except to note that moral values in a free / society tend to keep it out of sight." "The Invisible Center of Evolution" tells a revised version of Copernicus, who "picked up a big stick / and struck an angel with it," much to the displeasure of
many men with long mustaches
[who] raised their hands, as though hailing a cab, and asked him
what he thought he was trying to prove. Copernicus, who was
from Denmark, replied, "Beauty is a bundle of sensations!"
The incongruity and humor are definitely O'Haraesque, but Winch never slides into O'Hara's self-reflective camp.
Underneath all of this is Winch's ironic but always humane sensibility. Indeed, sometimes that sensibility is heartbreakingly tender, but Winch's poetic chops keep it from sentimentality. His skill with language, sound, rhythm, and clarity of voice are at their strongest in "Innocent," a two-page narrative that describes "a friend I had once who spent seven years on death row." The speaker quickly assures the reader that, while he is "usually nervous around predatory people," this man "was not that kind of guy. He seemed happy. I'd look / into his eyes and not see someone to fear . . . . He told me that after all those years on death / row, he treated every day like a celebration."
The poem goes on to tell the man's story, and we see him as a human being with a life history worth hearing. The last stanza of the poem is devastating. I won't quote it here. Instead, read it for yourself. Read all of Falling Out of Bed In a Room With No Floor. Its poems will stay with you long after you close the book.
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