David McAleavey on Terence Winch

Lit from Below by Terence Winch. Salmon Poetry, 2013.

This Way Out by Terence Winch. Hanging Loose Press, 2014.



Two new books from Terence Winch! A chance to enjoy more of his various charms, and to observe his responses to the multiple pressures working to shape lyric poetry in America.


And Winch is a lyric poet: these are all manageable-length, sometimes very brief, individual poems, each with its own title and sense of integrity or purpose; they are expressive, invested in revealing the state of mind of the poet (though not necessarily doing so in obvious or even readily-accessible ways); and they value musicality, taking pleasure in the integrity of the line, in stanza form, and above all in euphony (including rhyme). But while these are lyric poems, they do not much resemble the kind of generic personal lyric so common in American free verse poems of the past half-century.


Most of Winch’s poems are bright with humor, wit, and satire, and thoroughly soaked in irony and self-awareness. And while these two books share many features, they are also quite divergent. This Way Out continues the reader-friendly mode of Winch’s previous book, Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor (Hanging Loose, 2011). In a poem like “Exile,” in the new collection, for instance, Winch returns to the very personal grief of the loss of his mother when he was still a teenager, a subject he had addressed movingly in Falling . . . , in “Memo to Bridie Flynn,” for example. That earlier poem concludes (perhaps a little plaintively?), “Just once, pay a little visit. / Tell me what I need to know before you go.” In the newer poem, Winch uses his mother’s voice, or at least her point of view, to portray his ongoing sense of loss:


                                                            I know

            about your self-importance.

            You take it where you find it. I can’t

            believe how much you still grieve.

            Haven’t you kept me alive?

            Doesn’t that mean I never died?


I for one am happy to entertain positive answers to those questions, but the sense in which the dead can be kept alive—in our memories, in the patterns of our behavior—is limited, and requires the bittersweet acknowledgment that the actual, material loss has been absolute, and that the answers to those questions are sadly, definitively negative, which only compounds the felt grief of the poem.

Many poems in This Way Out seem more stridently ironic, less apt to reduce toward a dominant feeling with which the reader might easily identify; a resilient reader learns not to expect any singular sentiment. In a poem titled, “How I Lost My Virginity,” the speaker concludes,


            So don’t judge. As for my virginity, I lost it

            a thousand times, once in an apartment,

            and once outdoors at the beach, with a

            full moon above, the two of us pretending

            to be in love. And on one other occasion,

            I never lost my virginity at all,

            as far as I can recall.


Where much of this passage may seem to propose an expansive notion of the loss of virginity, as lovers reach new levels of intimacy in different circumstances, the final “occasion” is lost in unknowing and uncertainty. Indeed, the speaker who can no longer recall important (or possibly important) matters of his past life is a reduced individual—more honest, perhaps, but also in decline. The self-scrutiny of this irony challenges our usual mode of identifying with a lyric speaker’s emotional state: here is a speaker whose state we can’t know (since he can’t reveal it), and so we must accept his skepticism as a kind of diminished accuracy.


When turned against lyric poetry itself, Winch’s irony could be used to good result in any creative writing workshop. In “That Little Extra Something,” for instance, Winch satirizes the usual topics of most lyric poems while examining the hope, embodied by the poem, that satire itself will surmount the bland predictability of what average poets attempt. Importantly, Winch employs a casual idiom: “This is going to be a great piece of writing,” the poem begins, as its maddeningly self-important speaker recalls having had a “profound epiphanic / moment” while in a bar earlier in the evening; of course he can’t recall the actual epiphany and is merely confident that he’ll have another before this particular poem concludes. He lists topics he might address—awe (“You know, how awesome everyone / thinks everything is these days?”), or “insights into the nature of art and music,” or sex (“no one, IMO, / really appreciates sex the way I do”), or death. Here’s how this one ends:


            But a truly great piece of writing, like this

            one, takes that little extra something,

            you know, like a metaphor, simile, image,

            sign, symbol, one of those sorts of amazing

            tools that can pry open a nuclear payload

            of wisdom and understanding and transform

            everything and everyone in its wake.


The poem is so witty and so drenched with sarcasm that almost any audience would have to laugh, perhaps at being so unflatteringly reflected in the poet’s antic mirror, perhaps because they too resent being told what to feel about all the things that they so often hear addressed and repeated endlessly again and again . . . . It’s not that we trust the speaker—we’re not expected to naively admire a poet who thinks the different types of figurative language all work the same way, or who analogizes the “little extra something” that makes for a “great piece of writing” with a nuclear explosion (or whatever might transpire when you “pry open” a nuclear device!)—but that we come to understand that indeed a poem can be made from even this material, the litter of worn-out egotism and lazy conformity. It’s a clever poem, without doubt, and usefully unsettling.


Other poems in This Way Out feel more purely funny—“My Life in the Wild,” for instance, which concludes,


            The million deer of Rock Creek Park

            come out in the dark

            for a lark.


            I pray the ants do not return.

            They are small, but numerous.

            I am tall, but humorous.


Or “Night Dances,” where still more intricate verbal hijinks carry us along:


            That brings me to now and the question of how

            to make time mine, to outfox the shocks to the system.

            To wake in a bath of math, numbed by numbers

            so humbling they ensure a path to eternity

            whilst all modernity is aghast with the past.


Other poems are almost entirely devoid of irony—the delicate focus on domesticity and music of “Waiting Room”; the attempt to imagine an illiterate, unknown, and now essentially unhistoric grandfather who left behind only an “X” on his daughter’s marriage certificate (“X-Man”); the narration of what seems to be a dream, in which two young teenagers fall almost certainly to their deaths, in “Two Girls.”


The literary contextualizing in Winch’s work can’t be ignored, either. Not only does he have a lot of fun with Great Works of the past (using Keats’s end-rhymes from “Ode to a Nightingale” to craft his own “Nightingale, Wish Me Luck,” for instance), but he also pushes knowledgeably against literary history. In “Romantic Poem,” for instance, the speaker captures basic Romantic notions in a simple deadpan: “I am interested in / the supernatural, though I don’t / like being scared. I am also / really focused on the emotions / and on nature.” Later in the poem, though, the speaker finds himself in what we can call a late Romantic predicament: “the world is just a construct . . . . / It’s pretty depressing and / unfortunate, especially the / way sex too becomes imaginary.” And of course there are references to Latin authors (“Classical Instructions”), Homer (“George Washington Vs. Achilles”), Hemingway (“Gary Oldman and the Sea”), and a rewrite of Ecclesiastes (“Time Out”).


The urbanity and sophistication of This Way Out is concentrated in Lit from Below, it seems to me. Through his dedications to a number of the poems in both books, we glean some idea of the friendship circle in which Winch’s poems could expect the warmest reception—Bernard Welt, Geoff Young, John Ashbery, Michael Lally, and Charles Bernstein are among the poets and publishers whom Winch salutes. Himself a New Yorker by birth and education, it is no surprise that Winch would have absorbed the lessons, diffuse though they may be, of the New York School and of Ashbery, or that he would see the value in “Language” writing, one of whose strongest advocates Bernstein has been. It’s useful to see Lit from Below as the work of someone both setting out to prove his experimentalist chops and resolving to enjoy the freedoms of a mode that does not insist on the need for closure, logic, or even coherence.


Lit from Below comprises ninety poems, each with ten lines; the shape of each is of a kind of stubby sonnet, and the whole therefore resembles sonnet sequences of yore, at least at one level. Indeed, a number are presented as consisting of two quatrains and a concluding couplet—Shakespearean mini-sonnets—though there are many other line arrangements as well, and one of the pleasures of the book is seeing just how various and inventive Winch can be as he assembles these various little “machines made out of words” (as William Carlos Williams famously once called poems).


Winch’s openness to using dream material, which figures in some of the poems in This Way Out, suggests that he might well rely, in a work more deliberately experimental, on surrealist techniques, including the inexplicable juxtaposition of absurd or arbitrary-seeming images and ideas. And indeed, it’s best to approach Lit from Below from below—not in terms of the themes or motifs or ideas or conclusions that lyric poems often strive to communicate, but as the experience of the poems’ materials tumbling through the mind. These poems are more engaged with the process of mental experience than they are concerned with any intended result.


That said, these poems are hardly hostile to the reader; often they seem very close to making sense, to decidability, as it were. Here is “Any Way You Want Me”:


            We were never there, we were always here.

            We never have enough to go on. We remember

            the future, pulsing in the silence. We flatten out,

            then fill the empire with insurance policies.


            We lie on the bed with our knees bent

            feeling the expansion of the moon, the seasons.

            Because of the stars we pant like a psychopath. A note

            under the door says to drink but not swallow.


So in the small of your back in the shower

            on a motorcycle try to hold your breath.


Let me offer one way to track through this poem. The “here” of the first line could be the time-space event of the poem itself, where the reader finds herself. Or not, as the second line can warn us: “never enough to go on.” And just beyond the present moment, where the poem is in process, the future is lurking. Its immensity may diminish us; we are suddenly reminded to update our life insurance. That whole (possible) encounter with existential realities sends us to bed, either with the cosmic experience of some philosopher “feeling the expansion of the moon,” or in the hopes of finding relief through lovemaking (“we pant . . .”). We may drink, just not swallow; we may smoke, so long as we don’t inhale. And as for where these two can get together—the lovers, or the reader and the writer—they will find one another pretty hard to pin down. “Any way you want me” sounds like an impossible contortion: on a motorcycle, in a shower, in the small of your back, as you hold your breath.


Other poems move even more rapidly. Here is “Memorial Day”:


            Amid all this is another recipe for the sex questionnaire.

            But I’m sure you don’t want to talk about that.

            Playtime needs to take place on the playground.

            Crypto-Catholics need to practice under false names.


            In dreams, plots, programs, and video games

            we came to rely on a different kind of man.

            Women in high places needed some dirty work done

            while oil merchants cover our prayers in manure.


            The question of memory fades right before your eyes.

            You are just one aspect of the dream-like summer ahead.


Surely a national holiday called “Memorial Day” ought to invoke some inquisitiveness about memory, suggests this poem; only it turns out that nearly every topic we turn our attention to evades us for one reason or another: sex is a topic many people would just as soon avoid, so it’s good to have firm boundaries for such things, as for play. Also, if you’re going to keep your religious beliefs a secret, you may need to invent a new identity, and often there’s a discrepancy between social standing and practical realities. Given the overwhelming force of avoidance and evasion, everyone seems to be living in a dream, and no individual identity looks very secure.


It seems to me, in other words, that these poems tend toward coherence, some more fully than others, though really, most of them aren’t insisting on coherence so much as enjoying the loopy connections that have occurred in the loose-limbed, jazzy compositional space where these lines got dreamed up. In “Foreign Matter,” Winch writes, “It’s irresistible, this superb balance / between paradox and orthodox.” That seems to summarize the effect he’s after, sliding between nonsense and sense. (On the other hand, the “-dox” suffixes in “Foreign Matter” may be a kind of pun: the poem imagines a “chair / that turned into a dog / that barked when I sat on it,” and the speaker ends up walking the love seat on a leash twice a day!)


One more poem to look at in its entirety, “Realism”:


            Usually Marge is a fat middle-aged

            woman with a bad attitude, but

            today she is a friendly teenager,

            though oblivious to the needs of others.


            But when night is falling and classical

            music erupts from the toys,

            the cat returns from the dead,

            to dance in the starlight.


            And the two women kiss as the luxury

            liner steams into the harbor.


The same person can be both middle-aged and unhappy, and young and carefree—that seems realistic enough to me, from a psychological viewpoint. On the other hand, the idea that things can be harmonized—that the two versions of “Marge” can be united, and kiss—belongs to the movies, that is, to fantasy, not to realism, or so at least “Realism” suggests.


Similarly, these two books by Terence Winch will never “kiss as the luxury / liner steams into the harbor.” They are very different. Both are books of lyric poetry, but This Way Out is closer to conversation, to song, and to public performance, while Lit from Below is more intimate, because less controlled and channeled (even though its formal appearance may suggest otherwise). The newer book is the easier to read, but if you’re interested in understanding the range of this important writer, you may end up getting more out of Lit from Below, a project begun over twenty years ago.

David McAleavey’s poetry has appeared in many journals, including Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Georgia Review; since early 2010 he has had over a hundred poems and prose poems in Epoch, Poetry Northwest, Denver Quarterly, Birmingham Poetry Review, diode poetry journal, anderbo.com, Stand, Drunken Boat, and dozens of others. His fifth and most recent book is Huge Haiku (Chax Press, 2005). He teaches literature and creative writing at George Washington University in D.C.



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