Anne Harding Woodworth on Terence Winch

The Known Universe by Terence Winch. Hanging Loose Press, 2018.

“Gotta have that spark to get the thing to work,” says a mechanic in Terence Winch’s autobiographical poem that opens his collection, The Known Universe. An electric current runs through this beautiful poem, and the reader is eager to be led into more poems full of sparks.

In this poem, called “The Complete Poem,” Winch discloses that his heart spun “out of control / for five hours.” But that’s not the only anomaly the poem is dealing with. There’s a car that’s in the shop with an electrical problem; and the speaker’s sick brother Kevin is in a nursing home; and a sister lives too far away. It’s as if nothing in the known universe is whole, except the poem itself, which with all its disparate parts holds together perfectly. One of the many touching moments is right there in Kevin’s nursing home room. The poet and another brother, Jesse, are visiting. Kevin reaches out to each brother’s hand, and life “runs through us like current,” which evokes the current of the speaker’s heart, the current needed for the ignition system of the broken car, the current that might bring the sister to them.

Terence Winch is not a narrative poet all the time, though The Known Universe contains some lovely stories in verse. Nor might he be pegged a singularly lyrical poet, though his cadences and vocabulary flow as real as music. No, Winch defies to be tagged.

One marvels at his known universe. It is an amalgam of humor, pathos, love, longing, self-effacement, observation, wisdom, reverence and irreverence, a place the reader can enter comfortably with eyes and ears wide open, warmly ready to believe and disbelieve. It is a place filled with sounds, memories, family, vignettes, Ireland, rites of passage; and the path within this universe, though not necessarily chronological, meanders through youth, middle age, and the years in which the end of life seems near.

And there’s Winch’s craft, filled with the spark of occasional rhyme, metaphor, message, and laughter. Winch can’t stop himself from having fun with words and then using them to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings. But he is never saccharine. He doesn’t know what a cliché is, and even in those times when he becomes irreverent, he never goes over the edge.

In the poem “Chicken Scratch” there’s the grandmother, a capable, proficient woman who died in 1937. There was nothing she couldn’t do except perhaps “explain her own non-existence.”
“Oh, you and me, she says,” [presumably to the poet]
we would have such fun

at the funerals and wakes,

we would dig up every joke

in the book and fill the universe

with our filthy laughter.
In Winch’s universe,
The stars are locked in wild embrace

while universe with universe collides

till nothing is left but a powdery trace

of the vast emptiness that hides

in our enormous hearts . . . .
His universe is timeless. He demonstrates this in several poems, such as in “Shame,” in which a letter he received forty-seven years ago is as fresh and pertinent today as it was the day it arrived. This poem shows us an endearing side of the poet, who is aware of his own shortcomings and not afraid to expose them.

In “When the Clouds Are All Buried in a Hole” he speaks to a “you” with longing. This “you” may be himself, a loved one, the reader, an everybody, a spirit—but nonetheless it is something that has been lost, while life’s trivialities, technologies, aromas, songs have continued. “Your absence is a universe of its own,” but the poet is certain that “you will come back just as we are leaving,” perhaps, as he writes in the poem “Dancing,” “leaving all you love for a brand-new / unknown land, lamenting / all that must be left behind.” In the poem “Oblivion” he finds just such an unknown land, where “We exhale, dizzy, dumbfounded, identity-free.” Winch’s unknown land is still part of the known universe.

Youth and music combine frequently in this collection, reflecting Winch’s musical background as well as his early days of pubs, cigarettes, even marriage. What makes these memories come alive most poignantly are the poet’s wistful lines of lost youth, or as he puts it, “The wild days are done.” In a delightful poem of apostrophe called “Entreaties,” Winch begs the new year not to grow old “like all the other years did.” In the poem “Flowers of the Fairest” he writes:
        . . . you sing Believe

Me If and the musicians riff on a tune

about mountain roads and abandoned

cottages. Where we piss outside

under a sky that is painted across

heaven in bold, divine strokes.

*    *     *     *    

        . . . The visions

we knelt before, the statues that made

us cry, we have bid them all goodbye.
Winch, the narrative poet, tells unforgettable stories, often memories. “Driving Home One Night” examines a young couple’s marriage when their car breaks down on Christmas at a toll booth and they have to wait for hours for the tow truck to come. They sing, they talk, and they are obviously in love. “It wasn’t such / a bad way to spend Christmas.” They were growing up. “I was looking for a real job.”

The final poem of the collection, “Do Not Seek the Treasure,” is a blend of what Winch has been saying. The poet’s voice is that of an elderly man, who, besides remembering his past, conjures the essence of this collection. He is a young man: “To fall asleep, I dream of basketball. / I am very tall in the dream. I slam dunk.” He is an old man: “I spend most of my time in the past. / It’s vast and entertaining, and I know how it ends.”

He may think he knows how it ends, but in view of how Winch’s electric energy compels him from his heart, his mind, and his grasp of his universe, he probably shouldn’t be so sure. As the mechanic said, you do have to have that spark to get things to work. Terence Winch has it.

Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of six books of poetry, most recently, The Eyes Have It (Turning Point, 2018).



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