A CLOSER LOOK: Terence Winch



Photo by Susan Campbell

      The son of Irish immigrants, Terence Winch grew up in the 50's and 60's in the Catholic-Irish community of the Bronx, New York City.  It is that community, and his growing up within its close embrace, that is the setting of his acclaimed new book, Boy Drinkers (Hanging Loose Press, 2007), and that inspires its themes of tradition, love, betrayal, and redemption.  In his central role within the larger Irish-American community, he serves as anthemic poet, musician, and fiction writer.

Winch's creative work has been honored repeatedly by the literary and musical communities.  His first poetry collection, Irish Musicians/American Friends (Coffee House Press, 1985), won an American Book Award.  Another collection, The Great Indoors (Story Line Press, 1994) won the Columbia Book Award.  His work has elicited praise like this from poet Eamon Grennan:

Winch's serio-comic imagination renews the world with panache, letting ordinary matters take on a glow at once enigmatic and everyday.  In this technically impressive collection, the poems offer a witty, intrepid, unsentimental response to pleasures of the flesh as well as to pain and soreness of spirit . . . .  Winch has a beautifully tuned ear, whether working in formal mode or in supple lines of free verse.  In all their zany, plainspoken ways, these poems sing.

And this from poet Meg Kearney:

Here is a new look at the Irish diaspora, where the sound of glasses clinking is as familiar as the smell of incense at a Catholic Mass, where Terence Winch prays, "If the spirit has its own life, let the noises /it makes be as silent as the multiplication / and subtraction of time, and not / the rattle of a cough in the dark."  Boy Drinkers looks with sober eyes at the people, tragedies, and traditions that shaped any of us who grew up in a community where alcohol and God were equally able to bring us to our knees. With his musician's ear and Irishman's humor, Terence Winch pokes fun at the Holy, makes sacred the mundane, and redefines the meaning of "grace."

Another collection of his poems, The Drift of Things, was published in 2001 by The Figures.  Other titles include Contenders (Story Line Press, 1989), a book of short stories, and That Special Place: New World Irish Stories (Hanging Loose Press, 2004), which draws on his experiences as a founding member, with his brother Jesse, of the acclaimed Irish band Celtic Thunder. 

Many of the songs he wrote for Celtic Thunder recount the story of New York's Irish community, including such songs as "When New York Was Irish," "Saints (Hard New York Days)," and "The Irish Riviera."  Celtic Thunder's second album, The Light of Other Days, won the prestigious INDIE award for Best Celtic Album in 1988. Terence Winch's most recent music project is a CD that collects his best-known Irish compositions on one disk: When New York Was Irish: Songs & Tunes by Terence Winch.

His poetry is included in The Oxford Book of American Poetry, three Best American Poetry collections, and has been featured on Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" and NPR's "All Things Considered."  His poems have appeared widely in such journals as Verse, Paris Review, and New American Writing.  Winch has been a grant recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, and the Maryland State Arts Council.  He has been one of Washington DC's "Mass Transit" poets and a writer connected with the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in lower Manhattan.  His website is www.terencewinch.com.

A selection of poems by Terence Winch:


PROCLAMATION FOR MY FATHER IN 1965


Whereas time has caught up with me and the boiler
broken down again, and day after day it snows and snows
and there I am, with my shovel, in the dark
cold night waiting for day, and wishing I was in New Jersey

with Ethel and P.J. & Marion having a drink and taking in a play.
Maybe later eating oysters at the Oyster Bar
and dancing until four at the United Irish Counties Ball

Whereas I am now sixty years old and don't feel so good
much of the time, like right now, while fat Father Hammer
just turned fifty and I know is getting set to fire me
but I've been here for fifteen years and am ready to go

my own way, into the secret America I never knew before.
The banjo-playing lesbians, the depressed school teachers
who tell me Paddy, Paddy, Paddy, you're our man

Whereas I feel it all coming apart, the hard years
in this country, the loves gained and lost, the tough jobs
the gigs, the booze, the dearly departed friends
the wife whose absence never ends

while I never mend, always sensing the ghosts so near.
The thing you most fear in life all boils down
to your own invisibility, there for all to see.

Therefore be it resolved that tomorrow will be eighty
degrees and sunny.  My children will visit me.  My grandchildren
will sing me songs.  The Bronx will float on the clean, sweet air
of paradise.  I will feed a basement full of cats.
The future sprawls out like a drunk on a bed.

        first published in Inertia  (on line)
 

SIC TRANSIT GLORIA

Guy asks me for $1.80 on the subway.
White guy, bald, shirt and tie.
Says they towed his car with his wallet in it.
He is sitting in front of me.  All the men
in the car have been stealthily eyeing
an astonishingly beautiful young woman
in a very short skirt, who has been
drawing in a big sketchbook.  She is luminous.
Summer is almost over.  I can't concentrate
on reading because I have to sneak looks
at the gorgeous artist.  The day is flying
past in the fading sunlight.

Big bald oval head right in my face.
I'll pay you back, he says.  That's okay,
I say.  I give him two dollars.  He says thanks
and turns around.  We all resume studying
the woman.  Two young black guys sit
across from me.  One of them keeps
snapping his gum so loud it's like
a cap gun going off. 

An enormous fat guy says to the beauty as he heads
for the door: I don't know how you can draw
with the train bumping around.  She smiles
at him.  We are all overcome with the radiant
brilliance of her smile.  I think about music,
I think about my godson smashing nine windows
in New Jersey yesterday.  We are always trying
to break out.  Sex is better than religion.

She gets up at Metro Center.  The doors slide open
for her and she's gone.  It's back to real time. 
The Yankees are one and a half games out of first. 
Someone's cell phone rings and he squawks:
Can't hear you. I'm on the subway.  What? 
The bald guy rises up.  I know he will turn
around before exiting and thank me again,
give a further gesture of appreciation.
It's the right thing to do. Two bucks
is not nothing between strangers.
I'm sure he'll give me that bonus nod.

        first published in Smartish Pace

 
JENNIFER CONNELLY SESTINA

The boy returns home with blue hair.
The dog understands everything we say.
He is wearing an lampshade around his neck.
His left hind leg is stapled closed.
The veterinarian says there is no reason for God
because the universe is just a dog'' dream.

We can all agree that Jennifer Connelly is a dream.
Almost naked, in a thong, cloaked in her long black hair, 
her every move is proof for the existence of God. 
The boy with blue hair is not willing to say
why his lips are sealed, his mind made up, his door closed.
I am not wearing a lampshade around my neck.

My wife once owned a jacket with "Great Neck"
printed on the back.  Before we met I had a dream
about her name.  I waited until the restaurant closed
to tell her she had dazzling movie-star hair.
In fact, she is just as beautiful as, let us say,
the astonishing Jennifer Connelly, so help me God.

The boy and the dog are friends with God.
They claim they feel his hot breath on their necks.
Unfortunately, they don't like what He has to say
I'd like to take this occasion to daydream
briefly once again about Jennifer Connelly's hair
and the rest of her: extraordinary.  That's it. Case closed.

When I got to the church at midnight, it was closed
tighter than the eyes and ears of our good friend God.
Frankly, in that proverbial foxhole, I'd take Madalyn O'Hair
over the Pope.  The boy's upstairs playing bottleneck
guitar.  The dog is drunk on pain-killers, dreaming
that if he could talk, he'd know just what he would say.

O, Jennifer, there is still so much left to say
but my time is up, it's late, everything is closed.
I want to crawl into bed, past the dog, and dream
of the sex palaces of Heaven, where everyone is the God
of love, and you and me and my wife are racing neck and neck
with the erotic angels of Paradise, but I win by a hair!

New Orleans, like you, is now a dream.  Maybe I'll call this "The Hair
of the Dog," who, by the way, has become an incredible pain in the neck.  
What more can I say, except that in Waking the Dead, you played God.

first published in McSweeney's on line
www.mcsweeneys.net/links/sestinas/13TerenceWinch.html

URBAN TURTLES

Small green couch in the living room.  I come home at night and sit in it.
"Law & Order" is on TV.  I have a glass of cheap cabernet and make eggs
for dinner. It gets later and later.  I hit the mute button and listen
to the old clock on the piano tick, then tock.  I wash my dishes. 
I choose tomorrow's work clothes.
 
I said to my barber, "Give me a haircut that looks exactly
like Frank Sinatra's wig," and he did.  My barber is a very nice, gay Egyptian. 
I take a hot bath and listen to right-wing talk radio, which I find very relaxing. 
I keep wondering where everyone went.
 
The dog was just here, I'm positive.  I can smell dog.  There's another
strange odor in the bathroom.  Perfumey.  Or maybe it's Lysol or 409. 
The toothpaste is cinnamon flavored. 
I spray a "Fresh Outdoors" scent throughout the house.
 
Maybe I am all alone.  Which is not what I really want.  I want a party
going on in every room.  I want guests in the guest room.  I want people taking baths in the bathroom.  I consult Each Day a New Beginning for today:
"We have judged our world and all the situations and people in it
in terms of how their existence affects our own."
 
I remember a conversation I had this afternoon with a colleague
about urban turtles. Could they really survive in the fast-paced city?  Sure, he
said.
I don't really care.  A friend of mine died in November and I think about him
all the time.  I stopped calling him because he never initiated contact with me
and I didn't like that.  But a week or so before he died, he said to me:
"I always loved seeing you.  I loved being in your presence."
Now he is always talking to me from the beyond, as he had threatened to.
It's his voice, then the tick tock of the clock, then his voice again.
 
first published in Crowd magazine
 

SOCIAL SECURITY
 
No one is safe.  The streets are unsafe.
Even in the safety zones, it's not safe.
Even safe sex is not safe.
Even things you lock in a safe
are not safe.  Never deposit anything
in a safety deposit box, because it
won't be safe there.  Nobody is safe
at home during baseball games anymore.

At night I go around in the dark
locking everything, returning
a few minutes later
to make sure I locked
everything. It's not safe here.
It's not safe and they know it.
People get hurt using safety pins.

It was not always this way.
Long ago, everyone felt safe.  Aristotle
never felt danger.  Herodotus felt danger
only when Xerxes was around.  Young women
were afraid of winged dragons, but felt
relaxed otherwise.  Timotheus, however,
was terrified of storms until he played
one on the flute.  After that, everyone
was more afraid of him than of the violent
west wind, which was fine with Timotheus.
Euclid, full of music himself, believed only
that there was safety in numbers.

from The Drift of Things (The Figures, 2001)
first published in the Paris Review, then in Poetry 180 


MY WORK

In my work, at any given point,
the great issues of identity politics
and dialectical absolutism assume
a tight coherence, a profoundly
threatening total awareness
by which I seek to mediate
the conflict between meaning
and the extremes of deconstruction. 

I never strike a false note.
I believe in savvy artistic
incandescence as a constitutive
enhancement of racy sexuality,
all as a way to examine the
necessity of self-love.

It's always dangerous to underestimate
my work.  I insult the intellectual
dignity of the French.  They arrive
in my brightly colored landscape
right after quitting time only to discover
an empty stage set in which all the clueless
actors have wandered off to an installation
of obsolete Marxist sloganeering.

Yeats was deeply immersed in mythology
and so am I.  T. S. Eliot preferred Dante
to Shakespeare, but I don't.  Charles Bernstein
loves the way my sentences decompose.
John Ashbery will read my work only
while naked.  Everything I do is the pure
output of brains, speed, and skill.

A couple of weeks ago, I digested
Aristotle.  I found him to be electrifyingly
ahistorical, and he now has been subsumed
into my work.  I have open-ended stratagems
when it comes to the Germans, particularly
Goethe and Kant.  They live now in my
imagination.  I go way beyond alienation
into a new synthesis of desire and content.

My work stands for something invisible,
something inner.  I attempt to explain
the risk of appearing.  Foucault would know
how well my work succeeds in revealing
the discourse between power and structure.  
When you read my work, you may think
"simile" or "metaphor," but what you really
get is the storm, the dark mansion, the servant
girl standing alone in Columbus Circle.

Triumph and loss permeate my work.
People should try to pick up on that.
My technical virtuosity is unrivaled.
Don't talk to me about subject matter.
My work takes "narrative" and turns
it into what never happened.  In my work,
"story" becomes language contemplating
its own articulation in a field of gesture.

There is a higher reality at play in my work.
Sacred memories resonate with perceptual
knowledge of the body as primal text.  Yet
my work is never subservient to the dominant
ideology.  It circulates warmly and freely
through all available channels.  My work
is like the furniture you so much want to
sink into, but must wait as it wends its way
from distant points in a giant moving truck
screeching across the country
to your new home.

from The Drift of Things
first published in New American Writing, then in Best American Poetry 2003


SLEEP WALTZ
        for mcw

Get old enough so you won't have much to fear.
By then, the music plays inside your head
and everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

In the bathroom mirror I behold my wear and tear.
In our bedroom I try to levitate in bed.
Get old enough so you won't have much to fear.

Meanwhile, my son at six wants to keep me near
and we sing together every night head to head.
So everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

His father's tunes, though, will one day disappear
beyond today's routines and daily bread.
But get old enough so you won't have much to fear.

Remembering my mother was my first career
and the songs surrounding her on which I fed,
knowing everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

We may waltz in the kitchen now, my dear,
or dance out of time in our sleep instead.
Get old enough so you have nothing left to fear.
Everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

from The Drift of Things
first published in The Paris Review 
 

NOISE UNDER GLASS

An old man arrived at my door with light bulbs.
I opened the door a crack
and asked what he wanted.  He said he wanted
to tell me that when a man dies,
his body is placed in the middle
of the men's lavatory, with two urinals side by side.
I had never heard this before, and was happy to get
the word.  I stood in the hallway with him,
hoping my friends couldn't hear him.  Finally, he departed.

The old man crept through the mysterious grass
of the bush and put the coffee right here
on this table.  We sat on French chairs
in the middle of the hut while the bodyguards
walked around the body sprinkling milk and murmuring
"I'll have some coffee too, I'll have some coffee too."
Nobody said anything about the funeral.

I am restless, now that the old man is gone.
My entourage yeses me to death.
I am bored.  As the soul of my mother was taken
into that greater territory of the self, I lay
on the bed watching  "Entertainment Tonight"
with the sound off, trying to remember
something, anything, about her.
 
from The Drift of Things
first published in The World, also in The Book of Irish American Poetry from the 18th Century to the Present (Notre Dame, 2007)
 

COMFORT

Father Ray Byrne quickly became
a star.  He played sports, danced,
sang, told jokes.  He was a man
of the people, and we loved him
for that. He came to our apartments
and brought us comfort.

He even came to a high school graduation
party one night.  I was a little drunk.
Father Byrne came up to me and asked
"Are you thinking about it?" I panicked.
What did he mean?  Sex? Booze? Basketball?
Could he read my mind?  Then I realized
his tone wasn't accusatory, so I said,
"Yeah, I'm thinking about it," not having
any idea what he was talking about.

"That's great," he said, "I can always
tell when a young man is thinking about
it.  Just let me know if I can be of any help."
Now I was positive he wasn't talking about
sex or money or any of the things I actually
did have on my mind. Father Byrne thought
I might have a vocation. 

But I wasn't considering the priesthood.
I didn't even think professional basketball
was a possibility any more.  God had walked
out the door about a year before,
when I was sixteen, and never looked back,
even though I begged him not
to leave me, alone and weeping
in this valley of tears.

from Boy Drinkers (Hanging Loose, 2007)
first published in The World
 

MYSTERIES

All last night I kept speaking in this

archaic language, because I had been reading

Poe and thinking about him.  I read "The Murders

in the Rue Morgue" which is supposedly the first

detective story.  Who dun it? I wondered.

It turns out an orangutan was the murderer.

Its looks to me like the detective story genre got off

to a pretty ridiculous start.  I used to visit

Poe's house in the Bronx.  I used to think,

God, Poe must have been a midget.  Everything

was so small.  Poe died in Baltimore and I can see why.

In Baltimore, all the people are very big and sincere.

During dinner last night, I told Doug and Susan

about "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  I said I hadn't

finished it yet, but it looked like the murderer

was going to turn out to be an orangutan, unless

the plot took a surprising new twist.  Then Doug

suggested that he and I collaborate

on a series of detective stories in which

the murderer is always an orangutan.

from The Great Indoors (Story Line, 1995)
included in The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006)  


GHOSTS

In the rain falling on her.
In wide open space I think of.
I wake up without you, smoking
a cigarette, without a moment.
I have no name.  The street without looking.

I am awake.  I get done in a day.
I try to remember your faults.
The ghosts are covered with footsteps,
without memory, that open like
editions of Vogue in the small room
without you where you see everything
without her, without emptiness
without turning to someone in bed.

from The Great Indoors
included in Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, 1966-1991 (Crown, 1991)
 

CIVILIZED ATMOSPHERES

The bar is filled with a foul odor, something

to do with the sewage system.  People don't mind

one bit.  They smoke, talk, make time, drink, dance.

We don't mind either.  We like to see people having fun.

We think there should be more fun in all our lives.

And more sex and money.  We want everyone to have

more power, as much power as they would like,

because we know how important power is to people.

We want everyone we know to be the boss on the job

and at home too.  We want them to get what they want

because when they do, they're happy and we're happy.

We want them to have bigger and better houses and apartments.

More beautiful lovers.  We want them to have lean, hard

bodies and perfect cardiovascular health.

We want their health clubs to be radiant and spotless.

We'd like to see their children turn out radiant too.


It is threatening to rain.  We hate rain.  We hate even more

the heavy oppressive atmosphere that precedes rain.  We hate

the bad smell in the bar and we don't like the people in the bar

because they seem so pompous.  Their breath is horrible

and they have pot bellies and their clothing stinks of cigarettes.

It is getting dark two hours before it should.  That really makes

us mad and depresses us too.  Darkness.  We hate darkness

because it is so scary.


Nobody calls us anymore, so we call them

because we don't want to be left alone up here

in the dark with no one to talk to.  But there's no

answer, or we get the answering machine and leave

a message, or they are there but they just can't

talk to us right now because they're too busy, or even worse,

they're expecting a more important call than ours.


It's pouring now.  Thunderous skies are opening up.

Everything is wet.  We hate to get wet.

We closed the windows just in time, but now

it's airless in here and we can't breathe.


We don't like work.  The coming and going,

the politics, the give and take.

We can live without it.  The mindless routine

day after day:  the bus, the coffee break, the paperwork.


We don't want anyone to have to go to work

with those disgusting bad-smelling people

who think they're so important.  Don't they know

that no one is indispensable?  What about when you die?

Do they ever think of that?


We don't want to have to come home from work

in the scary wet darkness and then have to leave again

for the smelly bar where those absolutely horrible people

drink their drinks.  We don't want anyone

we know to have to do it either.


We'd like everyone to stay home where it's dry and peaceful,

where they can watch movies and eat whatever they want,

sleeping in a chair, listening to the sound of a car horn,

the scary wet darkness enveloping them in its dream.

from The Great Indoors
first published in The Washington Review
 

SEX ELEGY

My lovers have vanished. I used to have many.
One moved to Boston and married a Japanese photographer.
Another became a famous actress. Another one, who for a long time
I mistakenly believed to be dead, now lives in Manhattan.

We used to know each other so intimately,
sucking and munching on each other, inserting,
penetrating, exploding. Becoming as one. Funky
smell of sweaty bodies. Clothes strewn on floor
and bed. Candles burning. Smoke of cigarettes and joints
curling up the bedroom atmosphere. Now we never touch,
barely talk. Some I have lost all contact with.

But memories of our pleasure together, my dears,
still play in my mind. My body can still feel your touch.
My tongue still remembers your taste.
Everything else I seem to have forgotten.
The present is the life insurance premium automatically
deducted from your paycheck, while the past burns
out of control in a vacant lot on the outskirts of town.

first published in Verse
included in Best American Poetry 2006
 

IN RETALIATION AGAINST         

The molecule bore a remarkable resemblance

to Elizabeth Taylor in a bikini shaving her legs.

I thought I was in Paris and behaved accordingly,

analyzing unnatural music videos from 1985.


My release mechanism cannot be compared to Madonna

Tina Turner, Hulk Hogan, or Willem de Kooning.

They swim about, lashing their tails in the aquamarine pools

of a mythic past that mocks the Beach Boys where they live.


"We are bored and lonely," they chant. "Bored and lonely."

 In return, men's inner lives emit incomprehensible signals.

from the (unpublished) collection Lit from Below
first published in Hotel Amerika


IT TAKES ALL KINDS

we lived one flight up in our
apartment building and whenever someone
would ring the downstairs bell
my mother would tell us to stay put
she would say "if they want to see us bad enough
they can walk up the flight"
my brother Kevin used to tell me
to never answer the phone
if I was eating
my father always told us
not to worry too much about money
he would say "money won't buy you happiness"
my mother would occasionally remark
"it takes all kinds"

        from Irish Musicians / American Friends (Coffee House, 1985)











                                    

 

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A CLOSER LOOK: Terence Winch

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