May Read of the Month: “Fly Fishing in Times Square,” by William Walsh

William Walsh (photo by Karley Harmon )

Reviewed by Claire Bateman 

…[C]onsciousness needs the world and other people to develop, but then it can grow and exist on its own; once external relations become internal, the universe exists from within…”  Marcello Massimini and Giulo Tononi, Sizing Up Consciousness

“What happens when imagination confronts the universe?”

Walsh explores this instigating question by revealing various gaps and overlaps between memory and fantasy, aggression and desire, and his particularly American versions of wilderness and family.  His poems are lyric-narrative hybrids composed of equal parts quest and elegy; every time his speaker evokes a configuration of transcendent beauty, a version of a longed-for home or of authentic wilderness where the human and natural worlds can coexist in something like tranquility, he encounters a form of mortality within it.

Throughout this collection, enchanting exteriors conceal danger or tragedy.  In “Finding the River,” the speaker, “listening to the zing of my line arcing to a plunk,” realizes that “everything’s a metaphor / for what pins my sadness below the surface.” In “Some Disassembly Required,” while a child’s cedar playhouse is first presented as the site of communal imaginative play, about halfway through the poem, the tone shifts: “Today, I began what so many men and women have had to do, / disassemble a childhood of rotting wood, rusted screws / six inches long snapping from the torque of my power wrench…”  The speaker ponders Einstein’s calculation of dynamic forces for a few stanzas, as though lulling us into a reverie of balance and order in the cosmos, but suddenly jolts us awake: “ …And then, the water moccasin, / when I pulled the bench seats away, curled backwards / under the fall leaves, where my daughters legs used to dangle…”

This snake is mythic kin to the alligator beneath the beautiful surface of the Okefenokee in the poem of that title where the “thousand miles of trembling earth,” the “soft glitter / of sun peeking through” serve as cover for “the unseen eyes / under water, staring and waiting / to strike.”  And in “Crossing Cirrus Lake in August,” the speaker and his companions seem to cheer for the chipmunk swimming “across the lake / to an island where food is more plentiful. / Cheeks bloated full of nuts, he struggled to shore,/ leery that a  Muskie can make easy work of him / from beneath.”  The speaker connects the chipmunk’s struggle with his own: “Here, where all things slip underneath the surface, / unnoticed forever, I cleared my mind of the office, / late notices, and women who didn’t work out. / Like this chipmunk, everyone has an island / where memory is the one survivor.”

This is where the poem turns—“we watched this pipsqueak tree-rat / skedaddle across the sandy beach, stop to shake off the chill, / look around, turn and run toward his pine tree / as the watchful eyes atop a canopy swooped down.”  The lesson seems to be that if doom doesn’t get you from beneath the surface, it will come down upon you from above.  Is there any place to lay the blame?  No, this is just the way things have always been; the situation, like reptilian nature is “as ancient as all the world.” Indeed, the phrases “what wasn’t right” and “what’s wrong” are repeated like a bass note in these pages; though the contexts vary, the effect is unified throughout the collection.

Nevertheless, the quest is lit by a radiance which resides in emblems of longing and of personal or family history that both outlast the speaker and link him to his vision of the ideal.  These emblems range from aspects of film, television, music, and art (“ …If Edward Hopper were to paint my childhood…” for instance, and “There will always be a heartbreak song / like ‘Surfer Girl’ pounding in my head…”) to various complex constructed devices and outlandish endeavors to defeat gravity or achieve some form of ultimate velocity (Uncle Harvey’s airships in the poem of that name, which opens the collection; the speaker’s bike ride off the church roof in imitation of Evil Knievel—“…the crunch of shingles / dragging under our sneakers, airborne / and falling, wings melting / in a daredevil rapture”; the “spinning Flames of Death bike” with its wheels aflame) to lyrical engagements with wilderness and the natural world that are simultaneously attempts at mastery and pursuits of union (for instance, the magical “Brook Trout Along the Ellijay River”—to merely quote this poem would be to do it an injustice).

The past, here, is always breaking through in the form of objects, both manmade—an old Lionel train set, for example, in “Wartime Freight”—and natural, in poems such as “Digging Up the Past,” in which the speaker spends the small hours of his mornings going to houses he or his family members have lived in to steal soil:  “In my basement, lined up against the wall like a platoon / of fattened glass bodies, transparent, color of dirt varying slightly from rental house to rental house…/…places I can never return to…”

Yet the poems aren’t maudlin—the book contains plenty of humor, as well as a sly and sideways investigation of what humor is and is not. And all the while, fantasy and history shimmer together.  It’s not that we are sometimes made to wonder what is real by some mere authorial trick, but that we’re invited to partake of absence and presence at the same time, as when the speaker’s child-self does or does not ride the famous Secretariat bareback in “Visiting Secretariat in 1974,” and when the speaker states, in the closing poem, “Street View: Google Earth: Lakeview Avenue,” “There it is, or isn’t, my grandfather’s garage / torn down some time in the last few years.”

The collection, like Robert Penn Warren’s entreaty, “Tell me a story of deep delight,” reads like a blues love song to time itself.

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