Tana Jean Welch
Marsh Hawk Press ($16)
by Greg Bem
In Latest Volcano, Tana Jean Welch reveals through poetry the gift and power of story. Each poem in this dense volume is lyrically defined by both narrative structure and holistic convergence of abstract and concrete. The presentation of characters, settings, and situations is as subtly beautiful as it is haunting, and leaves the reader inspired and in awe. These poems are gilt-lined, catching to the eye and the mind, and reminiscent of the broader circumstances found within everyday humanity.
Whether Welch’s protagonists lead the action or are caught in the spotlight, they are conduits for learning, innocence trumped and flushed out by a sense of experience. The lessons exhibit degrees of existentialism and maturity:
She learned to oscillate like the beam of a balance.
To swing backwards and forwards. To move
between two points. To vibrate and remember:
it’s not safety in numbers, but safety in movement.
To be vibrant, like the tiger butterfly
migrating during monsoon season.
Welch has crafted an intimacy that links these poems together; each reads with a respect for the pleasures and cruelties found in growing older, and many of the poems come from a female perspective. Some of the verse is rooted within the individual woman’s success or failure to channel the will and move through a complex situation; other poems paint broad pictures of a collaboration effort to move beyond limitations. In most cases, these poems operate from dynamic angles, evoking a powerful feminism that is as much about a revolutionized sense of self as it is about an independence and consolation with the world:
It was easy enough to let the taste of jelly
and rum escape, but I knew abstracting men
from memory was never my method. I pressed
the blade of the guillotine, cutting you
another cigar, and the round head fell
without regret to the feet of frogs.
Latest Volcano is composed of three sections, a structure that allows for a significant trajectory among the poems’ themes. The first section, “The Centaur’s Daughter,” brings together early encounters: there is a youthful and angry quality to these poems, though their caustic energy does not limit or restrict the resolute wisdom within. The book’s middle, “Cannon Splinter,” is filled with poems of joy. Degrees of liberating sexual freedom are striking features:
and the pounding and the pounding
like an orgasm to wake all neighboring armies:
like thunder and rain, a black blizzard, a charged sky
I heard myself coming until my throat was sore
The book closes with “Dragon-Dance,” a sequence with a sense of complexity that trumps expectation, both in narrative elements and also language: here the speakers of the book turn naturally and readily undefinable. Poem forms vary. Themes vary. The diffusion is the result of a poet bringing in the broader view, achieving a state of acceptance of life’s chaos:
God willing each poet devises
her own death. Bottle. Bridge.
Broiler. We bury the dead in dark
wool and satin, say a prayer
before takeoff, and send
your mother a field of lilies
without concern of withering.
Overall, Welch’s poems remain challenging, above and below their surfaces. Loud or quiet, these poems evoke a sense of the powerful and the affective. There is an enjoyable and inspiring contrast between the stories therein: some include resolution, while others merely describe the experiential process and the messy, inconclusive results. That Welch has focused on such a wide and open realm of human existence ensures many readers will find these poems approachable again and again.