Ring of Bone: Collected Poems
by Lew Welch, Ed. Donald Allen
Forword by Gary Snyder
City Lights Publishers, June 2012
252 pages / $17.95 Buy from City Lights
Lew Welch’s collection, Ring of Bone, is more of an artist’s assemblage than a simple book of poems. This new and expanded edition by City Lights Press encompasses Welch’s poetry, music, drawings and critical writings, providing fans with a definitive edition of the poet’s long-lost works, and new readers with an expansive sample of his writing.
As Gary Snyder’s forword tells us, Welch was a little-known 60’s generation poet who was living with Snyder temporarily while building a cabin on Ginsburg’s adjoining land, when, on May 23, 1971, Welch hiked into the Sierra Nevada Mountains carrying a revolver. A suicide note, indicating a deep depression, was all that was ever found, but the mystery of this final day has made Welch somewhat of a cult figure. Fortunately, Ring of Bone, brings together Welch’s unfinished writings, providing readers with a remarkable set of poems without dramatizing the events surrounding Welch’s death.
This newly released collection is arranged into five books and a set of uncollected writings, which follow a loose chronology. However, unlike many collected works, the order of the poems is not the focus. By nature of their visionary quality, these poems form a world of dreams and nightmares so convincingly that strict organization proves ultimately unnecessary. Instead, the poems speak to each other across time through their musical tonalities and recurring thematic tensions, thus constructing one of many “rings” invoked by the book’s title.
The collection opens with “Chicago Poem,” in which Welch’s plain speech melds with his musicality, creating lines such as “Bouncing like bunsens from stacks a hundred feet high. / The stench stabs your eyeballs.” This poem introduces what Gary Snyder, in his short forward, defines as Welch’s “jazz musical phrasing of American speech” but also establishes what we might now call Welch’s “ecopoetic” stance when, just a few lines later, he writes:
planet, even here.
The trouble is
always and only with what we build on top of it.
These lines illuminate a tension between city and nature that unites what might otherwise be a book of chaotic poems, dissimilar in form, tone, and language. For example, Welch expresses a similar feeling towards the environment a few pages later when he writes “never use a motor, man, / you gotta row / to go!” (“Memo Satori”). Though the sentiment is the same since Welch is valuing the natural over the artificial, his writing spans such a wide range of voices that the poet’s brilliance could be easily overshadowed by playful 60’s slang—it is when Welch fuses this multiplicity that his poems transform from frantic to ecstatic.
Near the end of Book II, Welch observes this tension, writing:
the old ones sound like gibberish.
How can they ever make sense in a book? ([whenever I make a new poem])
His lines come across as honest and curious, since he answers his question two poems later in [I saw myself], the poem that gives us the title of the collection in the lines:
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it
always to be open to it that all of it
might flow through
This poem aligns the “I” with nature, speaking from a place in which the personal and external are brought together in a vision—the reader sees that nature has become a medium for spiritual experience, and language on the page has become meditation.
As Snyder points out, this transformation occurs most successfully in the Hermit Poems and The Way Back sections. Here, Welch sets aside his overtly playful verse in favor of quiet but striking observations such as “Deer-hoof crushing a flower. Rodents at the root of it . . . Mushrooms in the warm fall rains” (“He Begins to Recount His Adventures”). These bits of prose border on the reflective quality of haiku, a form which Welch spent much of his life reading and translating, but they retain Welch’s West Coast Beat speech in a moment from the same poem like, “I’d shoot out way up over China and then fall back and miss the hole (‘cause the world would turn a little in the meantime) and just end up killing my damn fool self.” It is in a poem like this that the reader recognizes Welch’s ability to be both sincere and playful as he zooms in on the smallest crushed flower and back out to the sweep of the whole, revolving world.
Instances of humor like this mature into pure wonder at the magnificence and destruction of nature in Book V, particularly in a poem such as “Song of the Turkey Buzzard” in which Welch collages songs, quotes, prose, riddles, and even a “Will & Testament.” Here the poet speaks of an injured turkey buzzard, recounting in dreamlike tones, “He wanted to die alone. . . He tried, feebly, . . . to heave his great wings. Weak as he was, I could barely hold him.” Here, once again, the human and natural realms are aligned as Welch not only humbles himself in awe of the buzzard, but goes so far, in the conclusion of the poem, to request that the living, “With proper ceremony[,] disembowel what I no longer need, [so that] it might more quickly rot and tempt / / my new form.” This “new form,” which we can read as the buzzard, invokes another “ring”— something akin to both reincarnation and the idea of the “circle of life,” without carrying with it a sense of cliché imagery.
It is Welch’s awe-filled reactions to the natural world that move the poems beyond the traps of expected language and predictable imagery, and it is on a tone of pure wonder that the collected poems end. As Welch reminds his readers in the poem “For Joseph Kepecs,”
(Though it seems to be if you have craft enough)
The poem is made to carry the heart’s cry
And only to carry it.
The need for another world that always works right
Is the heart’s exhuberance.
We don’t hide there. We spill over and
Jessica Comola is an MFA student in poetry at the University of Mississippi. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Columbia Review, The Journal, Tulane Review, Anti-, and Criminal Class Press.