Memorable Souls in Inexhaustible Winds: Rick Marlatt on Don Welch’s When Memory Gives Dust a Face

When Memory Gives Dust a Face, Don Welch,Lewis-Clark Press/Sandhills Press

Few contemporary Midwestern poets have celebrated the landscape, its people, and its visions with the clarity, consistency, and prolificacy of Don Welch. When Memory Gives Dust a Face is Welch’s latest in an expansive breadth of work. In perhaps the most auto-biographical collection of his career, Welch weaves together a life’s tapestry with beautiful strands of memoir including family, history, and childhood; along with philosophical realizations on topics ranging from education and nature, to war and faith. And Welch’s emotional terrains are just as vast as his subject matter. While many of Welch’s poems are warm and light, particularly, his paintings of family life and raising children as in “The Coneflower” and “For Our Children,” many of his pieces are brooding, dark, and hauntingly introspective. In “On the Last Day” and “Letter to Aanya, Two Months Old, in Islamabad,” Welch explores the modern stigmas of torture, pre-emptive war, and the oppression of religious freedoms. What binds these extremes together is a meticulous attentiveness to words and their possibilities, both given and undiscovered. Welch’s poems are deeply felt, exuding an awareness of the world that hums with history, legacy, and tradition, while simultaneously using the poignancy of language to render feelings, convey messages, and portray images communicatively as only the best of poetry can.

“To A Young Poet” serves as an anchor for the collection in that it is a legacy piece addressed not only to young artists, but possibly to the poet himself and a nod to Rilke; an aspect of biographical tendency so prominent throughout the book. As the poem begins, the reader is immediately thrust into Welch’s imaginative connections between the intellect and inspiration: “To play a small candle / on a moonless night, / a voice of light / among the politics of black;” (80) Here the poet is initiating a confession on the personal and communal potential of poetry and its ability to be heard and important even in the darkest realms of the human conscience. Welch is inviting the reader to accept the miraculous as a requisite for believing in and practicing the art of poetics. As we continue into the next leg of the poem, Welch reveals slightly more about his own poetic philosophies: “to be the instrument /of what wants to sing, / surrounded / by excess and ruin; / to stand up for something / falling down the page,” (80) Here, Welch is preaching a selflessness in poetry, an inherent desire to serve the muses of the soul rather than the impermanent themes of modern culture and academia. From this perspective, poetry becomes much more than an art form, and grows into a larger philosophy, a way, a charge bestowed upon only the most worthy of practitioners; that is, those with an appreciation for imagination and a love for words.

As the poet propels this momentum towards conclusion, he narrows in on a final revelation, while striking a nerve with musicality, rhythm and rhyme: “the significance / of a slim poetic moment- / how does this differ / from those / dressed to kill / in fashionable clichés / except to say what / they can never say, / to let the heart / of language have its way, / fire’s tongue / in the candle’s end, / of what you’ve loved / and how you’ve been. (80) As the final lines seem to slip into the reader’s consciousness, the poet illuminates the precious gift that is the written word, and its vital spiritual component becomes clear. Welch’s lines are typically short, and his controlled syllable, tightly developed syntax packs each line to capacity. Here, these single lines are so profound and thought-provoking that they function as beats within the piece that build toward a final, definitive movement. In this sense, the poem works as an inclusive apology to all poets, artists, and spiritual seekers.

Welch’s versatility as a master words-myth is on full display throughout the book with a seemingly limitless vocabulary and one of the most powerful audio, emotive sensibilities found in modern poetics. Welch gambols through the joyous realms of the human experience with a child-like playfulness, yet he is equally brutal and direct with candid visions of violence, poverty, and terror. In “Before My Dead Eyes Open,” Welch combines this disguised complexity with a memorable confrontation of mortality. The piece begins, “Before my dead eyes open, flooding me with nothing, / let me speak to you of the few remaining pods/ of catalpa trees now hung with snow.” (87) Welch connects the emotions of the seasons with that of his own livelihood, and he sets the stage with a remarkably poignant reflection on his body’s relationship with the world. His execution of a variety of rhyming schemes creates an accompanying musicality to the piece, which, in turn, evolves the poem into an elegy of the poet’s own life.

After reminiscing on the passions of his life, the poem culminates with a farewell, in the same place from which the initial trigger of the piece was launched, the body: “What other thing can make the moments / of our dying sing, or give back to us / the baptismal-simple richness of our names? / I’m coming home. My old bones in their sockets slip and sing.” (87) Welch is a technician of words, a master of their power and ability to call out to one another on the page in a grammatical structure that is often more meaningful than technical. In “Listening to a Seventh Grader Reader Robert Frost,” Welch demonstrates his range in sensibility and skill with song-like symmetrical structures of lucid simplicity, yet, this controlled precision is demonstrated in conjunction with experimental lines that challenge traditional syntax and linguistics, as in “That Song For Just a Little Pulse.” Don Welch’s When Memory Gives Dust a Face is an important, unforgettable ghost, which solidifies the legacy of one of America’s greatest, humblest poets. A virtuoso whose voice shakes the air, until, as Welch says in “Parallel is What Runs at the Edge of Us,” “shoulder to shoulder / we walk with the livable dead.” (90)


Rick Marlatt earned a MFA from the University of California, Riverside, where he served as poetry editor of the Coachella Review. Marlatt’s first book, How We Fall Apart, won the 2010 Seven Circle Press Chapbook Award. His most recent work appears in New York Quarterly, Rattle, and Anti.


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