Lawrence Welsh’s collection “Begging for Vultures” is a muscular, sometimes menacing antidote to the anemic chapbooks by which some poetry is dribbled as tightfistedly as rain on the Southwest borderland. His poems are likewise not niggardly but rather generous and humane, sometimes chiseled as if on a mesa, then rapping with word play, proof of a virtuoso at the top of his game.
Befitting a first-generation Irish American who uprooted himself from L.A. to occupy El Paso two decades ago, his works manifest the mixture of hope and resignation required to claw purchase where “the lease is over / the dreams locked in / how the west was won,” an arid border where ghost towns populated by living apparitions sustained by booze, drugs and Saturday nights is the gateway through which illegals chase their hope, “men running along / the river / the coyotes a long way / from home” (“Myth”).
And if (as with many of the Celtic groove), death is his old friend, his worldview is by no means unrelentingly morose, manifest in the dark humor of the title poem dedicated to his wife whose very name, Lisa McNiel, voices their shared heritage. Where “a black wing / sings / then destroys / the night” is where “a soul / our souls / (lift) w/ / only death / in the air” and “now our children / called patrick / and megan / own those birds / their flights / a beginner’s / song.”
As a youth Welsh made music in South Central L.A. and co-founded a punk group called the Alcoholics; some of these poems recall those days. But as the greater West has become his home his musical tastes seem to have broadened, too, some poems genuflecting to outlaws like Billy Joe Shaver or to the Southern high lonesome, like Ralph Stanley. “On the Death of Townes Van Zandt” bows to the Southwesterner’s love/hate for weekends (a hot Saturday night can avalanche into a mean Sunday morning, as Kris Kristofferson reminded us), yet is wistful about the loss. “(T)o hell with saturdays / I’ll never see /,” rages the poet, “/ and the smoke that’s el paso.” There follows an unromantic homage to the mixed achievement that is Texas.
And one rediscovers the unbridled Celt as well, as in “After the Great Hunger (For Patrick Kavanagh),” its Gaelic names and cadences beating insistently, embedded within it the resurrected myth of the warrior poet, “his typewriter, by God, is moving / his rejection slips like us all / his keys jangle and clang / his tribute in the west… / his legacy in yellowed sheets / and blue/black ink / will remain…” While vultures may circle ominously but oh so beautifully overhead, the minstrel boys never really die. (Martin Northway)
“Begging for Vultures: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2009”
By Lawrence Welsh
University of New Mexico Press, 256 pages, $22