Lawrence Welsh

Skull Highway



68 pages



Lawrence Welsh is a shaman with words.
He whirls flowers and moons and skies
and adobe mud around and around
and mixes them with his hard-won wisdom.
He scrapes his initials into them
with his soul’s white tooth,
his word chisel.
Jimmy Santiago Baca

The poems of Lawrence Welsh seem cut down to their driest song out of debris found along an arroyo used as a border crossing. These are minimalist sketches with long resonance. Each word shifts back and forth between an archetype and prophecy, then into the essential thing itself. You have to chew on them and put some of your own spit in the mix. This is the "southwest" as experienced by hitchhiking mystics or simply a person walking away from a civilization caught up in its own demise. Nobody escapes without a few wounds. We all have scars and they make the body more interesting. Sometimes a howl floats in the wind. Sometimes it is the roar of laughter. When you get to the spot where these poems live, you might find Charles Bukowski and Lorine Niedecker roasting a jackrabbit over a campfire while sipping cold springwater. Everyone stares at the universe looking for meteorites—on Skull Highway you count any and every speck of dust as a blessing.

Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Lawrence Welsh first hitchhiked to New Mexico and Texas in 1989. Five years later, he moved to El Paso, where he still lives. A first generation Irish-American, Welsh has published five collections of poetry, and his work has appeared in more than 175 national and regional magazines, including Puerto del Sol, The Louisiana Review, Hawaii Review, Rio Grande Review, The Texas Observer, Onthebus, The Wormwood Review, Nexus, Chiron Review, The Café Review, Poetry Motel, Pearl, and the book Das Ist Alles—Charles Bukowski Recollected. Welsh has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor, waiter, and graveyard stock clerk. A winner of the Bardsong Press Celtic Voice Writing Award in Poetry, he’s an associate professor of English at El Paso Community College. He’s married to Lisa McNiel, a poet and teacher, and they have two children, Megan and Patrick.


Skull Highway
Reviewed By John Pate

This, his sixth book, “Skull Highway” (La Alameda Press, $12.00) is for Lawrence Welsh one that, in its picaresque nature reflects a number of journeys, many journeys. Things coalesce even more when the reader finishes the book of twenty nine poems – or expeditions – and considers the word ‘highway’ is in the very title. And while the majority of poems seem to be occasioned by travel, in every one there are stand-alone lines and phrases which at time surprise and arrest the reader. Poems like “Paper Lantern,” “For Robert Peters,” and “Fallen Ladders” are but a few examples.

To share what Jimmy Santiago Baca feels about Welsh’s new book, “Lawrence Welsh is a shaman with words. He whirls flowers and moons and skies and adobe mud around … and mixes them with his hard-won wisdom.” Lots of wisdom in this collection, and as often as not, as subtle as an ocotillo in bloom. That’s the paradox of wisdom: you have to already have it to recognize it when it’s encountered.

Welsh’s poems work powerfully off of one another due to his juxtaposition of Christian and native mythological symbolism. This poet’s eye wanders, not unlike a modern Buddha, from crucifixes to mockingbirds, from “lanes of eternal light,” to “a shapeshifter’s deer message.” Moreover, the dust of the Southwest permeates every one of these pages. And that dust settles nicely on each piece of Christian
iconography. Particularly nice is the contrast – or perhaps re-emphasis – between the two poems “The Crucifix Upstairs” and “Adobe.” The former’s lines of “tear them / o one / at the black gate / and then / its opening / its opening,” seems uncannily informed by the latter poem’s lines, “or always the open / door / invites / those in to repair / a lost art.”

Some of the great stand-alone lines and passages include, “overtake the flesh / become more than / a drowning you;” “she or he / who stumbles / prays for / the moon: it’s / silver / it’s blue / at least / a footpath / a securing / for moving / on;” “these streets / stripped bare of everything / folks with no credentials / not knowing bake off or poetry or anything else / just heat and work and minimum wage nightmares / in a minimum
wage town;” “the smoke of incense / or Tularosa sage / the skid marks / on a mountain road /going up up.”

Lastly, the poem “Gone Rattler” and the final poem “In the Desert Dead Things Go Away Quickly” underscore one of the key themes to the book – and the desert herself. In “Gone,” Welsh reveals his mysticism, his higher connection to this unforgiving, unrelenting land of scorpions, rattlesnakes, vultures and desert springs by rounding out the poem with a nice anthrocentric ontology. “…is shaded lamp / who knows / sees enough / of Mescalero ways / to realize earth / holds / its own booze, /
hallucinations / wipes off / the blood / and tosses it in / a local’s frame.” Wonderful. “In the Desert Dead Things” redoubles this hallucination imagery of the land’s seeming intangibility, its lasting impermanence. The poet’s pared-down delivery of such a large topic only adds to its mystical quality. “I’ve seen coyotes / under the moon /or a puma /
at noon / or the hawk and vulture / who really / own this land / what a great / place / to end / I thought /so clean / so little blood / the gone bones / by sunrise.”

And he’s right. There’s nary a bone left behind in the desert. Perhaps all that does remain is spirit. It brings to mind a Baca line from the book “Martin…”where the dead listen at windows to conversations held by women at their kitchen tables. Make no mistake. This is very much a land where the dead are never far off. The book’s title is proof of as much. What exactly is a skull highway? Spend enough time in the preternatural desert and you, like Welsh, will understand. When asked what he thought of all the overlapping motifs and themes, Welsh replied, in very Zen fashion, “It is what it is.” The same can be said of the sublime desert; it is what it is.

John Pate has been reviewing books for the El Paso Times for the
past four years and is also a lecturer at El Paso Community College. He’s currently working on a book about El Paso with a former mayor.