Timothy Walsh’s poems and short stories have appeared in The North American Review, Arts & Letters, Cutthroat, New Millennium Writings, and others. His awards include the Grand Prize in the Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition, the Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review, and the Wisconsin Academy Fiction Prize. He has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanacand has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize.
He is the author of a book of literary criticism, The Dark Matter of Words: Absence, Unknowing, and Emptiness in Literature (Southern Illinois University Press) and two poetry collections, Wild Apples (Parallel Press) and Blue Lace Colander (Marsh River Editions). He is an Assistant Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Honey Spoke Well
I know you’re thinking this will be about
something my lover said—
something clever, something amusing—
but it isn’t.
It’s about how the sun glinted on the spokes
of my bicycle wheel
as I pedaled past the holy well
after sampling the beekeeper’s wildflower honey.
And, yes, my lover (my wife) was with me, too,
the spokes of her bicycle wheels glinting as radiantly as mine
as we brisked along the rutted dirt road
in the far northwest of Ireland.
Now that I think of it, though, I’m sure she must have
said something clever,
since she—my honey—always speaks well,
but it was simply the concatenation of these three sunlit things—
the whirling glint of the bicycle spokes,
the pellucid waters of St. Attracta’s well,
the rich, golden wildflower honey
(so like sunlight itself rendered into syrup)
that struck me as a revelation,
a somehow miraculous equation,
something we cannot touch with words.
Years later, in the far north of Wisconsin,
we rode our bicycles along Lake Superior’s shore,
sunlight glinting on our spokes.
At the little farmer’s market in a fishing village,
jars of honey caught the light and caught my eye,
held me in their amber embrace.
Later, hiking deep into the forest, we found Lost Creek Falls—
sheets of murmuring water sheening over the lip,
cascading into the fern-rimmed pool,
the mossy rocks dripping, glistening—
and, again, the hieroglyphs of the day aligned:
Honey Spoke Well.
Have you never noticed how the hidden wellsprings
that interlace this earth
interlace us, too,
how sunlight fills us like honey in a jar,
lighting us up from within through translucent skin,
and how we are borne up on spokes all our days,
a whirling blur, mostly nothing, glinting in the light?
Michael Hartnett Entering Irish
When he bid his farewell to English,
set off across the hills,
a few self-fashioned implements in his rucksack,
did he need to know the magic words
to cross a stream?
duibhe na rós
Words to awaken a holy well
while circling it slowly three times?
an muince dreoilíní,
Words to make a salmon leap
into his waiting hands?
Now that all the road signs bear the Irish
side by side with the occupying English,
English with its easy dominion over these ancient hills,
now that the Irish is there to rebuke and remind
how we can occupy more than one universe
the future always malleable as wax—
now that Michael Hartnett has entered Irish,
first in this world and then the next,
and so courteously left the gate unlatched,
trimming back the briars and scything the flags
now we shall see what serendipities there’ll be.
Here him pacing the yew-paneled hall
in the sky.
See how he assumes the shape of a red stag
or of a thistle in an upland bog.
He entered Irish, first in this world,
then the next,
and now brings the afterworld to bear
on the timorous equivocations
of these makeshift days.
Chekhov at Melikhovo
The morning’s mushrooming yielded three bulging
the mushrooms still glistening with morning dew.
There are stories even in mushrooms,
endless stories, untold stories.
The forest teems with mushrooms
as the world teems with stories.
At home, Anton Pavlovich disappears into his study—
as he laughingly says, a thousand and thirty-six
subjects always in his head,
his inkpot always at his elbow,
all things calling out to him, needing a tongue—
an ashtray, a gooseberry bush, a peasant cart,
a sack of mushrooms.
At his desk, he slides his pince-nez on,
reaches for his pen, shirtsleeves already stained
He ignores for the time being the arrival of guests,
grows more content as the house fills
with the smell of cabbage soup.
There is an endless procession of houseguests
when the roads are passable.
They can be so tiresome—but without them
the isolation stultifies.
A house should ring with human voices,
song and laughter,
the clatter of pots and pans, kitchen aromas.
Here, at this modest estate, surrounded by a garden,
an orchard, fields of rye and wheat,
the house more austere than opulent,
an equal number of fruit trees and rose bushes,
here he has set up a medical practice of sorts,
treating the peasants gratis or for barter—livestock,
bushels of apples, turnips, sometimes beets.
Here, the family has settled—mother, father,
brothers, and sister,
all these lives sustained by Antosha’s tireless pen.
After two pages, he flips the inkwell closed
and stands by the garden window.
It is the cough that pursues him—forces him to abandon
the house and flee south every winter.
Spitting up blood is such a theatrical warning,
a carmine reminder that, though stories are numberless,
time is short.
He knows he will not outlast his pen,
perhaps not even this bottle of ink.
It is the sound of distant music he loves—a piano
heard but not seen while walking across a twilight field,
a woman’s washing song blending with the raucous cries of rooks.
Once, he climbed Vesuvius, fueled by a few glasses
of good red wine,
climbed to the summit and looked down into the crater,
glimpsed the sulfurous smoke, the brimstone of hell,
and returned to tell it all in the next day’s letters.
A gooseberry bush, a peasant cart, a sack of mushrooms.
Now it is the ashtray that calls to him—the ashtray and
the memory of that delightful English marmalade
he’d had in Yalta, made from bitter oranges.
It was the taste of truth, the taste of experience—
sweetly bitter and bittersweet.
It is what happiness, transient and fleeting,
The Music of Handwriting
As the violinist her violin,
the cellist his cello,
guitarist and guitar,
so it is with poets and pens.
I take up this instrument, play a melody
with a line of ink,
fingers limbering up,
feeling the music of motion,
the deep rhythm of muscle memory
mapping movement onto meaning.
Upon the stage of this thin page,
words dance, the orchestra awakens,
this tapered pen a conductor’s baton,
a wizard’s wand.
As the singer embodies song,
as the dancer becomes the dance,
we play out this ballet of pen on paper,
each letter a learned motion, each word
a distinct figuration,
each gist a choreography we both feel
At a Poetry Reading in a Language
I Don’t Understand
At the podium, the old poet gestures vigorously,
swinging his arms like a conductor.
Words swirl round my ears
and the hundred other pairs of ears cocked like seashells
to catch the current.
I inhale and steep myself in the languorous flow.
Language—such a strange oxygen—fills my lungs.
There is no need of meaning—
just as this Chilean merlot needs no wine critic’s
or a tantalizing label gloss.
The room is packed with people and lined with books—
shelf upon shelf from floor to ceiling,
each book slid neatly in its nook
like a safe deposit box waiting to be unlocked.
I sip my wine and think of the words stacked
within these covers,
arranged in lines like dried strands of pasta
awaiting the salted water of a reader’s eyes.
I swirl the wine remaining in my glass,
wishing I was nearer the bottle….
Invisible as melody, the words intoxicate
while the wine holds forth with booming voice.
I’m sure I’ll never have enough poetry
or drink enough wine,
but I am at least drawing closer to that state of mind
where I can’t tell which is which.