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Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles is a focused and autobiographical first book. It mines his experience growing up on what is surely the most revolting farm I have ever seen lovingly depicted. Much of the book pushes back against a pastoral and eco-romantic tradition (think of this as the anti-“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”) to insist on the primacy of waste, rot, mold and filth as the foundation of his childhood, and moreover, as the foundation of all flesh. His father is a violent, unpredictable man, though with a penchant for singing around the house and dropping his towel. His mother is more nurturing, but as powerful and muscular. Walsh discovers his sexuality in violence, an internal and external violence continue to hover over his grown up life.
Walsh is an imagist, and his focus on the visual results in spare poems that rarely comment on their subjects. In his multiple, vivid descriptions of the filth on his farm, Walsh is always at pains to celebrate the way it returns as life. In “A Table Prayer,” the “rheumy broth” of manure is apostrophized in the final lines:
O, blessed manure, we gather
your new flesh—sweet corn
and greens—we set our table.
In one of the book’s final poems, “Wish,” Walsh contemplates his lover’s body and finds a similar source:
When I kiss him, weed sour
and tomato green
after hours in this garden,
I taste the darkness
suspended between bone and skin,
the loam and manure
we eat through bright leaves.
Considering the arguments about industrialism and urban privacy as preconditions to homosexual identity, Walsh responds to unannounced accusations of sterility by depicting each body as fecund in itself. He moves his reader away from thinking of fertility as a multi-body endeavor (the reproduction of two bodies in an third, additional, offsprung body) and finds fertility (the natural cycles of death followed by life) to be the inherent condition of each living entity. Fire—consuming his house and later plants—becomes the image of this fertility; transformation displacing replication. But rather than embracing a decadent pose that refuses the farm and his family, Walsh constantly slips his identity to find himself becoming the things around him. He becomes the cow that kicks his father. He becomes the centerfold of his friend’s nudie magazine. His father exists just beyond the limits of this intimacy. While he can wear his mother’s dress (although not without ripping it), his father is ultimately the space he cannot inhabit.
Walsh’s work is also surprisingly erotic. His poem “Camouflage” explores his adolescent disappearance into a steam room, ending with these lines:
bumps my hidden body.
One touch and we startle
scarlet, hair frightened
ankle to ear.
The use of hair as a metonym for the body is surprisingly effective. It brings the skin to life as the hairs stand on end, and allows the touch to be felt as a full body experience. The poem “Grounding II” begins with tracing another man’s barbed wire tattoo. His fingers join the tattoo to trace
down through the blood, to muscles
pinned bone by bone,
to iridescence spinning,
The poem ends, “Then my dumb fingers/ fumbled the ebb and flow.” It seems that because Walsh’s poems are so aware of the fate of bodies, they have to be celebrated in their current iterations.
There’s a lightness to Walsh’s touch, although the consistency of the book weighs it down some, making it a memoir in verse (your reviewer will now disclose his bias against memoir). The tight focus does not allow his knowledge of the body and the farm to resonate against other subjects and concerns. His chapbook, Adam Walking the Garden had a range of voice and speaker that I hope will return in his next volume. Assuming he has appeased the ghosts of his past in this book, we can hope that Walsh is already finding new, fertile ground for his poems.
THE DIRT RIDDLES
By Michael Walsh
Winner of the 2010 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize
University of Arkansas Press
Paperback, $16, 92p