Ryan Walsh, Reckonings, Baobab Press, 2019

Reviewed by Michael Sheehan

[Review Guidelines]



The second section of Ryan Walsh's book Reckonings begins with the shortest poem, "A Fable":

Once upon a time
there were rivers and streams
you could drink from

Its title recalling the opening of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, "A Fable for Tomorrow," this short poem establishes the themes that run throughout the collection: a meditation on and longing for connection to nature, a sort of angry sorrow over its despoiling, and a sometimes ironic tone: calling this a fable seems to bitterly mock the idea that such a thing could be unbelievable, that this fact feels fabular.
     Weaving together imagery of the raw Appalachian beauty of Walsh's childhood and the contemporary contamination of that place, the comparison to Silent Spring is not too far off. The poems are in no way a treatise, but they bear a resemblance to that opening chapter, envisioning an apocalyptic outcome as well as seeing how blindly we are bringing that end upon ourselves. "We live half-blind," he writes in the prefatory poem, "Before the Word," "like a car gliding over black ice / the driver doesn't know is black ice."
     The first section begins with "Appalachian Spring," a lyric meditation on nature, and moves back and forth between the pastoral and the desolate haunted landscape of former mining country. For example, the ghost of a factory "Grand and silent as a church / Rusted hulk like a breathing scab // I couldn't help but touch. / Those powder hills and slag heaps // We rode bikes over raising dust" in one piece, and the longing to reconnect to nature in the following, "Why can't I be / a slender stalk / wind-bent, rustling."
     The evidence of the poisoned land comes fuller into focus in the second section, in lines like "We've grown / sludge-hearted, carbon veined" and in juxtapositions like

In the dusk, her gown looks
out of place. There's been some mistake.
Little flowers, a shade between sky
blue and lavender, seem too hopeful
against white cotton and the test results.

Walsh finds a sort of grace, a transcendence in the hard lives of the men who were lowered into the furnaces to blast at the brick, "They knew what it was like to be lifted again / and lowered in the dark." The ironic anger arises in the erasure poem "Expert Testimony (Perrine v. DuPont, 2008)," in which the words that remain of Dr. Kirk Brown, soil scientist, tell the story of the toxic effluvium that stands as DuPont's legacy on the land:

Through careful study  we know                           how much
                                                        children breathe
Risk                      published                                            in           the                                            air

The reckoning in this section seems to be that wrought upon the land in the aftermath of the plundering and poisoning of it. This includes the environmental and the personal,
West Virginia dug at its veins until

something dark emerged: a shadow...
Silica, bituminous coal, opioids:
Extraction and injection.

Tapping in and ripping out what has been valuated and destroying what cannot ever be, leaving behind "the bottle smash of green glass."
            The third section picks up on a different note. Its first poem, "Sam's Gap, TN/NC" ends, "You cannot / go home again." And so the longing for reconnection, the mourning of the loss, begin to merge with the other blind driver toward endless growth: not industry but technology. The meditation on the natural now runs up against the simulacrum,

All our campfire girls
All our drowned fuselages and kelped wrecks
All our pine pollen soft parades

Our mouthfuls and gulped breaths
How many gigabytes is that?

           Walsh employs the ironic mode again in the wry critique of tech jargon in "The Cloud," which refuses the usage of the natural and the personal for the digital and the online-social in a series of interwoven italicized interrogatives:

Do you feel more connected?
Is your memory backed up?
Where are your friends tonight?

     These forces—the capitalistic ethos that growth is good—are pushing us toward an end, another reckoning, the time when all we've done comes down on us. The imagery of his poem "Day of Reckoning" brings the end on us as softly as the snow falling on the living and the dead in Joyce, "What if it's like this / snow day / instead of mayhem / tranquil / like a pillow / or a pill /...just flakes like ashes / from a feverish world / gentling down / on our noses / and eyelashes."
      But Walsh is not writing only toward that end or giving in to it; he takes us past it, envisioning the time after "the last satellite blinks out" and asking "Where do we go when we go dark?" Instead of a haunting apocalypse, we see that the time beyond despoilment and technological progress will be a return to nature, "we'll be left with only stars again," and a possible satisfaction of "old desires [that have been] dormant." "There is another world," he writes, "and it's inside this one." The collection's final stanza concludes this arc of reckoning not with an end but with the idea that "we can all begin" and with an image of "a new life," recalling the first section's Appalachian spring.
      Lyrical and resonant, filled with sound and beautiful juxtapositions between the built and natural, or the ecological and the Anthropocene, Reckonings manages to be an elegy for the lost world and those who populated it and also a call for our world to end so that we can "gather like new-days monks" in a better place, one where we can forget the names of stars and reckon our friends' faces by firelight and maybe cup our hands and drink from the rivers and streams.