March 8, 2019KR Reviews

On We, the Almighty Fires by Anna Rose Welch

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2018. 100 pages. $15.95.

I’ve been trying to figure out the title of Anna Rose Welch’s We, the Almighty Fires for a while. The book isn’t one riddled with images of fire—more of water. Floods, oceans. Welch brings water to life in all its glorious complexities: a life-giver and life-taker, a destroyer, a soothing calmer. This poet expertly navigates the element’s complexities throughout this book, exploring its multiple identities and historical and literary roles. It makes sense for poems this fierce and unblinking, this complex. Water, too, is apparent in the acute sense of rhythm Welch displays throughout the collection, a consistent, but by turns ebbing, rhythm I deeply admire. As musicians, Welch and I might both say rubato.

Welch is a violinist and, while music, of course, is set up fundamentally differently than language in rhythm and sound, a trained musical ear is apparent in these poems. Welch has delightful control over rhythm from the first poem, “This Is How You Beg”: “You find a pair of canaries—your mother’s—long buried,” she writes. “Gone, every muscle, wing, and feather tying the body / together.” There’s an impressively controlled lilt beginning here that the rest of the collection carries. Combined with so many water images, this attention to rhythm equally across sentences and lines fits the scope of We, the Almighty Fires and the poems in it. Welch switches up her syntax like this regularly—not purely for an attempt at “poetic language,” but to match the tenor of the book itself. The ferocity in these and many lines is a quiet one. There’s an undeniable flow that soothes but that also crashes like waves over me.

But at its core We, the Almighty Fires is a book about women. Welch gives voice to women who have historically not had one, with a noticeable focus on Biblical stories. The long-ish poem in sections, “Noah’s Wife,” is the heart of this book, taking up the entirety of part two in the collection. One section of the poem reads, in its entirety,

To desire another is to lose your wits.
To lose your wits is to know God’s hands.

I tried to convince myself of this
as the ark rose inch by inch,

as the loosened rain mistook
God’s want as its own.

There’s a real tenderness for Noah’s wife (Naamah—here, though, left nameless). She’s given agency, and her erasure is acknowledged at poem’s end in a blocked, prose poem-ey section: “This book will forget I put in my husband’s chest everything he couldn’t erase: the knowledge that the sweet light tangled inside the forest’s thousand unions was not a blessing but a wound.” That seems to encompass Welch’s fascination with women here: not merely to give them names and agency, but also to acknowledge the complexity of an experience they’ve already added to—especially since the women she focuses her work on are often, as with Noah’s wife, Biblical. Another poem, “Story in Which I’m Renamed Eve and Just Don’t Give a Damn,” the speaker’s erasure comes from being named something not-her, rather than not being named at all.

In keeping with the Bible
I practiced two-leggedness for a long time.
And then I didn’t because I discovered four-leggedness
in a little room with the lights left on, and it wasn’t magic,
and it wasn’t Christ that brought my dress hissing to the floor—
He has so many brides already.
It was the curls sprung wild from another man’s head.

There’s a push-and-pull there between bodily agency and the lack of it, between who this speaker is and how she’s renamed. A kind of erasure in that dress on the floor, since the body in the dress isn’t something we see here—but it also feels in this moment that the speaker is utterly in control of that movement. Welch is concerned with the erasure itself, in working with it, in trying to figure out what it does to us.

Combining major themes, Welch regularly ties water images to male-female romantic or sexual relationships. “La Petite Mort” begins thus: “Affection had nothing to do with it. / When the water wanted something, it rose up / and took it like fathers do mothers. / Like boys do to girls to become men.” And “After You Left” starts, “I said fuck it and let another man name me his ship- / wreck . . . For every piece I gave him I demanded a secret / about the ocean.” So the sea is unmistakably male here (a shift from a traditional, feminine sea in French, for example, and marine bodies and ships themselves dubbed “she” by English-speaking sailors). By the end of the book, there’s been such a back-and-forth of who has power over that sea, who’s making decisions about it, that I can’t quite say sea equals destructive male. It’s more fluid than that—this entire collection is. And it’s better for it.

Welch embraces that genre-bending creative force, deftly bridging prose poems, long poems, and narrative poems, all while maintaining an intense focus on lyric, on sound, on white space. I’ve always seen in hybrid work an exploration of identity, that resistance to categorize, to put its characters into a box. That’s immediately apparent in Welch’s work, too. While showing off an array of poetic forms, she uses that versatility to embrace multiple roles for the women in her book, and for the men, too. The speakers of these poems, the characters that appear in them, are as distinct as the poems themselves, embodying the variety of works we see here, embodying the sea, embodying real people themselves. We need more of this in poetry—flexible form and identity alike.

Nearly at the very end of We the Almighty Fires, we’re left with Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus—as Welch writes, “a woman born on the crest of the sea”—and the speaker herself seems to join hands with the goddess: “This is what my body said to yours as you fought the sea of sheets and I wandered father and farther toward the bedless edge.” We certainly don’t get a happy ending here—nor do I want one. Welch’s poem doesn’t only leave us with a birth, more with the birth of a fully-grown woman on the sea, this tumultuous, feminine, dangerous, destructive body that can never quite be conquered by anyone.

What we get is an ending full of that titular almighty fire: a fire that knows it must fight, be drowned out, and ignite again.

Bess Cooley
Bess Cooley won the 2017 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Atticus Review, Breakwater Review, and Forklift, Ohio, among other journals. Her book reviews appear in Sycamore Review and Electric Literature. Educated at Knox College and in the MFA program at Purdue University, she lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee.