Everyone Who Is Dead by David Welch
Spork Press, 2018. 70 Pages
Reviewed by John McCarthy
“What is a ghost / said the audience” writes Welch in his intelligent and delightfully mysterious debut Everyone Who is Dead. Profound in nature, Welch’s book hosts a trinity of recurring characters: the boy, the audience, and a multitude of rabbits who interact with each other through fables that are in conversation with late poets such as Rilke and Basho. The poems address not only the moral quagmires of daily existence but also what the afterlife might have in store. A passage from “The Audience” provides philosophical instruction:
“Dawn came and the mystery remained.
Soon, the boy said, I will have for you a proposition.
How will we know asked the audience, that your proposition is
in proportion to your purpose. You will know, said the boy,
by how many rabbits you find tonight waiting in the woods.”
Along with reinventing the way fables are told and deepening the scope of what they can accomplish, the narrator of these poems honors those who have come before as he dives into symbols invented out of nature while basking in the brilliance of the granular. Welch accomplishes this in “After Basho” when he notes:
“A movement of spring—
birds spawning, their tears singing
like fish in their eyes.”
“A spider’s voice accenting autumn in spring is a scraping of wind.”
This same attention to metaphorical detail delivers a meditative moment in “Anecdote of the Fable,” which is also an ars poetica.
“The mind is interested
The brain is
a room in which
the mind arranges
an oval table.”
And later in the poem:
“…and the author who
designs our brains…”
These passages reflect a meta-self-awareness in the narrator as well as in the audience who follows the boy throughout the book, presenting a conflict between solipsism and predestined philosophy to which the audience wants solutions. As readers, we, too, are eager for answers. But what these poems reveal is that speculation is the only metaphysical truth.
In “The Afterlife,” Welch employs anaphora and lyricism to design an entire universe of possibility.
“Maybe a petal from a tulip
floating on a pond. A salamander.
Maybe a river. Maybe a drop of water
in the eaves. Maybe a change
into the thought of change, the idea
that we will know
you’re still here, our voices
clear in the air moving
between the trees as if a leaf…”
Maybe the afterlife and our lives as we know them are interchangeable and not so different. Maybe we just don’t quite know how to peek through the veneer of our own lives, our own limiting, synchronic definitions of words. It is this tension that compels us, along with the audience, to follow the boy and the rabbit into the mystery of the unknown.
In “The Idea Moss,” the audience becomes aware of the fable in which they exist.
“If you’re alone,
asked the audience, how will we know that we exist?
First you must have an idea, the boy said. And the audience asked how
their idea might grow into itself.”
Welch ends this poem by suggesting that subjective interpretation is our divine responsibility and that when we grow into it, we experience wonder.
“And like the end of the rabbit, it grew alone in the mind
until the audience allowed it free and asked the boy
what they had discovered as he held his breath and the green
idea softly spread.”
Everyone Who Is Dead is an ever-opening treasure chest that constantly invites the reader to consider the ontology of daily existence while discovering the complex, wondrous ways life continues even after it is over.
John McCarthy is the author of Scared Violent Like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which won the 2017 Jake Adam York Prize. His work has appeared in American Literary Review, Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Sycamore Review, TriQuarterly, and Zone 3. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.