Review of THE DIRT RIDDLES by Michael Walsh

University of Arkansas Press, 2010  $16.00

reviewed by James Crews

In the glut of poetry books being published these days, it’s easy for collections like Michael Walsh’s The Dirt Riddles to get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps it’s also easy in our current literary climate for poets who choose to write accessibly about the natural world to fall by the wayside, for who can compete for the limelight if you don’t have a gimmick, aren’t published by one of the larger presses like Graywolf or Copper Canyon? The literary world seldom takes notice. Though I suspect that a poet like Walsh cares little for insular literary fame, his first collection—winner of the inaugural 2010 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the 2011 Thom Gunn Award for Poetry—should have garnered far more attention upon its publication. The Dirt Riddles, like Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana, released earlier this year, focuses partly on growing up gay in the Midwest and examines the indelible mark the land has left on the poet. Michael Walsh came of age on a dairy farm in western Minnesota, but unlike many gay poets writing today, who often characterize their hometowns as places to flee, Walsh writes with relish of the land that made him who he is, and continues to do so. In “Flyover,” he says:

No one notices where stones, huge as houses,
bust topsoil, bald rock ledges.
In their keyless, windowless rooms
fossil fish still swim in mineral.
Above, ditch blooms swarm the open road.
Frogs hop the gravel where a car drove by,
their eyes wide and itching in the dust.

These poems ask us to look around, below and inside of the ordinary things of the world, and they don’t shy from speaking of family or nature—two subjects so many contemporary poets have spurned in favor of the “skittery poem” (as Tony Hoagland describes it), which seldom lingers long enough on a scene or object to give us a full impression of it—or of the writer. Over and over, Walsh references the “fossils” he uncovers, the fresh revelations he finds simply by walking out into the yard. He loves this land and its animals. In “First Kisses,” he confesses:

I kissed white cats who slept underneath
cows, rusted rain barrels where June bugs
scrabbled in water, and fresh mud,
telltale impressions I wanted you to find.

He is speaking ostensibly to a lover in this poem, but he’s also talking to his readers. He is literally kissing the earth he describes so that we might know the complicated, sometimes ambivalent relationship he has with what is his inheritance. Because his poems often take their time and actually employ metaphor and simile to surprise us, many of them slowly acquire what Ted Kooser has called “an overlay of magic,” without going so far as to exclude the average reader.  “Inheritance” begins with the line, “Rust blooms across my land,” and ends with this striking image:

. . . In the shed
I touch the many red, ripe
nail points. They pollinate
the pale flowers of my hands.

It’s lovely language on the surface, but if we look deeper, we see that it works on another level too: the rust he observes on “nail points” has “pollinated” his hands so that he might write about it, reproducing it for others to see. Though the art of metaphor more often than not seems dead these days, Walsh proves that the right image at the right time can still stir the reader, can send a shiver up her or his spine in. Take “Buffalo Bones,” as another instance of the poet recounting an experience so clearly and accessibly to the reader that it becomes universal, as inevitable as myth:

My father sprang the first bone
loose from the sod by luck . . .
He carried the skeleton
into the scrub brush for keeping.
We rode on its back
under the leaves, listened
to the herd travel underground—
that clatter and thump of hooves.
We called them like cows.
We were sure they could hear our bare feet
stomp the dark clouds of dirt.

Anyone who’s spent time on the prairie knows that the wind is capable of playing any number of tricks on the mind and that the land feels haunted by bison, which were slaughtered and decimated. It’s commendable that, even as Walsh speaks of dark matters, of the difficult aspects of growing up gay in a rural place, his poems never devolve into self-pity or melodrama; they skirt the boundary between sentiment and artifice and end up moving us again and again. Thus, he’s capable of writing a poem like “Bully,” whose harsh consonance and crystallized lines give us only what we need to understand what it must have felt like to have been tortured by someone the speaker was also inexplicably attracted to:

I turn myself into a rock.
Tim grabs me from the floor.
We go to break what litters
his backyard: glass bottles,
dismembered doll parts,
plastic soldiers in a skirmish . . .
He lifts me to his brother’s face,
those sweet and full lips.
I love Tim’s fist.

He also captures the challenges of continuing to live in a place where the simplest act—giving your lover a “peck” on the cheek in a gas station, for example—can breed instant, if unspoken aggression:

It’s a dirty peck,
quick as a feather.
And now no one else in line
can bear to look at us . . .
I turn and glare at two guys
long enough to break
their stare, fixed now
on their worn-out, Bible-black boots.

It should go without saying by now that these poems are simply a pleasure to read (and they are meant to be read aloud), their sounds in the mouth a delicate music very few take the time to conjure anymore. “Haying the Fields” finds Walsh yet again delighting playfully in the images of farm life and doing so with exactitude and unadorned, compressed language:

In the loft we stack the load,
fresh green dust
a snowfall, bundles wrapped
tight as butcher’s meat.
Later I throw one down the chute
and knife its twine. A snake
bursts from the folds,
its last thrash rigored.
Smell what the bale exhales:
not sweet, green field: mold.
I feed the herd this bread.

In reading the taut, lovely poems in this collection, one gets the sense that the land of his native Minnesota serves as a kind of nourishment for Walsh in the same way the Lake District compelled Wordsworth’s meditations more than two hundred years ago. There’s precious little to fault in The Dirt Riddles, though I must admit the title is slightly misleading: Unlike a good portion of contemporary verse, the poems in this book are not riddles at all. They are truths, both celebratory and at times sinister, carved intricately from the stuff at hand—from “Cord, hinge, tube, and bone,” and from “mud, apples, milk.” Perhaps Michael Walsh learned the intense patience and attention he gives to his work from the dairy farm of his youth, for his poems are as palpable, as rich a thing as milk itself. And he describes those milkings:

Each day I broke the seals
with hot rags, and milk
flooded my palm—
a white creek down
the gulley of my wrist.

Walsh has left us with this testament of a life spent tending the land, and without a tinge of pretense or resentment. It’s been a few years since the publication of The Dirt Riddles, but I for one hope that Walsh is hard at work on his second book. Though I trust poems this subtle and deceptively simple take a good deal of time to write, I also know that there are not enough collections like this one out there—books that seek a much larger audience by daring to write accessibly about everyday life, repaying our patient reading with the pleasures of music and the kindness of clarity.