reviewed by Anthony Adler
Waterloo seems to be that rarest of things: a slice of small town America that exists both on the page and on the map. Welsch’s Waterloo is a small town in Monroe County, Illinois: it takes its name from the exclamation of an Irish farmer, who, having no truck with local rivalries,
built his house on one bank, barn on the other, and “Begorrah! I give you both yer Waterloo!”
Welsch, like the narrator of these poems, might even have been born there; certainly the documents reproduced alongside the poems – maps, photographs, press cuttings, postcards, papers, a naturalisation certificate, and written paraphernalia of births and deaths – strongly suggest that Waterloo might well be at least partly autobiographical. As Andrew Bailey points out in his review for Sabotage, Welsch has discussed his relationship with this particular corner of the world elsewhere; but when it comes to Waterloo itself, there’s no explanatory paratext to give the reader a wink or a nod or a helping hand. Perhaps the notion of authenticity is wholly irrelevant when it comes to judging any poetry at all, or perhaps authenticity is just the wrong yardstick to bring to this particular party – but the sequence’s documentary approach does seem to invite its readers to consider how the Waterloo they’re reading about relates to the town as it exists.
Welsch, characteristically, gives nothing away, declining to present his readers with the customary loaded dice or leading questions. We’re given a glimpse, a suggestion hinted at and then deftly effaced: describing the state’s redevelopment and relocation of the Valmayer trailer park, Welsch gives a nod to Borges and observes that
The original is probably worse than a ghost town and the new one still looks like the model
but no sooner does he introduce the abstraction than he grounds it in mundane reality;
It looks like whichever river rats held their ground in their trailers till the state paid out got their own named street unlike the stubborn couple who rebuilt back in the actual “vale”, whose streets all lead out now into the same deep field.
This theoretical play is firmly grounded in the social, political, and economic contexts of human experience. The conceit of the poem is both strengthened and undermined by the intellectual transaction, shown both at once to have a practical, prosaic application and to be insignificant in the teeth of the powerful, impersonal forces that frame and govern lives; and the poem (and hence the poet and the reader) benefits, like the proprietor of a bureau de change, from each translation back and forth. If all streets lead back to the same deep field, speculation as to the accuracy of Welsch’s written model of Waterloo becomes unnecessary in light of the irrelevancy of the answer, the unfathomable documentary support for the poems serving to deepen our understanding rather than define it.
There’s a modesty to Waterloo that is almost self-effacing.
Some poets would bring off this sort of technical display in order to delight in their flight of theoretical fancy and rest the poem’s success on the virtuosity of their own performance. Welsch seems to be doing something very different. There’s a modesty to Waterloo that is almost self-effacing. Twenty four untitled, ten line poems, split into five unrhymed couplets, each comprising a few simple, spare sentences apparently held together by little more than the fuzzy logic of familiar thought; twenty four discursive snapshots; twenty four moments and observations spun out into anecdotes and rooted in a place. Where Waterloo is difficult to follow it is made so by opacity, not obscurity, and where Welsch’s poems feel impenetrable he manages to avoid the kind of clubbish exclusivity that is often engendered by challenging poetry. The reader is not part of Waterloo, that’s all; the reader doesn’t live there. All communities are necessarily inscrutable to any strangers passing through, at least to some extent, and Waterloo is no different to anywhere else.
It is this integral sense of place, particular and populated, that makes Waterloo so unusual. The anatomy of small-town life and the attendant minutiae of the relationships and heritage of small-town inhabitants are traditionally the stomping grounds of novelists rather than poets. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising: it takes breadth to get to grips with anything as complicated as a community, and the concision of a single poem of conventional length is far less suited to delivering it than the heft of three hundred pages of prose. By chaining his poems together in sequence, Welsch overcomes not only that formal stumbling block, but also a number of other problems faced by novelists. Plot isn’t needed to generate momentum and draw readers in, so nor are the mechanical demands of pace and structure, nor a coherently legible chronology and narrative thread to help the reader keep cognisant of all the necessary engineering. Not all novels have these either, of course, though they tend to have at least one or two; they can be useful tools for the right project, but here they’re unmissed encumbrances. Each poem simply adds more information about Waterloo and the Welsches, about history and characters and daily life, but without lapsing into exposition; the reader can construct family trees and biographies from detective work between the gaps if they so choose, but not knowing the identities behind characters’ names never undermines the poems in which they appear.
Waterloo reads like a novel stripped of all the fat and gristle, or crossbred, or compressed to such an extent that it behaves in unexpected ways, which is to say that it’s a highly successful hybrid that pleasantly rewards the reader with surprises. Having apparently established its interest in the gathering of the extended Welsch clan at a family funeral in a manner reminiscent of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road and geared itself up for an exploration of mortality and communal grief, it mutates retroactively into a narrative of a romantic relationship before being rededicated, towards the end of the sequence as the narrator learns that
"It” is now a “she,” so I’ve decided, as a sort of experiment, to start writing as if I’m writing to her. To you, I mean. Hello. This is your dad,
suddenly addressing the reader in the second person and giving them an unexpected identity. Musing on parenthood, the narrator goes so far as to suggest that the entire sequence can be seen as a testament of family history for his unborn child, a record of things that ‘Someday, it might interest [her]’ to know. Again, this shift in focus could easily make a novel feel half-baked; in Waterloo it works to give a sense of development and suggest the passing of time.
In his review, Andrew Bailey discusses Waterloo’s ‘temporal freedom’ and concludes that ‘Welsch’s handling of time as a stacked thing, like a pile of year planners, is a very present pleasure of the pamphlet’. While Andrew highlights the emotional immediacy that this fosters, I’d like to steal his phrase and use it in a slightly different sense. Waterloo’s primary subject is life as an integral part of an unalienated contemporary community, and one of the ways that it successfully engages with it is by engaging with heritage and history. Temporal freedom gives Welsch the scope to get to grips with the past in the same way as the present and enables him to hone in on the continuities that give his Waterloo its distinct identity, making this pamphlet about more than just the thoughts of a young man in a small town, trying to find out who he is and contemplating which members of his family might inherit ‘the more valuable porcelain owls’. Waterloo is a supremely assured pamphlet that wears itself lightly and feels almost seamless; it’s utterly convincing and perfectly observed, and engaged with a world that’s impeccably human in scale. Read it today. I’m all praised out.