We, the Almighty Fires
In We, the Almighty Fires, Anna Rose Welch proves yet again that sex and religion are always the best topics for poetry. This lively and moving debut collection reveals a poet on intimate terms with the sacred texts, while discovering something even more compelling in the intimate embraces of those nearest. Those moments of revelation, when the sacred suddenly extends into the personal and the physical, are beautifully captured here.
As readers we are invited in to Welch’s discoveries directly, passionately, there’s no hesitation here. Born and raised in Erie, PA, where she still lives, Welch is refreshingly free of our common coastal pretensions. This is a poetry of experience, not commentary, and in this it seems both fresh and classical.
The collection is organized into four sections; the first of which circles around the themes of Genesis and a broken love affair. In this section the poem “Original Sin,” explores the forces of creation/destruction at work in all of us.
“. . . That Holy Lamp of the body
is just a phrase reserved for saints, those gently lit marble
things, incapable of making wastelands of each other.
Here now we kneel. We the Almighty Fires,
Thunderous with light, just begging one another
Or whatever other angels shall come—
That it’ll be a kind of love these flames will give.”
Section two, is comprised of “Noah’s Wife,” a single long poem, which follows the thoughts of Noah’s famously unnamed wife as she rises with the ark and discovers some problems underlying her husband’s basic assumptions. The language here, suggestive of an inner narrative, is always present to experience; her animals have teeth, figuratively and literally.
“If being undone brings me closer to You, God, then leave me whole and closer to Godless, and the lions felt my hands and stilled, followed me obediently into my husband’s boat.”
Welch is skilled at using a theme like the Noah story and finding odd angles and new windows with which to see it. The work never feels shaped so much by these stories rather the poet employs them to her own ends. Her language, rich with physical imagery, moves with a colloquial tone, in contrast to the philosophical content of many of the poems. This friction between tone and topic, is one of the many pleasures here grow in force and energy.
The poems in section three are not overtly related in topic, though some of the same themes recur; there are passions and animals, and animal passions. The poet explores how women are in love, what they give away, what they keep, or meant to.
Among the many strong poems in this section are “Envy of Deepest Water” and “Bridle,” which opens with this memorable line “You have a stamped of horses trapped inside you.” Another good poem “Rough Music” ends with this verse.
“Anything could be our god here, even that upset curtain,
That upset something with wings slamming headfirst
Into its reflection, into the window, into itself.”
Throughout the collection Welch has a wonderful way of going where the poetic line leads, it may be unexpected or dissonant, but she follows the action. It is this quality that makes us feel we are reading a serious poet, whose work will only get richer.
Welch is a violinist as well as a writer, and the sense of playing what she hears comes through. One can hear strains of Sharon Olds or even D. H. Lawrence, though a closer contemporary cousin is Melissa Range whose poems of Appalachia and religion seem at least regionally related to these. Two poets does not a movement make, but something new seems to be getting mined out of what we used to call coal country.
The final linked section in the collection, “Noah’s Woods,” plays off passages from the text of Wilhelm’s Reich’s the Function of the Orgasm. Between the interplay of religion and sex, some answers are found. The concluding one line poem sums it up beautifully.
“Somewhere an open mouth to a ceiling says, God and gets what it reaches for.”