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Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

Ring of Bone by Lew Welch (Grey Fox Press, 1973)

The title of Lew Welch’s Collected Poems 1950-1971 is taken from one of his earlier Hermit poems which had appeared in 1965 from Don Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco as Writing 8. Published in an edition of 1000 copies it was reproduced from the author’s handwriting.

‘I saw myself
a ring of bone
in the clear stream
of all of it’

The image of sight and sound occurs of course some eighty-five years earlier in the sonnet Hopkins wrote about movement and every aspect of Nature dealing out ‘that being indoors each one dwells’:

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring…’

The effect of a stone’s splash into water is to produce a number of rings which move outwards from the moment of impact; the movement lessens as it gets further from the source. The echoing sense of experience moving outwards from the initial moment is caught by Hopkins in his wonderfully contradictory image of bells: the sonorous ’roundy wells’, the depth and darkness, give out a clarity of ringing which stretches through air.
In the Preface to his Collected Poems Lew Welch suggested that ‘Ring of Bone might be called a spiritual autobiography arranged in more or less chronological sequence.’ He goes on to say that the mind grows in a ‘flickering kind of way’ and that sometimes ‘an insight comes too early to be fully understood.’ Book II of this Collected Poems reproduces the 1965 Hermit poems and includes the drawing Welch did for his hundred foot circle:

‘Step out onto the Planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen.’

An earlier poem by Welch offered a picture of Chicago and Samuel Charters wrote about it that it was almost as if the poet ‘were standing on a street corner with his arms folded, trying to tell somebody what he thinks about Chicago’. The language is casual, immediate, direct and ‘he’s only concerned with telling you what’s on his mind, half listening to whatever anybody else is saying’.
Perhaps nowadays one might have to turn to the Notebooks of R.F. Langley to unearth the quietly resounding sense of what is in Lew Welch’s ‘ring of bone’:

‘As I came back up the garden, I sat down on the bench, and stayed there a couple of hours. Barbara was in the attic with the computer, the roof window by her open, the electric light in there strengthening during those hours, from invisible, to a suggestion, to gold in a cave. There was continuous cloud crossing, with blue gaps paling between. Metal grey. Lead silver. With darker whiffs. At first there were touches of citrine, not brown, not yellow, not orange…which chilled and disappeared. There was a small star, which I thought was a satellite because it was moving, but this movement was transferred from the clouds, as I realised when the star reappeared in the same place later. No swifts. No sparrows. No starlings. The raucous bird life has moved away from the garden, to Africa or into the fields and marshes. House martins still, high, in a group, like swifts but slower, gentler, quieter. Thirty or so of them. They vanish as darkness comes.’

The final poem in Lew Welch’s Hermit Poems takes us back to that circle of engagement and observation, of openness to the world:

‘and vowed
always to be open to it
that all of it
might flow through

and then heard
“ring of bone” where
ring is what a
bell does’

Ian Brinton 21st January 2018

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