“The scorpion/ is her sigil. Her love song on the battlefield,/ her war-cry in the senseless fields. Survive/ on nothing, on one insect a year. Dagger/ your tail.” These lines from the first poem in Latest Volcano, winner of the Marsh Hawk Press 2015 Poetry Prize, set the foundation for the philosophy of the entire book. The image of the scorpion, surrounded by devastation, surviving on little substance, lashing out until the only thing it has to strike is itself, becomes a metaphor for grief in this world—a world fraught with war and violence, whose destruction can’t be healed when even human connection, love, and sex are acts that end in personal loss and brutality as well. The collection bears witness to the topics that have mattered most throughout history—love, sex, and war—with relentless pursuance and razor-sharp intensity.
One motif that appears early in the collection also situates itself at the end of many of Welch’s poems: there is a pattern in which the poems end in blood. In “Nothing to See Here,” the piece concludes, “She ponders the logistics of beheading 11,000 girls:/ How many Huns did it take? How much blood?/ How long?” Again, in “What Remains,” the speaker recalls bull fights with her father: “The matador in the bull ring, real blood seeping from his stomach.” While not all poems in this collection end in blood, they often fulgurate with other destructive images: natural disasters, volcanoes, thunder, nets in which to trap crabs. These stark images hit the reader heavily, interrogating the notions of victims, prey, and destruction. The underlying question after every relentless image is: how can we endure so much loss? But Welch doesn’t take an easy road in assuming all readers are innocent bystanders in this devastation, clearly articulating that we have our own role to examine and our own power in this world. In “She Took the Gun,” Welch writes:
Just like shooting into the water
feels like nothing
two fish rose to the surface,
mouths gaping open
like children singling in the midnight choir,
paper wings wired
to their backs, or like children
in a furnace, stomachs bloated
The first two lines give the sense of how oblivious the speaker is to her own power. She holds a gun, shoots, and feels as if she’s done nothing, but she’s unknowingly killed two fish. And then the image morphs from the fish’s gaping mouth in the wake of death to the innocence of children singing in a church choir, a startling transformation that makes the reader pause to think about the implications of what the speaker’s killed. But it doesn’t end there, as the final image alludes to Holocaust imagery, a turn of the screw that makes the reader realize that not only is the speaker unaware of her power, we are all oblivious to our agency and our roles in the historical horrors haunting our periphery—even if the power of destruction lies only in the absence of confronting such brutality.
The work also repeatedly returns to an ongoing discussion of feminism. While many poems reflect this theme, two poems stand out as potently powerful. In “The Same Wide Feet,” the speaker reflects on lessons she’s taught to her daughter “about men and poison” and how to ensure that she behaves like a woman should, learning what to hide and when to reveal it. She asserts that strong women, like Cleopatra, use their bodies, their femininity, their sexuality, as a source of power, “guilty in living and loving the politics of her own orgasm.” But once she sees her daughter, decked out in a miniskirt and heels, she has an epiphany: “The power that lies in the body is no power at all.” The poem ends in her lending her daughter her old makeup, a passing of the torch, as her own heart burns to dust.
Another poem that engages a tradition of feminist thought is “Leda Burning, Immendorf Palace, 1945.” The poem recounts the burning of Gustav Klimt’s painting of Leda and the swan by a Nazi soldier. It’s crafted as one long sentence, detailing the experience of destroying the painting, and this single sentence forces us to endure destruction with no relief from the violent act. In watching the painting burn, readers engage with an extended metaphor for war, capitalism, totalitarianism, sexism, and oppression. The end of the poem turns on Leda’s last breast transforming:
ash, soot, and sweet young
thing sights the soldier.
This turn directly shifts the poem toward the destruction wreaked on women through the male gaze. By directing the reader’s attention in such a way, a deeper truth is revealed: military violence is patriarchal violence. The two are inextricably linked.
Many of the poems also showcase the surprising link between sex and war. In “Fortification,” which begins, “George, the man whose penis I sometimes hold,” Welch sets a tone that’s assumed to be silly, sexy, and fun. As a reader, you feel you have reached a moment of respite from destruction, as the poem details a love affair, a joy in the pleasures of the body. But the poem doesn’t let you off that easily:
We soak in mud and nurse ourselves with minerals
and milk while on the other side of the mountain,
the bodies of a thousand men—husbands and fathers—
are cracking open. Because we are sick
we can only drink our water and pretend not to hear.
Again, Welch turns the poem in a brilliantly surprising way, forcing you to interrogate your own actions. Are sex and pleasure only a way for us to combat our grief about the havoc of the world? Is it a form of ignorance, of apathy, or of healing? Whatever it is, war and sex are yoked together—one cannot be seen as separate from the other. Destruction doesn’t exist if not for our acts of creation.
Latest Volcano is evocative and smart in its themes, but it’s also sensual in its rich descriptions that appeal to the senses, “glowing like Plath’s fever moons,” and its surprising metaphors. In finishing this book full of beauty and wreckage, you’ll carry the speaker’s advice with you: “Tell yourself: you are the latest volcano, not the latest eruption.”
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013) and The Dark Length Home (Noctuary Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Redivider, New South, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial grant, a 2015 Best of the Net winner, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She currently teaches writing and literature at Wheelock College in Boston, MA.