Journal of Writing & Environment

When Sam turned fifteen her grandmother, thinking it cruel to keep the secret any longer once the man was dead, finally answered the question her mother wouldn’t: her father had been a writer, a poet named Lew Welch. Cynthia had met him in Chicago and they’d screwed feverishly (just once, just over the river, not that she gave anyone those details) in the back of a Buick en route to Iowa City; she’d taken a bus home. Sam was born in Rockford where Cynthia’s people were, and despite being an unwed woman with a child in the late fifties, Cynthia struggled but managed to have the career she wanted—stage-acting mostly, some commercial and modeling work—a feat impossible without Claudette, who everyone was careful not to say raised the kid. It was only later, in college, that the possibility occurred to Sam that some secret part of herself might, by sacred rite of blood, be found in the poems. Cynthia had probably never even read them (Ring of Bone came out posthumously in ’73, she succumbed to cancer in ’75), yet she resented, to the end, Claudette’s breach of confidence. No one blamed her for feeling entitled to the privacy of her experience, but none sided with her assertion that Sam had no right to his identity. Still, she let Sam ask questions even if she had nothing to add. Did Welch ever know? She had no idea what he knew, which was not a falsehood, but she told Sam more than once: all her answers would be plain if she would only obey the life inside her. Lew Welch had written a koan, he called it “The Rider’s Riddle,” that went: “if you spend as much time on the Mountain as you should, She will always give you a Sentient Being to ride: animal, plant, insect, reptile, or any of the Numberless Forms.” For him it was the turkey buzzard. He wrote his Last Will & Testament in a poem, instructing that his carcass (“my meat”) be returned to them for food:


Let no one grieve!


I shall have used it all up

used up every bit of it


What an extravagance!

What a relief!


This most likely happened. He had walked out from his campsite into the Sierra Madres carrying a Smith & Wesson pistol and never returned, his body never found. Sam preferred to believe he was ignorant of her life, although she understood how, even if he had been, he could still have written the note, left in his truck and discovered by Gary Snyder: “I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it—never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone.” She had seen enough of artists, saw her mother’s obsession with work and its necessity, to know something of how they loved; she knew better than to think she could contravene his judgment. A koan’s answer comes with perfect clarity, when it comes, and who was she to say a bullet could not be a right solution? For her, the possibilities narrowed to chicken hawk or prairie dog.