The Outerlands by Peter Weltner
BrickHouse Books 2012 $18.00
A review by Sonja James
Peter Weltner’s The Outerlands is a superbly crafted book of poems that electrify with their emotional impact. Weltner, who lives in San Francisco, writes sensitive and highly aesthetic poems about the Pacific coast, his family, his sexual orientation, and his struggle with religion and notions of the afterlife. He also writes of art, composers, and various poets who have touched his life.
Throughout the volume Weltner revisits his loss of faith which occurred when he was thirteen. He is openly pained by his inability to believe in God. In “A Walk Down Mount Tamalpais,” he excavates the origins of his lack of faith:
Thirteen, when I lost my faith, I set myself on
a mortal quest. Old age would come and I’d
be done, having learned what I’d sought, all God
had wrought on this earth, and I’d be willing to go.
Is it too late? In ancient Colonus, death brought
one blind to an olive grove. I wait by the sea.
Weltner’s loss of faith and lack of belief in an afterlife informs his poem, “A Dead Man in the Dunes, New Year’s Day.” He posits the life after this one as “nothing” when he states “I’m buying too much stuff: books, CDs, DVDs./There’s not enough time left for me to read,/listen to, look at them. I’ll be nothing too soon.”
He continues this nihilistic trend in the title poem, “The Outerlands,” where he writes of the place where a man drowned “last Sunday.” He describes the loss of the body of the man: “No body has been found washed up on the beach./It’s become unlikely it will ever be recovered,/another soul, his name, lost to Pacific riptides.” He then compares the makeshift gravestone of the man to the wreckage of a ship called the Prince Philip which went down in a tempest in 1886: “It’s mere traces now, fragments/of a vanished world….”
In “Resurrection,” he describes his mother’s death: “I’m always too late. Ninety, she dies alone/in a metallic white, shrilly lit hospital room.” He closes the poem with the conclusion he has drawn about any possibility of an afterlife: “There’s resurrection but not for us.”
The hope of the book lies in the poet’s relationship to other artists, both living and dead. He writes poems that resurrect the dead without glossing over their personal failings. In “Randall Jarrell,” he describes the poet Jarrell at a party given for his step-daughter. He describes it as an evening where “There’s pain in the air.” In “Ezra Pound,” he highlights the anti-Semitism of the Modernist poet, Ezra Pound. He also writes of poets Delmore Schwartz, John Wieners, and George Oppen. He celebrates his love of music by commemorating Joseph Haydn, Rossini, Edvard Grieg, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, and Igor Stravinsky.
Of these poems about composers, one of the most hauntingly beautiful passages is from “Edvard Grieg:” “Such cold is what his music wants to say,/the strange chill of age from the day he was born,/the nip of fall in all he has loved, the notes/of his scores chiseled from ice. That crystalline./That light, impossible to touch or hold, like sleet/to a boy’s delight melting in his hands.”
The sheer virtuosity of the poems in The Outerlands demonstrate that Peter Weltner is a poet to be reckoned with. Both the human condition and the human heart are the subjects of these often gloomy poems where we are allowed to glimpse a moment of salvation when Weltner writes of art and music. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but then, no work of such brutal soul searching ever is.
Sonja James is the author of Baiting the Hook (the Bunny & the Crocodile Press, 1999), Children of the Moon (Argonne House Press, 2004), and Calling Old Ghosts to Supper (Finishing Line Press, 2013).
Poets are invited to submit recent books for review consideration. Contact Sonja James at firstname.lastname@example.org