People Can Afford: A Review of J.T. Welsch’s ‘Appendix: Pruit-Igoe’

Andrew Motion praised J.T. Welsch’s first poetry collection, Orchids (2010), as ‘a distinguished debut: clever but emotional, ingenious but affecting,’ which ‘promise[d] very well for the future.’ His fourth collection, Appendix: Pruitt-Igoe (2013), shows that fledgling talent now in flight. The metaphor is not gratuitous, for reading Orchids I truly had the sensation – not all the time, but often enough that it became a lasting impression – that the lines were struggling to take off, that something kept them earthbound. Some process was not yet complete… but now the metaphor threatens to transform into an alchemical one, so I’ll draw myself up short.

Appendix is a slim book, 40 pages including the title page and three that are blank. The author is offering it for free as a PDF on his website, which is very generous of him, but I think it is worth more. On the site it is subtitled a ‘Sequence in thirty-three parts, appropriating voices around the failed Pruitt-Igoe public housing project.’ Elsewhere he describes it as a ‘collage poem’ of historical documents on the project. Each eleven-line part (stanza?), having its own page of which it occupies about a quarter, has its own ‘source’, all listed with bibliographic detail in a justified block on the final page – the most densely printed page in the book, an irony of which I doubt he is unaware. This is found poetry, then, but not untreated: Welsch has not only cut up and rearranged lines; he has taken creative liberties, changed a good many words, and to great effect.

Pruitt-Igoe was a public housing project born early in the fifties in St. Louis, Missouri (Welsch’s home state); it was designed (under the budget-conscious constraints of the federal Public Housing Authority) by Minoru Yamasaki, also architect of the World Trade Centre. Its design was in keeping with trend of idealism in modernist architecture and Yamasaki was praised, initially. It was first occupied in 1954 but was already being demolished by 1971, by which time the development had fallen into decay, become all but unliveable and rife with crime, and had consumed nigh on $60 million. The great question was why this project had failed so spectacularly. Was the architecture or the irredeemably sinful nature of the inhabitants to blame?

I passed a very enjoyable morning, a solid three hours, in looking up one by one as I read the sequence for the second time, the sources listed at the back. I’m not entirely sure whether it was an academic’s or a sleuth’s desire I felt to track down the originals and verify how extensive Welsch’s modifications had been, but I would recommend any reader to do the same. Not only have I increased my general knowledge – about the appalling racial inequality of the time, about poverty, about the sheer difficulty of life in such an environment, about the remarkable Bill Moore (‘the scholar who went to the people’), and even about the Nixon-Khrushchev ‘Kitchen Debate’ – but I also increased manifold the pleasure gained at my first, ignorant reading. It was a morning well spent.

Yet I did enjoy that reading before having looked anything up, for clever and beautiful things are happening between the words themselves. One doesn’t need to know anything about the ‘myth’ to appreciate ‘Myths are being demolished to save taxes / and little or replacement occurs,’  or about the project generally to recognize some of the voices – or types of voices – being satirized. Take, for instance,

We must build more laws.
We must build people people can afford,

and

The concrete building with concrete
density is unquestionably more
concrete than concrete living.

Some of the humour is even more straightforward than satire:

The undersized
stables are brutally
battered and reek
of urine from children who
misjudged the time it would take
to Lease their apartments.

I laughed aloud at this punch line, probably all the louder because what had come before alluded to the grim realities both of undersized living quarters and of ‘the undersized Negro child’ referred to on the opposite page, the subject of Bill Moore’s research. Undeniably the full impact can only come from knowing something about the depths of the poverty and squalor, but even without this knowledge a good deal of significance is built up over the course of the sequence. In the right hands, found poetry can pick out wonderfully the patterns – jokes as well as sadnesses and beauties – inherent (apparently) in language itself. Of course reality is here heightened and as in a dream we are aware of the dreamwork, of the thread of a word or phrase from one part being taken up into the weave of the next, creating the pleasant impression that some fateful hand drew these voices together and that we might yet come to understand the connection. There always seems to be a special relationship between the two parts sharing a double page spread, though the threads of influence spread beyond these boundaries. During my initial, ignorant reading, before I even knew the sources were listed at the back, the appearance of mystery had all the more teasing power.

The parts of the sequence owing to Thomas Coolidge and his wife, a young married couple (who had both grown up in the project) interviewed in the sixties, are among the most powerful.

He keeps skinning that cat. He skins him one way,
then another. But he’s gone too soon now.
It boils down to this
— fix his money and you fix his power.

They were also, for that reason, the parts I treated with the most suspicion, being anxious to know how distorted their voices had been by this ventriloquism before I allowed myself to fall entirely under their influence. Ought it to matter? Perhaps not. Only I wanted to admire them for their words, and was afraid that all the rough but resonant eloquence might be due to Welsch’s intervention alone. When I located the interviews I saw this was not the case and was reassured. This is strange, for surely it should disappoint the reviewer if all the credit were to go to the poet; it seems we are not yet free of the desire that poetry should tell THE TRUTH. (But perhaps I should speak for myself alone.) Yet when Welsch falls down it is either because his interventions are not striking enough or because he seems not to have mastered the tone of the source and made it his own – not because the source itself was not strong enough. This happens when he treats Zola. He is much better with Baudelaire, and quite adept with William Carlos Williams (the subject of his doctoral thesis) and Le Corbusier.

In any case, the defects are minor and easily overwhelmed by the strengths of the sequence – which, incidentally, absolutely must be read in one sitting, in sequence, for its effects are cumulative. Although certain lines are (sometimes comically) aphoristic – ‘Bad morality doesn’t excuse / the behaviour of sins who lived there’ – the sections are not lyrics to be slipped into the pocket or memorized for later, urn-like enjoyment. They are, appropriately, like the parts of a large building complex, to be appreciated in their functionality and relation to one another as you move through them. The enjoyment is in the process, the visit to the site, as it were. The verse is not too much to be admired as form nor the language as texture, which was the case in much of Welsch’s earlier work. Yet here we see that, unlike Baudelaire’s swan, the poetry is no longer trailing its plumage in the dust but has freed itself.

Laura Jane Gallagher is an aspiring novelist living in London and currently working full-time on the first of many masterpieces.