No Time Left
That Ship Has Sailed by Terence Winch. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2023.
A collection of poetry is often the result of a poet’s impulse to write down personal stories, ideas, and observations. It might be that Terence Winch in That Ship Has Sailed is holding his life up to share with readers, as he studies it himself and tries to make sense of it, having come to the conclusion in several different ways (and through several different speakers or voices) that the “old life” is over: the sex, the alcohol, the partying, the deceits, the food. And now he has his memories.
This rich, wistful, and enigmatic poetry is divided into three parts. Part I is titled “Old Life”; Part II, “You May Take One Giant Step”; and Part III, “Name Your Poison.” Anyone at any adult ages can identify with this poetry for all its enigma, humor, and sorrow. It can make a reader laugh, weep, and say, “Yes, that’s exactly the way it is, was, or might be.”
Although time is the major theme throughout That Ship Has Sailed, the subcurrents are many— dream, love, memory, childhood, adulthood, old age, and the list goes on to food, ghosts, the dead, etc. Winch has had fun writing this book, too, in both craft and content. There is rhyme at times; Part II is all couplets; and as for form, in Part III there is a most unusual and perfect sestina. But beneath the fun is a deep sense of life’s fragility and the grief that results from the passage of time. It is as if time is a solid that can be pulverized into nothingness, as in dust to dust.
Take the poem “Cake” in Part I, which embodies poetry about youth.
The cake is a creamy, moist, sensuous confection that evokes a “you,” who seems to be someone once loved, but as the title of the book suggests, that ship has sailed.
I had my cake,
and ate it too.
But now just crumbs
will have to do.
And that’s just a cake that crumbles. Winch can reduce a whole building to crumbs, as in the poem, “The Custom.”
I was standing on my stoop one time in the middle
of the day when the elementary school across the street began to crumble right before my eyes. This was okay
because there was no school that day and no one was injured.
It was soon discovered by the children in the neighborhood
that the building crumble tasted like cookies so they all began
to eat the remains of the building. . . .
This narrative poem expands into something quite unexpected, metaphorically following life’s path from childhood on:
The children all grew very fat
as a result. But that was okay because a health club was erected
in the spot where the school once stood and all the children
began to work out. They learned to restrict their intake of food
to fewer than 1200 calories a day and soon they were slender
and strong just in time to become adults.
The story eventually moves on into a realm of centenarians that suggests a Sartre-like existential place with no exits, just the images of doors painted on the walls, a grim foreshadowing of the old age he writes about later.
In many of these poems throughout the collection, Winch addresses a “you,” who is perhaps himself or the speaker of the poem. Or it’s the reader, or a you the speaker has loved for a long time and at a distance. In the poem “Imposter” in Part II: “You May Take One Giant Step,” he writes:
You were never the person
I thought you were.
This you, as the poem proceeds, is perhaps all three of those you’s, and there is a wistfulness about the relationship of the speaker to the you’s, up to the last couplet, in which he admits that
You took your time. I took my time.
Now there’s no time left.
But there is time to absorb these compelling poems. The poems of Part II are all in couplets, a device used perhaps to reflect loss and nostalgia, which recur throughout. Slowly, childhood is over. And as the poet moves into early adulthood, he remembers the mothers standing on the sidewalk smoking. “Everything rhymed in those days,” he says. “There was a song / for vacuuming . . . .”
Vacuuming seems to be of interest to the poet. Why not? It represents “subtraction as a way to feel complete.” In the poem, “Goodwill Pick-Up,” the speaker surrenders to Goodwill, a place that collects used goods for charity, much of his past: an old TV, books, plates, chairs, and, of course, a heavy old vacuum cleaner. And in another poem, “Make Me,” “There was an open manhole cover. / Daylight got hoovered right into it.”
Taking that one giant step into adulthood, the poet admits that he confronts a “nothingness” and “frozen memories.” Still, the poetry captivates. No nothingness about it.
Something was wrong with me. I couldn’t tell
right from wrong. It was all about desire. That was all.
But there is also joy, as seen in the poem “Wet Blanket.”
Everything is shiny and bright! I wish
I didn’t love the world and this life
so much. . . .
. . . I wish it could go on forever,
With me wrapped in my blanket, eating
dinner. Ignoring that knock at the door.
The symbolic knock at the door has many possibilities, the future being one of them. But here’s the poet’s “conversation with the future the other day,”
Wait a minute, I said. I was starting to figure things out. There is
no future, is there? I could tell I hit him where it hurts. There’s
just the present, the dumb ever-present present, where you and I are
forever stuck. Right? Ain’t that right? I asked. But the future was long gone.
Sadly, with no future possible, the present, as we see it in Part III: “Name Your Poison,” is a time of “mothers dying,” “iron rusted,” a hearse, the interminable search for meaning, and more frozen memories from the past, as they haunt the present, in which a “you” is forever there. “I am a slave to my lust / for you.”
This goes on for years, till I grow old.
Turns out the world and you simply didn’t care.
Turns out I could have just let events unfold.
Now I have no time left to spare.
Anne Harding Woodworth is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently, Gender: Two Novellas in Verse (Atmosphere Press), and four chapbooks. An excerpt from her chapbook, The Last Gun, won the 2016 COG Poetry Award, judged by A. Van Jordan, and was subsequently animated (www.cogzine.com/watch). Anne is a member of the Poetry Board of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Board of Governors of the Emily Dickinson Museum.