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The Welcome Table

Winner of the 2009 New Mexico Book Award

Many Kingdoms

Uncle Warren prayed for my pagan, pantheistic soul
to rise in the afterlife to some celestial kingdom
I never cared to imagine. When he died I saw
his hands cutting, carving, smoothing wood
into the tables, mantels, chairs, and doors he gave
to everyone he liked. I didn't want to remember
how those hands shook the night he claimed al-Qaeda
was as powerful and dangerous as the Nazis,
parroting the president's recent line,
and how our dinner turned to bitterness,
Eloise finally silencing us for peace,
how we rarely spoke thereafter, divided to his end
by stupid fear and rage, the war in our blood.

Wet sand sighs with my steps. The iron breathes
through my shirt. An intermittent ticking.
Eternity is too much for the mind,
except in small doses. Who can hold his own death
in his hands, carry it through the day?

Versions of Jesus and Mohammed reach
for each other's throats.

In the grain of oak and pine: many kingdoms.

“Jay Udall’s aptly titled The Welcome Table is a heart-bending, heart-breaking book. His poems melt away the barriers between humans and creatures, humans and humans with a compassion born of grief. We do feel ‘welcome ever after’ to this table—if we are willing to share it, to feel equal to cricket, snake, puma, hummingbird, child—if we are not afraid to be moved, to let these poems shift the earth under us and in us. Udall‘s great humility before creation gives him the authority to claim, as he does in 'The Great Secret,’ an ancient wisdom: ‘Because in the beginning was a hole/ and it made world and word to speak/ into its bottomless ear...’ Did I say how very beautiful these poems are?”

–Anne Marie Macari, author of The Ivory Cradle and Gloryland

"Reminiscent of William Stafford, in their everyday mysticism and transpersonal dreaming, Jay Udall's poems open and open, like 'air, earth, skin: a door.' With pantheistic richness and generosity, Udall's poems are in dialogue with the gods of cockroach and catalpa, 'leaf lungs and sky,' all the 'wild messengers,' strange and stranger kin. The Welcome Table engages us in a project of gorgeous and insistent seeing and naming, 'telling the world' and listening, too--profoundly. This is a remarkable, radiant collection." --Paula McLain, author of Stumble, Gorgeous and Less of Her.

The Great Secret

A rattlesnake taught me to see
the holes filling this canyon
between and beneath rocks and boulders,
in the shade of chamisa and Apache Plume,
in the bare desert floor: holes
that say "ant," "beetle," "bobcat," "mountain lion."
I walk into the mouth of the day,
feel the air open and open, taking me
in, time falling away
like a robe, leaving me naked
as the moment I opened the brown paper bag
left in the middle of a lonely road
tunneling through trees of my twelfth summer,
and found the Great Secret
in glossy pictures: bearded holes between women's legs.
I fell in, the world fell through me
and left me standing naked when my Aunt Tiger,
who knew every card game and cuss word
and could make the dead laugh,
sealed herself in her garage with her car running,
when they lowered her casket into that rectangle
cut clean in orange clay draped with fake grass.
Because I knew the smell of that clay
mixed with the smells of blood and rust
from years before when I followed my dog
back to where she'd birthed her pups
beneath an abandoned trailer, when I got down
on my stomach, stuck my head into that hole
and heard her growl at my face
in the dimness, and who was I
and who was she until she heard
my frightened, angry voice say her name?
Because in the beginning was a hole
and it made world and word to speak
into its bottomless ear, and this is the fear
and the violence of men, and why
I keep walking out, walking in.

“Jay Udall loves both the visible and the hidden beauties of our worlds. He’s neither shy nor boastful about his keen investigations into what some call the spirit worlds and others scoff at. What is his natural mediation of such a divide? Vocal riffs, improvs, and prayers, maybe, that talk to the dead, the hummingbirds, the arroyos & wind-channels, with great feeling and muscular poetry.”
–Judith Vollmer, author of Reactor and The Door Open to the Fire

“What a fine book of poems this is, and what a fine human being, and ‘pagan, pantheistic soul’, Jay Udall is. The poems are wide and deep, they honor the living and the dead, they tackle the minute particulars and the cosmic ones with a perfect steady unblinking deftness of language. Speaking of the mortal animal body and its brother and sister creatures, or of family, or of the sweetness and bitterness of America, Udall makes me feel grateful to be at his welcome table.”
–Alicia Ostriker, author of No Heaven and The Book of Seventy

The Torturer's Hands

After the dark hood stops sobbing,
stops screaming, stops breathing,
the hands go home
to lift a glass, a fork, a knife,
to stroke cat's fur, woman's skin.
Then they're put away
in the back of a drawer
where they play solitaire,
fingertips tapping a metal table,
filling with an unheard cry,
dreaming of arms.
They couldn't be your hands.
They couldn't be mine.
When the door opens and flashlights look in,
the hands are gone.

“Everyone leaves stories behind, and the past is made up of those leavings. The stories are not the same as what actually happened. They might seem the same, but they are merely descriptions, loaded with meaning of their own. The meaning is what matters. It’s what makes poetry and the inner life of history in the world. Much as Teilhard de Chardin saw the most personal as the most universal, Jay Udall’s exploration of the meanings of the unique personal culture in each of us is so unvarnished, so idiosyncratic and candid, that the poems in The Welcome Table feel as if they are the grounding for metaphysical experience that can only be gained in the context of individual lives.

“There is a fugue-like quality to Udall’s images and evocations as they flow through the poems of this book. Udall gives readers poems within poems, dreams within dreams, the fragrances of lives within his life, the bewilderments of his younger self snagged within the solitudes of an adult never old enough to want to outgrow who he has been his whole life. Childhood reflections of death and terror are mirrored in the observations of his own daughter who says, “God is eating us up!” The Welcome Table explores awakening to one’s solitary life that is more than the sum of its history and to one’s long, rich responsibility to others in a mysterious world that is at once magnificent, nonsensical and ruthlessly logical.

“These beautifully crafted poems use private memory as the stage upon which to build community with the reader. The poems are less about memoir, I think, than the consciousness we all share as we experience the irreplaceable realities of our encounters with the world as it is, in all its strange glory and harsh disappointment. The human species, Udall shows us, is one life after another, one death after another, dead loves that never die until we die, lives lost to themselves in the world’s endless meal of the living, hungering for meaning, for a sense of why it was such a revelation to sense as a child that “God was the terror, God the calm.” These poems carry me along in the sharp truth of their emotional vision, the entangled darkness and optimism of their philosophical doubt, their quizzing of the infinite, and in the fullness of their humanity. These are the poems of a whole person who never detached from the ideal of fully integrating into himself all his days as he lived them.”
–V.B. Price, from the Foreword to The Welcome Table


I'm tired of monotheism.
I, for one, for many, prefer the cockroach
emerging from the ivy, reading
the night with quivering antennae,
the fat rattlesnake that turned me back
out of the canyon's rocky throat,
presences in a hallway of willows.
Yesterday we scrubbed slippery, clayish mud
from the season's first potatoes, their irregular
roundnesses all the psalms my palms ever wanted.
I traveled more than half a life
to get here--just don't ask me how.
I left the cat sleeping beneath the morning table
and walked out along the dry rain ditch that runs
behind neighborhoods stunned by heat, past grass banks
burnt the color of hay, faltering cinder-block walls,
waves of orange trumpet and grape vines
breaking over fences, a tree house rotting
in the green branches of the mulberry, its tenant
having long since descended.
I walk toward mountains I will not reach,
toward my death, but the mourning doves
and sumacs walk their own stories.
One minute I'm alone, and the next
belongs to leaves and ghosts. How many voices
have frequented that catalpa? Who is wandering
my blood? I build a shrine in my feet
for worlds to come through. I let the wind
arrange the windows.