The Next Day in Babel and Other Poems
by William Welch

Poem for Jane Kenyon

I am not a dog person, but sometimes I wish
there was one in my life, a mutt
part hound, maybe part retriever, who would go with me
on walks along the village outskirts—up that road
past Scudder’s house, up that hill, and into the woods. 
There’s a clearing near the summit, a plateau
of gravel, where the town DOT dumps leaves and lawn debris 
every year. A favorite spot for the turkeys
come early September, before hunting season opens, 
I’ve seen there flocks of twenty birds or more
moving in and out of the valleys 
between hills of mulch. Good for them, 
no dog is here now,

just this odd man looking for a more perfect way
of being alone, who thinks a dog would help
with that, a dog who has just a little bit of melancholy
in his eyes, but enough slobber and smile
to still seem happy. A dog who has every ounce
of curiosity he was born with intact, married to 
an almost human intuition…

My own has been telling me for weeks 
there is something wrong. Not wrong… it’s like cutting
into an onion and finding the green sprout
has begun in its center. At work, one of the nurses told a story
about how her friend had a Freudian slip—
instead of saying, how’s your brother, she asked how’s your baby? 
A week later, the woman learned she was pregnant. 

As in all things, what I have is the imperfect, 
a partial solitude, a piecemeal sense
of where I am. A view of ten feet, at most, into the forest, 
framed by close-ups of New England asters, and goldenrod. 
And, along with the turkeys, courage, and a clear awareness
that between staying out in the open where there may be food,
taking cover in the woods, where there isn’t, 
and crossing back and forth like a shuttle through a loom,
not many good alternatives are left.

Weather Makers

This is vandalism, the way these lake effect clouds steal 
the sunlight, how they tag houses with a graffiti of ice…
It’s part of residing near Ontario and Erie,
like living with a pair of rowdy boys who enjoy
pranking the neighborhood with two feet of snow. 
I picture the lakes that way—two kids, two sons 
of immigrants indentured in the old knitting mills, 
like my grandfather and his brother, a duo 
brought up on potatoes, onions, and trouble, 
who metabolized their corned beef into mischief. 
They were the weather makers in their village. 
All the boys were proud of the chaos they caused—how they filched
their mother’s clotheslines to knot together into one long rope
they strung between telephone poles on either side of the trolley rails—
how they taunted the conductor as their trip line knocked the power cable
off its guide wire and the trolley blinked and stalled,
and rolled backward down a hill—how they hauled a wagon
full of manure onto the butcher shop’s roof. They were blizzards,
those boys, they were hurricanes in their telling, sixty years later.
A very different kind of boy listened to them, and supposed 
he was not a force of nature the way they were. 
In the evenings, he would lie on the floor with watercolors
and a brush, watching the capillary action pull
his aquamarines and indigos through the thin paper,
wondering why water behaved that way, uninhibited
and willful, as though it were alive, 
as though each drop was its own sea, full of fish, full of storms. 
And the wind-jammers he saw sailing on those oceans
were well-trimmed vessels. Sailors crawled like ants
along the rigging—the captain stood with his sextant measuring
latitude and longitude, planning the ship’s route through the uncharted
territory of this boy’s world, while in the crow’s nest 
the lookout cried in excitement and terror as he pointed up 
to that face in the clouds, and that hand stirring the sky, making it rain.

My Cherry Trees

This must be instinctual, this human impulse to build
our homes at the base of some pyramidal hill
swathed with berry brambles and choke cherries—
to copy the shape of the land and call it architecture, 
to raise cairns and gables. Maybe it’s the surest sign that we are mammals—
we like to dig a little dirt
and make our dens, we love places where the earth mounds…

Such were my thoughts driving home last night.
Across the valley, I could see Smith Hill, distinct 
compared with the other high ground rising
east and west, north and south 
from the valley floor, shaped like the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl,
or the mountain above Wādī e‑Mulūk.
And at the summit, rising into the air, 
the four signal antennas of the local television stations,
illuminated with red lights, glowed and pulsed in the darkness.
My Cherry Trees, I call them.
They are to the Mohawk Valley what Eiffel Tower is to Paris, 
or that big chrome arch is to St. Louis—
essential landmarks—concentrated, 
fierce attempts at abstraction, so far removed from nature, 
they seem to define it, 
the way Cy Twombly’s splatters and pencil scribbles
define the soul. 

As I turned onto my street, 
I saw the post officer, who was working late, trudge through the snow 
wearing a miner’s lamp on his head,
taking big steps, as though he was counting out his paces
to measure the length of a tunnel; 
I saw the avenue lined with houses, as square and tight
as bee boxes in an orchard;
I saw my cherry trees ripening and dropping fruit by the bushel-full. 
After ten years of wandering, I found this place.
After thirty, this is where I decided 
to drive myself crazy, counting sixteenths and eighths,
mixing water and dust together into mud, 
fighting with brushes for a straight line, pounding nails, wondering
why nothing in my life is ever level…
why the autumn fruits bruise so easily, 
why the winter fruits are sour, 
and why the fruits of summer always form around a stone.

Missed Chances

The vegetable garden is overgrown with grass
that comes up in heavy clumps. Roots, 
shaken free of dirt, are as fine as hair, but damp and cool.
While I work, I’m almost sorry to watch the raw earth dry, 
and remind myself this could have been my livelihood
ten years ago, if I had made a different choice. One summer
I saw an advertisement in the paper: 
“Wanted, Cemetery Grounds Keeper.” My missed chance, 
as grandpa would have said, his tongue-in-cheek
so serious people mistook jest for remorse…
After the war in Europe, he found employment in a hardware store,
but every so often in old age liked to quip, 

“To think, I could have been an undertaker…” 
Maybe he did mean it, thinking of the money
a mortician earns—and it’s true, someone offered him a job. 
Or maybe he was keeping track of every death 
he caused, humor his solace. 
He always warned me against false patriotism.
He said, “boy, never join the army.” 
My choice to become a nurse took both of us by surprise, 
but now it seems to me like part of a cycle of 
reparation. He knew his lifetime was not enough
to make amends for four years of soldier’s work.
A judge within him gaveled the sentence—
repentance, paid out over three generations. 
Lifting the grass, eerily like a scalp, I don’t think 
my grandfather could have done that job, even if he tried.
There must be a limit to how many bodies one man can bury.
It’s like radiation. Once you’ve reached maximum
exposure, you can’t take more. 
But there are no lead shields to wear
when handling human flesh. It doesn’t matter what protection you use—
sangfroid, faith in some sort of god, a meaning 
we can intuit, if not understand—
you have to look into a person’s face. 
For my grandfather, the geiger count was too high. 
As for my shot at landscaping—I know it seemed romantic
at the time. After reading so much Whitman, 
and wandering through old graveyards, wondering 
who Mrs. Weller was, and whether the angel praying over her
pled an easy case, or begged to be let off the plinth, 
I thought I’d like something a little macabre, 
but it wouldn’t have worked out. All this dark grass
growing from the roofs of mouths…
I would have wanted to stand still and listen to what it had to say, 
to let it keep growing until the field was full of voices…
I would have been fired before the end of June. 

The Next Day in Babel

Turkey vultures circle over the woodlot each morning, 
only once or twice flapping their wings—black with white bands, 
their primary feathers upturned, splayed like fingers. 
They teeter as they double back in a motion like the slow-twisting rise 
of smoke, or liquid spun in a tall glass by long-handled spoons…

He doesn’t know what to call it, but something 
in his chest wheels upward that way—moving with a current— 
leisurely some days, on others, storm-fretted and terrifying…

Often, as he watches those scavengers gain altitude with each turn, 
he thinks of how the birds look like angels in a medieval painting,
soaring over the ruins of Babel, while men on the ground point at them in anger…
That morning, when the people of the city woke, they could not 
recognize the speech of their wives or children. Their closest friends
no longer understood anything they said. But more disorienting 
than the confusion and misunderstanding 
was how their own voices had changed. They spat out words
the way you would gnats that flew into your mouth, 
and not one of them sounded the way they knew it should. 
It was as if each person had survived a stroke that made talking impossible. 

He knew a man in the hospital who had suffered this way. 
Whenever his lips parted—
they drooped slightly to the right—his voice 
flickered in his throat like a candle flame, guttering, about to go out. 
And to help this man, he had to find a way to listen to what the man 
did not say. They sat alone together in a room. He felt thrust 
upward as the spiraling current in him tightened 
around its axis. Every word that crossed his tongue 
he tried to hear the way he thought this man, who could not respond, 
might hear it. Word by word,

the pain of trying to speak became severe
enough to make the anguish of silence comfortable. 
Imagine, he thought, if suddenly, without warning, without explanation,
you were unable to say “water,” or “bread.” If you couldn’t remember 
the word, “help.” 

The next day in Babel, after people adjusted to the quiet, 
everyone started all over again
learning to express their simplest thoughts. He stood watching
those angels revolve in unison over the ruins of his city.
And he called them leaves torn from an old book, 
and called them black petals blown loose from the flowerhead of the sun… Knowing 
he was wrong. Knowing there are different words 
for everything he sees, for who he is, and for that motion… Knowing 
he used to possess those words…

William Welch lives in Utica, NY where he works as a registered nurse. His poetry has appeared in various journals, including Little Patuxent Review, Stone Canoe, Rust+Moth, and Cider Press Review, and his collection Adding Saffron (Finishing Line Press) is forthcoming in 2025. He edits Doubly Mad ( and maintains a website of his own,

Copyright © Mudlark 2024
Mudlark Posters | Home Page