First published in TM Poetry.
Review of Don Winter’s Things About to Disappear by Charles Ries
Note: Proceeds from Things About to Disappear will be used to support Don Winter’s son, Dylan Coyle Winter
After reading Don Winter’s first book of poetry, Things About to Disappear, I now believe some writers are born and not made. They are the lucky ones who come into life with the grace of words. I asked Winter when he began writing, thinking poems this well crafted were from a poesy veteran. He said, “In 1998, I went through a divorce in which I lost everything that gave my life meaning: my son, my wife, my real estate business, my home on Lake Tuscaloosa. I think shit happens to everyone and you kill yourself or you make changes and go on living. I have been writing on and off for around 5 years.”
Winter told me, “I don’t agree with the traditional wisdom that says higher education means better writing. I have degrees; however, I find that where writing is concerned, well, it can be encouraged but not taught. In other words, I taught myself to write. You can’t teach someone to write, so I think school is irrelevant. I don’t do many rewrites. I don’t think you should make changes just because others suggest them, or you risk losing confidence in yourself. I think you should only revise what sounds untrue or imitative in your work; I sense as a writer you come to recognize when you are using your own voice (being truthful) and when you’re not.” Yet, despite his late start (or maybe because of it) his work has appeared in close to four hundred print and electronic literary journals. He has been nominated five times for the Pushcart Prize and he is the Assistant Editor of the Alaska Quarterly Review.
His poems are alive and heartfelt not just because he had a shock to the system—great themes don’t necessarily make great poems. This collection works because the writer is perfectly centered on place, structure, and pacing, as in these opening lines from “Silent In America”: “If you were fifty-five / and your speech had been crushed / by factories and divorce / to a single vowel, you might drift, / as he did, transient as a dream, / beneath the random lettering / of a broken marquee, beyond / all bittersweet efforts to connect, / to make sense, to endure.”
Winter told me that “I want the reader to experience the frustrations, the dehumanization, and the small victories of ordinary, work-a-day people.” As for influences he says, “I’d have to say some of my influences have been “whats”: managing Burger Chef in Niles, Michigan. Managing a real estate company on the mean streets of Birmingham, Alabama.”
There is a yearning sadness to these poems, a hole-in-the-head as well as the heart immediacy that I greatly admired as in, “The Dream Home”: “Traveling north to hunt deer / you take a wrong turn / and stop for directions / at a house you’ve never seen. / A woman, fat and wholesome, / awaits you on the porch. / She smells of freshly baked bread / and when you ask her / for directions she leads you inside / to a clean white table, / a cup of black tea. // This is more than you ever imagined before. / A plate, a knife and a fork are already laid out. / You pretend you’re not starving, / take a sip of the hot tea, / place the napkin in your lap. / Three girls, each under 5, / hold their shirts / as they walk down the long stairway / into the room. They smile at you, / and you smile back. // After supper the woman asks / if you might tuck the girls in / before you leave. As you tuck each on in / you hum nursery songs / under your chest. // After they’re asleep / the woman invites you / to the back porch / to watch the sun go. You do not refuse her / when she opens your red flannel shirt. / You need love like all of us. / This is not dream, you think, / No dream. In the wet grass / you try to match your breathing / to hers.”
To have the ability to convey such sentiment with balance and at times, brilliance after just five years of writing is amazing. As in “Bone Lonely”: “Some nights, I wake with longing / for nothing I can name. / I drink one beer after another, / watch the traffic lights change, / a late bus pass through. / Someone’s window goes black. / All the old questions / have their way with me, / like why are life’s gains and losses, / the greatest romances fleshed / with failure. I keep turning up / the radio: hearts are cheating, / someone is alone, there’s blood / in Tulsa. / Something like that. / This of course wakes her. / She opens the bedroom door / with a slightly ruined look / at me. / I pour myself one / shot of whiskey, look at her, / pour her one and say, “so.”
It’s renewing to read poets with Winter’s skill and sentiment. I asked him who the two women are standing with him on the inside jacket of Things About to Disappear and he said, “My sister Betty is quite ill—wanted to get a picture of her with me into the chap. The other woman is my sister Lynn. If my sister Sherry had been around, I’d probably have lassoed her, also.” This picture made me reflect on why poetry, perhaps better than any written form so effectively reveals the inner world of its author. For Winter this world is the shock of his divorce and entry into poverty. It is his sisters and the son he rarely sees. It is the hard luck life he lives. He reveals himself to the reader with deceptive ease and transforms intimate catharsis into word art.
Maybe—thinking about it again—writers aren’t born or made, but rather created. For Winter it has been the ups and downs, the loves and the losses that have given a born writer the need to speak his mind and do so with perfection.
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