ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Poems by William Welch


None of the carpenters asked what I could do—
the answer from their perspective
being apparent…He’s young, he has that much going,
but have him carry boards, a sheet of plywood?
He can hardly lift his car keys…

They deemed it more appropriate to bestow
a long wand with a magnet at one end of it, task me
with sweeping through our work zone—the parking lot
of some fast food joint—to pick up any stray nails
and screws the carpenters dropped…
No one wants to take home a side
of stucco tacks with their burger and fries.
So there I was, walking back and forth like one of those
dudes that haunt public parks, wandering along the outskirts
with earphones and metal detectors—

the modern hunter-gatherers, foraging
old coins that they dig up like small, bitter radishes 
and add for flavor into their stone soup…Such were my thoughts.
Facetious—shit—of course—and my apologies
to anyone who enjoys that pastime,

anyone who has found genuine treasure
buried long ago by a solitary farmer
or prospector—to keep safe—
but who, for mysterious reasons
never returned to unearth his fortune…

To people circling around the drive-thru,
I probably looked like the exact
height, weight, and general description
of silliness and ineptitude—especially if
they thought I was searching for something other

than construction debris…Good luck
digging through that concrete, amigo…
The average person, I suspect, would be surprised
by how much metal detritus there is
just lying around. Every few feet, during my initial pass,

I had to stop and scrape off the magnet,
depositing my catch in buckets…
Not only miscellaneous fasteners, but filings,
bolts and nuts, phony jewelry, anything,
in short, with iron, that could not resist

the pull of that industrial lodestone.
But, though I wouldn’t have admitted
this at the time, I was happy,
fit for the work, menial as it was, because
that search for the useless and discarded

forced me to practice—or so I tell myself now—
what poets and philosophers have called
la prière naturelle de l’âme
for prayer is less a matter of words,
mantras and rosaries, which obscure

the soul, and give it a means of equivocation—
and more a state of focus, attentiveness—meaning
that what the soul pays attention to becomes
the vehicle for its expression…
But we know how potent distractions are,

how hard it is for a young man
to clear his thoughts when so many things within
and around him exert their ineluctable forces
on his mind…It would have been so easy
to ignore the ground, not to look

at what my hand was throwing away
like spoiled seed…Bless those carpenters
who knew what I was good for,
bless them, I say, with what they need
at the right time and place, even if

it makes them think they have strayed
far from the path they thought their lives
were supposed to follow…
Even if it embarrasses them
just a little—especially if it does.



For some reason, it’s a habit of people who live where I grew up
            never to call a thing what it is.
Either we have to diminish it or make it grandiose,

as, for example, with West Canada Creek—
            actually a large, often treacherous river—

or our world-famous Herkimer Diamonds—
            in fact, a type of quartz.

Combine this quirk with all the F. Scott Fitzgerald
            I read as a teenager, and it’s easy to understand why,
as a kid, I was a little confused, a little dissatisfied.

I was convinced I would find The Big One—
            whatever that might be—my ideas back then were vague.

They probably included the acquisition of wealth, fame, suavity—
            which meant something else, though I can’t say what…

But I remember one day spent scrabbling over rock outcroppings
            above the West Canada—whacking stones apart
with a hammer, looking for our so-called diamonds.

My Uncle Les, who had brought me to the “mine”
            on a whim, watched me go at those rocks until

it seemed necessary for him to intervene, lest I hurt myself,
            at which point he said,

“Just check the ground. There are diamonds scattered all over,
            you can see them catching the light.
Don’t bother with the big rocks, they aren’t oysters.”

But Les was a Methodist minister, and I interpreted his advice
            as one more of his sermons,

just another homily about the pearl of wisdom.
            And partly out of spite, I picked even bigger rocks—

I swung that hammer until my arm was sore,
            and I was red in the face, determined
to tear down a mountain for a mustard seed.

Meanwhile, the little baggie Les carried was filling up
            with gems, none much larger than a lentil, but perfect

for setting in a ring, or making cuff-links. His whole demeanor evoked—
            we would call it leisure, or even laziness around here—

that calm enlightenment only few people attain
            sporadically in their lives,
usually enhanced by contrast with someone’s foolishness…

Finally, in an inconspicuous, porous rock
            that looked like a dirty sponge, I found it—

the stone broke in half with one tap,
            and a diamond the size of the Ritz

glimmered in the sunshine. All that anger,
            I thought, paid off, but the quartz
would not come loose. Once again Les tried to save me—

“That’s nice,” he said, “but you’ll never get that diamond
            out of the stone without breaking it.”

Five hundred million years it took that quartz to form,
            and there it was in my hand,

the hand of a fifteen year old American
            with a funny sense of fate.

For some reason, maybe because I suddenly became aware
            that I was sun-burned, thirsty, exhausted,
I listened to my uncle. My one find went into my bag

like a bowling ball, and I brought it home.
            I would like to think my confused insatiability tempered

over time, but it hasn’t. Because fifteen years
            later, I sat looking at that diamond caught in a stone,

and I said, I know how to get it out—
            I couldn’t then, and my uncle couldn’t,
but now I’m ready, I have the skill.

I want to see what the whole diamond looks like—
            want to turn it in my palm, hold a light behind it,

and watch the light fracture into colors in its eighteen facets—
            I want to free this paragon from its drab, gray stone.

Les, who died of leukemia
            a year after that excursion on the rocks,
was not around to talk me out of my stubborn naivety.
And what I have left from that afternoon with him
            are several broken pieces of ordinary gravel

and a few whitish flakes of what was a transparent crystal,
            all of which understates the truth…


William Welch lives in Utica, NY where he works as a registered nurse. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Mudlark, Little Patuxent Review, Offcourse, Cider Press Review, as well as others, and his collection Adding Saffron (Finishing Line Press) is forthcoming in 2025. He edits Doubly Mad ( Find more about him on his website,

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