Reviewed April 13, 2012 by DeSales Harrison.
The news provides, indeed the world provides, reason enough to think that all poems should be laments, laments for the brevity of life, the uncertainty of love, the weakness of flesh or spirit, the remoteness or cruelty or absence or silence of god. And while there may also be reason enough for praise and gratitude as well, lament’s claim may always be the stronger, if only because the poem is such a frail defense against evil, venality, oblivion, or time: “how with such rage shall beauty hold a plea, / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” In fact, it seems that poetry, because it is always merely poetry, contains fused within it the occasion of bewailing.
It is perhaps on account of this deep structure that the lyric tradition has so frequently deplored the death or vulnerability of children. The inability of the poem to preserve what it loves (or what the poet loves) finds its most dreadful worldly correlative in the slaughter of the innocents or the Kindestod, the invisible demon of child death. This correlative points back to a founding assumption in the Western scriptural tradition: the first fruits of the womb must either be sacrificed or redeemed. One of the ways that poetry in the West has evolved has been as a way of redeeming the child; whether through the benign offices of anonymous lullaby, entrusting the soul to the angels or God, or in more ruminative works such as Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” or Grossman’s “The Work.” As hopeful as these poems are, they positively shiver in the knowledge of their own weakness. When Ben Jonson in his elegy “For His First Son” says, “Rest in soft peace, and ask’d say here doth lye / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry,” he reveals how such a death is not only a personal and societal loss, but a wound to the very possibility of meaning-making in the world. The death of the child appears to destroy the very sense and value of writing itself, leaving, in the face of unspeakable loss, nothing to be said. And yet the Jonson’s poem exists. The poem testifies to its own insufficiency most beautifully, not only with great poignancy but great authority as well, and in doing so, paradoxically, achieves its success. Against such rage, beauty can hold a plea precisely in coming to terms with its weakness, its otherworldly delicacy. Compared to the mortal things of this world, beauty (Shakespeare and Jonson affirm) attains an integrity of a wholly different order. What that order is, and how it may be preserved, is an ancient topic in poetry. It has not, however, in recent decades, received a more searching, grave, and luminous account than in the recent work of Julie Carr.
Carr lives, teaches and raises her family in Colorado, the state where occurred, not incidentally, the Columbine school massacre. Carr takes up these circumstances, not remarkable in themselves, in her tour-de-force volume 100 Notes on Violence, and sets them against the backdrop of the rage-beauty topos. The book poses itself the question whether such a state (as a metonymy of the wider American State) is not in fact an inherently violent undertaking. Are we, her book asks starkly, constituted by violence? Are we not only citizens of a state at war (against terror, drugs, immigration, age, boredom, etc.) but creatures of a state of war?
Taking up these matters, it is Carr’s procedure both to allow and to compel readers to get their own bearings. There is no anxious fussing to make the reader comfortably at home. Rather, she takes pains to ensure the reader feels quite uncomfortably at home. Note 23, however, illustrates Carr’s method while reflecting directly upon it and declaring quite openly her objective
As Carr renders it, the issue of violence—real, historical, local—is both urgently pressing and maddeningly elusive. The book about violence is a book “’about’” violence because the attempt to write about vulnerability is itself always a risky business. Any totalizing ambition will doom itself to failure. The violence in question is “the close-up kind” not only because it threatens those closest to us, but also because the media feed on, and feed us, a diet of violence served up in sensuous “close-up.” Thus, the figure “the ‘close-up’ kind” is tellingly complex. We cannot help but experience this violence close up, but the experience is always mediated, rhetorical, framed in inverted commas, a “close-up,” presented for our delectation.
Similarly, Carr, in wanting to come to terms with this violence finds again and again that the terms are deceptive, misleading, or treacherous. To look into such violence, the portal is the very screen that feeds us the image, and thus our appetite for knowledge is met by an equal and opposite appetite to sell. Carr’s query (typed in “the little search box”) is for her is a trembling question, a way to think about the unthinkable and write about the unspeakable. For the search engine, however, the term is not a question but an answer, a statement about who this person is and what she may want to buy. This answer is recorded and analyzed as data somewhere “in order to better sell you.”
This sentence tempts us to fill in a blank at the end, catches us saying “sell you something, right?” But in doing so it also rebukes our impatience. By dangling as it does, the “you” oscillates indeterminately. It is either the direct or indirect object of the verb “sell” (because I can either sell you a gun or sell you down the river). The poem insists that the selling of something (guns, say) is always also a selling out of the searcher. Such a selling out betrays the searcher, interpolating her worry into the very culture of violence from which she struggles to free herself and those she would protect.
So far so good, or good enough, but the poem does not content itself with easy sentiment. The ambiguous concluding statement “I could buy a gun” identifies the self as a possible consumer of violence (Look how appallingly easy it is to buy a gun!), but this recognition is not permitted to hide itself in an expression of bien-pensant outrage. Instead, the poet sees in herself someone who might willingly choose to do something, who could in fact do something, who could in fact buy a gun and meet violence with violence. Thus the “little search box” returns—circuitously, startlingly—news of the self.
The moment of recognition, of avowal, is what appalls most completely. The search results change before her eyes from, “Pssst, you want to buy a gun?” to “You do in fact want to buy a gun.” The declarative statement is all the more unnerving for having reflected so vividly the face of the poet’s desires in the cascading results of a faceless algorithm.
Like Note 23, the book itself follows—sometimes more quickly than the eye can track—the insinuations, implications and infiltrations of violence in all affairs, whether that violence is the aberrant mayhem of a school shooting, or the economic depredations of unchecked consumer capitalism. The problem is not a new one, is indeed a commonplace in a world where the uninterrupted spectacle of violence repels us and absorbs us at the same time, consumes us even as we consume it. Unique in Carr’s work, however, is the delicacy and infinitely wiliness of the intelligence and intellectual discipline on display. Carr chases from the book the intoxicating fumes of sanctimony, even while documenting the soul’s promiscuous desire for consolation in any form. This combination of austerity and promethean flexibility should be an occasion for rejoicing among those who seek new poetries accountable both to the terrors of the world and the rigors of art; it remains, however, for a different project, one keyed to matters at once less global and more elemental, to illuminate the full scope of Carr’s poetic strength.
In Carr’s most recent book, Sarah – Of Fragments and Lines, a passerby addresses the poet, remarking on her visible pregnancy: “One of those meaning-of-the-universe-type things,” he says. This book-length sequence situates in uneasy simultaneity, the affliction and death of the poet’s mother from Alzheimer’s disease, and the conception, gestation, and birth of the poet’s child. Both events, it would seem, speak of primary and ultimate realities, first and last things, “birth, and death, and thoughts of these,” topics monumentalized by, or buried beneath, ziggurats of earnest writing. If dying mother and unborn child are “meaning-of-the-universe-type things,” they are then the common household materials from which many a “meaning-of-the-universe-type” poem can be handily manufactured. This is a suspect convenience indeed, but why? One reason is that minds yet to attain language and minds bereft of language are incapable of answering back. They are powerless to object if, contrary to a poet’s claims, occupying the womb or a nursing home is not like living, say, on the Dead Sea floor, or in a space capsule, the Eternal Now, or Nebraska. The “meaning” of such sealed-off universes is meaning airlifted in on the wings of poesy—not outlawed, not perhaps unwelcome or unuseful—but certainly not native.
To encounter the implacable force of Julie Carr’s intelligence is to encounter a force employed not in the heaping up of yet more meaningfulness at the edges of the known world but in a herculean exercise of resistance to these very temptations. For Carr, the experiences of losing a mother and awaiting a child are both experiences that call the “meaning-of-the-universe” into question, requiring of the poet a radical reconsideration of her world and of her art.
The recognition of this restraint comes as something of a surprise, considering the wild multiplicity of shapes her poems take, shapes often sketch-like, raw, or apparently provisional. This variability of contour and finish, however, insists not on a possibility of plenitude, as it might for Whitman, but on the severe necessity of finding the most fleeting forms for the most evanescent moments of certainty. Such restraint is the discipline required to acknowledge that meaningfulness is not our inalienable birthright but an uncertain, finite, and fleeting state, into which we may be ushered (as by loving parents, say), and out of which we may pitifully wander (as dementia or madness decide). Such restraint is what Carr exerts against the temptations to sell oneself, against the temptation to cash in these circumstances for a pottage of received phrases. The recognition Carr makes, upon which she founds the very project of the book, is of the bitter reality that meaning, like all temporal things, has no claim on permanence, but is fated to the vicissitudes of growth and decay. Meaning, like all other things (as Yeats would have it) must fall and be built again. The pool of luminescence that is the meaning-bearing human world is delimited and defined by this reality.
If then for Carr the birth of her child and the death of her mother are materia poetica, they are so because they reduce “the meaning of the universe” to a kind of ground zero. The death of the mother here is not merely the loss of a beloved parent; nor is it even a personal loss employed to restate and deplore our shared mortality. It is the manifestation of the stark fact that the web of human meaning, the bond that secures one soul to another, can be torn, reduced to tatters, and must, if it is to exist at all, be made again. For Carr, the lyric poem is the means by which this building can occur. Carr registers this obligation, as she ought, as a severe formal challenge, a challenge to the very rationales built into the traditions of lyric self-description. The infant then, represents possibility but also the bitter reality that the future is not guaranteed, that it must be built again from the rubble of the present.
Poets have equivocated for centuries over whether a poem should best be understood as a monument (which is to say, as a means for the preservation of memory) or as an infant, a new life both created and creative. Those poets who would see the poem as a kind of child see it not as commemorative inscription of lost life, but as the site and potential of new life. For Carr, both of these comparisons are tempting but flawed. On the one hand, the ephemerality of memory—embodied in the piecemeal disintegration of the mother’s mind—renders poetry’s monumental ambitions absurd. On the other, the vulnerability and sheer helplessness of the infant in a culture of violence stymies the force of generative vitality and trades it, sells it, for a despairing futility. But if then this is the state of affairs, what then is a poem supposed to do, or be?
Carr’s answer to this question is, characteristically, both complex and formally inventive. One thing the poem cannot be is a poem in any immediately recognizable sense of the world. The book of poems must instead identify itself as a book of notes, or a book “—of fragments and lines.” The title recalls the drafts and fragments of Pound’s unfinished Cantos, but here there is no future horizon of completion, however theoretical, no future world in which the lines and fragments may be gathered into a coherent whole. Rather than a collection or arrangement of fragments and lines, the book must be a loose aggregation at best. The “of” in the title is a fugitive preposition, suspended in permanent exile from any syntactic coherence that would suffuse it with meaning; it searches forlornly for what it belongs to, like the porcupine among cactuses, seeking its mother.
If it would seem implausible or misguided to imagine such salted fields producing something as unlikely as a masterpiece, let it stand as a testament to the sheer power of her art that Julie Carr is capable of managing the feat. Here, for instance, is “Metaphor Poem.”
The title is unprepossessing enough, though this is not—in case you were worrying—yet another update on what metaphor is or should be or was or isn’t. To begin reading this poem one must first attune the ear to the exhaustion and devastation the title conveys. Of the joyous enchanted torrent of figures, images, currents of melody and rhythm that had been the poet’s art, nothing now remains but a dry swath, a vague depression in the ground is the only sign that something had been here; what title, after all, is vaguer and more depressing than “Metaphor Poem”? Of the limitless resources of metaphor, all that is left for the poem is the word itself, no metaphors but only “metaphor,” no honey but an empty jar marked “honey.” The abundance of metaphor’s magical, transformative as has desiccated into the poem’s dominant verb, is. Everything in the world—whether personal, political, remembered, invented, desired, dreaded—has collapsed into a single plane of unelaborated, uninflected being. Perhaps in the kingdom of metaphor (now hopelessly remote) nothing is what it seems, but here, now, in this ruined world, everything is what it is, and is only what it is.
Having thus attuned the ear, one can appreciate the poem’s queer problematic. How is one to make a poem from the residue left after poetry’s departure. One feels the shiver of an ineffable irony here, however, when one notices that the poem in fact does turn on a metaphor of sorts, or rather a troubled, insistent likeness, the likeness between the unscrewed lid of an emptied honey jar and the cap removed from a camera lens. In the presence of this likeness, the poet is not so much delighted by the resemblance as she is tormented by it. Might this similarity prove matchmaker for a startling compound image, as the apparition of faces in a crowd might seem petals on a wet black bough? Perhaps in one limited sense they do, insofar as we are surprised by the correspondence and pleased by the ingenuity that brings it into view, but whereas a metaphor derives from likeness a new vision of the world (as Pound literally animates or ensouls the bleak facelessness of the Metro) here likeness propagates malignantly. Meaning no longer presumes depth or hidden complexity, but is a scattering outward of associative vectors in no particular direction. Here the removal of the lens cap is either the beginning of the recording of history, the capturing of the image, or it is, somehow, the draining away of the image, perhaps because all forms of memory are perishable—since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, but sad mortality o’er-sways their power. The removal of the cap is like the removal of the lid on the honey jar. Take honey, as Porphyry and Yeats do, as the divine sweetness of generation, of life as Blake would say, embodied as the “human form divine.” Here the divine honey of the human image, the sweetness of being that we have labored for a lifetime to gather and store, is draining away. The aperture of the camera is one through which the images and history can be gathered, but by gathering them into the temporal world, they are handed over to inevitable erasure, to “all-oblivious enmity.” The lens, then, is the conduit of both memory and loss at the same time, both abundance and decay. What had been food for thought is now “a bit of food on the floor of her thought,” waste and spoilage, crumbs for untoward creatures.
This is poetry of lament utterly resolute in its refusal of consolation. Its deepest integrity, however, inheres in its equal refusal of the carrion comfort despair.
The final poem in the book is called “Lines to Scatter.”
If no coherence is possible now, either for the mother or the speaker, if the coherent image is now only a scattering of scraps and parts, each scrap or part may be “a perfectly themeless piece of language, fallow in the lap of the wave,” and bear within itself a sort of self-charged fecundity. Somewhere the fetus’s heartbeat, like the pulse of the biker, might steady and deepen. “Our bet is with the wind,” Carr writes. To be scattered, to be cast to the winds, lost forever to oneself and to those one loves, but one cannot know upon what soil the fragments will fall. This not knowing is itself a form of wisdom, is an example of the dark, difficult wisdom in which Carr is adept. Nothing else, she suggests, will secure for us a viable future. The concluding line, a fragment torn from the book of Daniel, provides a glimpse of such a future: “and they [that are wise] are destined to shine like the brightness of the firmament for ever and ever, they…” The sentence is unfinished, but in these books a project of unique seriousness and originality is unstoppably under way.
DeSales Harrison teaches Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Oberlin College. He is at work on a book entitled This is Mortality: First Things and Last in the Lyric Poem. This review first appeared in Field.