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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Jared Carter's Book of Poetry




It is a hundred and four pages long, but there are
only sixteen poems in it.  While all of them
are carefully measured and cadenced, and while
a few of them rhyme, the main thing they do
is tell stories, tell them very well.

Not long ago I received a call for papers for an academic conference on why people should read poetry.  Not on English Romantic poetry or literary theory or the work of Lorca or Rilke, but on that question professors often get from freshmen: “Why should we read this?”
    The call made me think about the most convincing answers to that question by contemporary American poets.  Robert Bly’s poem, “The Scandal,” about the minister who runs away with the choir director comes to mind.  It ends with the sentence, “This story happens / over and over, and it’s a good story.”  John Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” ends with these lines: “the poem / Has set me softly down beside you.  The poem is you.” 
    Jared Carter’s “The Purpose of Poetry,” from his second book, After the Rain, tells of an old cattle farmer who learns that his land will soon be flooded to create a reservoir.  Here is the last stanza:

        He had only known dirt under his fingernails
        and trips to town on Saturday mornings
        since he was a boy.  Always he had been around
        cattle, and trees, and land near the river.
        Evenings by the barn he could hear the dogs
        talking to each other as they brought in
        the herd; and the cows answering them.
        It was the clearest thing he knew.  That night
        he shot both dogs and then himself.
        The purpose of poetry is to tell us about life.

The poignance of this story and the surprise of the last line have stayed with me for years now as an answer to the question of what poetry can do for us.  It is through poetry that we understand the life of the cattleman, the lives of other people, our own lives.
    Each of Jared Carter’s four books tells us about life in a different way.  Work, for the Night Is Coming is a lyrical meditation on the passage of time and its effect on the land and people of the mythical and yet very real Mississinewa County, Indiana.  After the Rain further develops the history and landscape of that place, introduces more rhyming poems, and includes a long, gripping narrative poem about vengeance.  Les Barricades Mystérieuses is a sequence of villanelles that relate a mysterious story of love and loss. 
    Carter’s new book, Cross this Bridge at a Walk, moves away from traditionally formal verse to long historical narratives and dramatic monologues.  It is a hundred and four pages long, but there are only sixteen poems in it.  While all of them are carefully measured and cadenced, and while a few of them rhyme, the main thing they do is tell stories, tell them very well. 
    The title Cross this Bridge at a Walk comes from a sign that was often posted in front of nineteenth-century covered bridges.  It invites us into the shadows of these bridges to read slowly and savor.  The poem “Covered Bridge,” for example, tells of a meeting between three Confederate soldiers and a Hoosier charged with burning a bridge to prevent them from crossing the river.  In the tale, passed down in the poet’s family from the great-grandfather of an uncle and recorded at a family reunion, the Indiana man cuts cards with the soldiers to decide the fate of the bridge.  This poem typifies Carter’s work in that it is both historical and personal.  He writes about great events that took place a hundred years ago or more, events that he researches and sifts with his own imagination and experience. 
    Carter’s poems often provide close-ups of these events.  In “Recollections of a contingent of Coxey’s Army passing through Straughn, Indiana in April of 1894,” he brings into focus a march on Washington by hungry, unemployed laborers through the interaction between a one-armed Union army veteran and a girl who gives him something to eat.  In the midst of all the motion and commotion of the march, we see this one soldier “reaching down to press / her fingers, then hurrying on, turning back once to wave to her.”  Coxey’s whole army marches through the poem, but we get a microcosmic vision of it as one man speaks with one girl.  
    Carter’s careful research is nowhere more evident than in “Exhumation,” a riveting prose poem about the persecution of the early Shaker community in America that includes italicized quotations from historical documents and a brief bibliography at the end.  He has even researched musical scores for “Reminiscence,” which begins with a musical line—notes on the page, not words—and intersperses them throughout the poem.  The music itself becomes part of the recollection of a great ragtime musician and his era, told in the voice of a man who remembers both.
     Each time I read the book a different poem becomes my favorite, but at this writing it is “Glass Negatives.”  One of the most lyrical ones, written in blank verse, it is about an atheist outcast in a small town who made his quiet living as a photographer.  On late summer evenings high-school girls would come to his study and pose in the nude.  He did not make advances to these girls — for him and for them, this was art — and yet something magical happened in these sessions:
                         Each model underwent
        a kind of change with each new pose, expanding
        into something separate and detached,
        released into the void—as though she were
        alone, and gradually coming into focus
        for the first time in her life, discovering
        who and what she was, why she had come there,
        even though she could not see—had trusted
        seeing to him, agreed to stand revealed,
        becoming something she had never been
        before—and never would be again.

Carter’s language here, and throughout the book, is simple, straightforward, yet full of subtle wit.  The young woman sees herself although in fact she is being seen by the photographer; she is being discovered, and yet it is she who discovers herself; she “stands revealed,” and yet something is revealed to her. 
    Like the photographer in “Glass Negatives,” Jared Carter succeeds in bringing into focus the inner self that we recognize in the momentary, transforming revelations of our lives.  Reading his poetry reminds us who we are, where we come from, how our parents and grandparents lived.  As Sally A. Lodge wrote in Publisher’s Weekly, he “writes Amercian poetry the way that William Faulkner wrote American novels….Carter’s poems….have the homespun flavor of our native music — ballads, country blues, and sweet, clear, understated lyrics.”
    The comparison to Faulkner is apt in many ways, but particularly in that both writers create mythical counties that reveal things about our country and the world.  His work also has the kind of unpretentious honesty and passion of Midwestern poets like Edgar Lee Masters, James Wright, and Mary Oliver.  As Ted Kooser sums it up, “Jared Carter is the real thing.”        

Carter, Jared. Cross this Bridge at a Walk.  Nicholasville, KY: Wind Publications, 2006.  ISBN: 1-893239-46-2  $15.00

© by David Lee Garrison


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