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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





 Through the many narratives of his first two collections
and the narrative of love and death that brings the villanelles together
in Les Barricades Mystérieuses, Carter reminds us that we need
to remember the past, partly so that we can learn from it, but also
because understanding and treasuring it makes us aware
of our bond with other human beings.

                                  Tell all the Truth but tell it slant . . .

                                                                  ÷Emily Dickinson

Jared Carter's first book, Work, for the Night is Coming (1981), won the Walt Whitman Award, and his second, After the Rain (1993), the Poet's Prize.  Both of these collections, as well as his most recent work, Les Barricades Mystérieuses (1999), have also received high praise from reviewers.  Dana Gioia, for example, has written that Carter's work reveals "the quiet passion of conviction, the voice of a poet who knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it" (102).  A major reason why Carter's work evokes this kind of response is, I would argue, that he is creating something new and vibrant within the narrative tradition of American literature.  Almost all of his poems tell or hint at stories.  While these stories often stem from everyday situations, they bring deep emotions, and even unconscious conflicts and longings, to the surface.
    His antecedents are poets like Edgar Lee Masters, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost (to whom Carter has often been compared), and fiction writers such as Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and William Faulkner.  Like them, Carter "knows that a lived human life is made up of moments, that in the lives of even the most commonplace farmer or druggist or carpenter some of these moments are magical and of the very stuff the human spirit is made of" (Burnham 113).  Carter's stories stem from such moments which are often recounted in monologues.  Perhaps the best example is "Barn Siding," a long, riveting narrative of betrayal and vengeance, fate and coincidence.  It is told in the voice of a rural man, a "picker" who goes out to strip old boards from an abandoned barn and nearly gets killed when it collapses.  His past comes back to haunt him when he is discovered by a woman whom he scorned and humiliated many years before.
    Another example is "Phoenix," a tale related by one of two soldiers in the War of 1812 who carry a family feud into military service and manage to kill each other before reaching the battlefield; their story becomes a metaphor for war itself.  "Bridge over Yellow Cat" is a seemingly autobiographical piece in which the poet recalls driving through the countryside, early in the morning, to reach a construction site, and remembering conversations "About things you could see from the road, / And things you couldn't see, / That were gone now."  Similarly, in "The Madhouse," the speaker retells a story his father passed down to him about the former players of a high-school football team who, as grown men, blocked the advance of Ku Klux Klan marches and brawled in the street with the racists in white robes.  Each of these accounts has a distinctive tone, and each carefully develops the narrative persona and the other characters.  By the end of every one of these poems, we know the people in them.
    Carter's stories rarely derive from the recent past.  They usually go back at least one generation and often include references to antiquated customs and professions.  In the process of telling these stories, he considers the passage of time and the ephemeral nature of human existence.  Again and again, he comes back to the idea that we are thus far only bit players on the cosmic stage, that we are vulnerable and our efforts transitory.  This idea informs the title poem of Work, for the Night Is Coming, in which the poet describes the first few moments of rain falling on an abandoned quarry.  The poem has a matter-of-fact tone that makes it sound as if the speaker were simply recording observations in a diary.  He watches as the weather reveals

                                        . . . the probable drift

        Of the entire ridge outlined for a moment
        By the rain's discoloring.  Then all turned dim÷
        Grass holding to the seams, redbud scattered

        Across the cliff, dark pools of water
        Rimmed with broken stones, where rain, now
        Falling steadily, left no lasting pattern.

    The title points to the metaphoric significance of the poem: all the work of mining the earth, even the millenial shifting of the earth itself, appear and then disappear in something as simple as a rainfall.  The poem recalls a Robinson Jeffers poem that begins by addressing the "Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated / Challengers of oblivion" and ends by contradicting that assertion of doom: "Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found / The honey of peace in old poems" (3).  Jeffers and Carter both recognize the fragility of human life and of the marks we leave on the earth, and yet both preserve a record of them through poetry.  Both reveal a sense of serenity as well as skepticism about human endeavor, a feeling that although our efforts are relatively small and impermanent, they still have nobility and meaning.
    Carter occasionally incorporates classical myths within his narratives, sometimes blending them with the myths of American popular culture.  In "For an Old Flame," for example, the speaker recalls the moment he learned that a former sweetheart had been killed in a head-on collision.  Upon hearing the news, he imagines her finding a temporary haven in a junkyard of old cars, "surrounded by piles / of rusted and broken bodies, doors gone, / engines disemboweled, windows shattered."  He projects her spirit into this landscape because "the dead have no other place to go / in this world we have made."  Uniting his personal recollections, the stories suggested by wrecked cars, and an allusion to the Greco-Roman myth of the River Styx, Carter concludes this look backward by looking forward:

                                        It remains
        only for me to set you now in the prow
        of an all-black '57 Chevrolet hard-top
        with dual carburetors and a glass-packed
        muffler, and pay the ferryman the coins
        from your eyes, and see you start out,
        not looking back, over those dark waters.

The speaker finds himself simultaneously in the present, the past, and the future.  A junkyard of old cars has been transformed into a mythic crossroad between these dimensions of time, as he sends a twentieth-century woman on her way to the underworld through the death rituals of ancient Rome.  The '57 Chevrolet that ferried American adolescents into adulthood becomes the ferry into the afterlife.
    A belief that underlies many of Carter's poems is that human beings become attached to the land where they live, that in thime they feel they belong in a particular place.  This is especially clear in "The Purpose of Poetry," which tells of a poor midwestern farmer who keeps a small herd of beef cattle.  Finding out that the government is about to take his land and flood it to create a reservoir, he shoots his dogs and then himself rather than leave the only home he has ever known.  "With its flat, colloquial idiom and near melodramatic lament for this victim of progress, the poem harks back through Robert Frost's New England pastoralism to the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads" (Gundy 410).  The farmer represents the deep human need for a specific place on earth, for the feeling of belonging somewhere.
    While the poem tells of the farmer, his home, and his dogs, it ends, abruptly and dramatically, with the line: "The purpose of poetry is to tell us about life."  At first glance this line appears to be a departure from the material that precedes it, but a second reading reveals its correlation to the rest of the poem.  Carter has told a story about the life of one man and about the lives of all those who are deeply attached to anything, whether it be a place, a person, or an idea.  The purpose of poetry, or at least one purpose of it, is to tell stories, to remember the lives of this farmer and others like him, to preserve our myths.  Poetry is about the things to which we are attached in one way or another, and that is what Carter communicates so dramatically in his last line.
    Carter's conclusion about the purpose of poetry is a plain statement ÷ a terse, straightforward, aphoristic declaration.  Such statements appear and reappear in his work, adding their quiet authority to the story lines.  Another example can be found in "Poem Written on a Line from the Walam Olum," in which a field researcher tells the narrator she hopes experts will not find and develop the archaeological site she has been studying.  "There / should be places people can't find at all," she muses.  Then, later in the poem:

                        Nothing done well ever ends,
        she said, touching my hand, not even land
        built up one act at a time, so that all
        that went before, and after, still waits there.

"Nothing done well ever . . ." sounds like the beginning of a platitude such as "Anything worth doing is worth doing well," but the last word is a surprise that is anything but platitudinous.  The philosophical idea that "Nothing done well ever ends" is interesting, and it enobles the story and the person telling it, making her efforts seem worthwhile and giving them a deeper context.  Instead of handing over a worn bit of advice, which we are led to expect by the first few words, the line intrigues us by pointing toward something that is not as vulnerable and ephemeral as man.  Though human beings are finite, they can do something or at least gain an awareness of something that is lasting.
    Many of Carter's poems involve a search for the past and its artifacts.  In the title poem of After the Rain, the speaker wanders through damp fields looking for arrowheads.  He tells us that the trick to finding them

                                is not to be
        too sure about what's known;

        conviction's liable to say straight off
        this one's a leaf, or that one's merely clay,
        and miss the point: after the rain, soft
        furrows show one way

        across the field, but what is hidden here
        requires a different view÷the glance of one
        not looking straight ahead, who in the clear
        light of the morning sun

        simply keeps wandering across the rows,
        letting his own perspective change.

The poem is about noticing things that we do not ordinarily see, about finding what is hidden, about discovering the world by "not looking straight ahead."  That phrase and the whole poem in a general way recall Emily Dickinson:

        Tell all the Truth but tell it slant÷
        Success in Circuit lies
        Too bright for our infirm Delight

        The Truth's superb surprise.

Like Dickinson, Carter insists on the links between truth and perspective, between what we see and the angle from which we see it.
    Carter's latest book, Les Barricades Mystérieuses: Thirty-Two Villanelles, may seem radically different from the earlier ones, and in some ways it is.  From a strictly formal perspective, of course, the exclusive use of villanelles is new, and yet the first two books reveal an increasing interest in rhyme and repetition.  Barricades is not the first time Carter has written formal poetry of one kind or another, although sometimes the forms he uses are so subtle as to be hardly noticeable.  "Barn Siding," for example, from After the Rain, does not rhyme, but it is organized into quatrains of lines that all have exactly nine syllables.
    Even more striking than the differences in form is the apparent shift away from narrative to contemplative poetry.  In Barricades, the poet emphasizes an element that is clearly evident but usually in the background of his earlier work: a Zen-like encounter with the world.  Precedents for these meditations are poems like "After the Rain," from the book of that title, or "Geodes," from Work, for the Night Is Coming.  The minimal narrative in this latter poem describes the act of finding the rough, hollow stones that often have crystals inside.  Like poems, they are "useless, there is nothing / To be done with them, no reason, only / The finding."  The speaker takes "each one up like a safecracker listening / For the lapse within, the moment crystal turns / On crystal.  It is all waiting there in darkness."
    Carter tries to hear such sounds throughout Les Barricades Mystérieuses.  The opening poem, "Improvisation," which originally appeared in Poetry, invites us to listen to the music we ourselves create:

        To improvise, first let your fingers stray
        across the keys like travelers in snow:
        each time you start, expect to lose your way.

        You'll find no staff to lean on, none to play
        among the drifts the wind has left in rows.
        To improvise, first let your fingers stray

        beyond the path.  Give up the need to say
        which way is right, or what the dark stones show;
        each time you start, expect to lose your way.

        And what the stillness keeps, do not betray;
        the one who listens is the one who knows.
        To improvise, first let your fingers stray;

        out over emptiness is where things weigh
        the least.  Go there, believe a current flows
        each time you start: expect to lose your way.

        Risk is the pilgrimage that cannot stay,
        the keys grow silent in their smooth repose.
        To improvise, first let your fingers stray.
        Each time you start, expect to lose your way.

This is where the book begins ÷ with the idea of hearing our own voices and being willing to "stray / beyond the path."
    The multiple meanings of certain words in this poem suggest that the world is a place in which our lives are a kind of music that we improvise as we go along.  In the second stanza, for example, Carter refers to a musical staff and the staff of a pilgrim or wanderer.  Just as the pianist who reads written music depends on ("leans on") a staff, so the wanderer leans on ("depends on") a staff.  Lines of music compare to the snow that is blown into rows by the wind.  Fingers stray not simply to other notes or keys, but "beyond the path."  Carter brings together metaphors of music and journey, adding nuance to both.  Through the poem we learn about the interplay of white and black keys and their corresponding tonalities, the interplay of sound and silence.  The pianist improvises at the piano, the wanderer improvises in finding his way, and, by implication, the poet improvises with words in order to create.  At still another level, the readers of these poems must improvise and explore different avenues of meaning as they progress through the book.
    This kind of reflection on writing and reading is also evident in "Labyrinth," where Carter contemplates the "murmuring of things / that make no difference ÷ aimlessly playing, / drifting in the wind . . . ."  These things and these murmurings seem to mean something, and yet "no torch, no adventitious thread brings / meaning to this maze . . . ."  The reference to Ariadne's thread also suggests Borges's image of the world as a labyrinth, as well as Baudelaire's vision of the world as a forest of symbols.  The poem does not lead to any conclusion.  It implies instead that we need not find our way out of the labyrinth or decipher it, but rather that if we listen we can hear and appreciate its murmurings, its mysteries.  The poet's task, by implication, is not to lead us out of the maze in which we live, but to show us the beauty and magic of its configuration.
    "Improvisation," as well as many other poems in the book, is a dialogue.  The speaker addresses "you," encourages "you," advises "you" throughout the poem.  This opens up many possibilities.  The poet could be writing to a friend or even to himself in the second person, or he could be addressing the reader as a friend.  In any case, the approach draws us in with its immediacy, and the syntax has a simplicity which resembles that of spoken language.  Reading the poems is like participating in a conversation, and various words and images echo and re-echo within that conversation.  It is as if the dialogue between poet and reader keeps coming back to the same subjects.
    In "Labyrinth," for example, we find the lines, "Each rusty hinge / creaks in a different key," which bring to mind "Improvisation" and its references to music.  Through the echoes between the two poems, the sound of the hinge becomes a kind of music, the hinge itself a musical instrument.  Similarly, the first stanza of "Clavichord" transposes music and sensuality: "Touch me once more, until these separate strands / begin to stir.  My inarticulate keys / quicken beneath your soft, attentive hands."  The clavichord, it seems, is speaking to the poet, to the reader, or to someone whose presence the poem implies.  The instrument is like one person who is being touched by another.  Music becomes sensual and sensuality becomes musical.
    Music in the final poem of the collection, "Comet," is so mysterious that its "sounds evade / the measure . . . ."  Here, the poet brings us to the barricades of the cosmos, lit for a moment by a comet so that we get just a glimpse of the path along which

                                    we cannot be conveyed
        but move as particles or waves, returning÷
        somewhere not far, beyond these barricades÷
        to the dim light and the large circle of shade.

Carter's last line here is the first line of Rosetti's translation of Dante's Sestina 1, "Of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni" (Rosetti 156), and it reiterates the notion of a spirit world that conjoins the earthly one.  Ultimately, the journey hinted at in "Improvisation" becomes the final journey of life, the trip across the barricades of existence.
    Each of the villanelles in Barricades is a kind of meditation or observation, and many of them are dialogues.  One might assume that in writing them, Carter had abandoned the interest in narrative shown by the two earlier books.  Yet narrative is present throughout Barricades, too, although on a different level from that of the individual poem.  The thirty-two villanelles, taken as a series, form an extended narrative of their own.  Read in sequence, the poems tell the story of two lovers.  The opening poem describes the beginning of their journey toward an old country house (a villa), and many of the villanelles tell what they do there.  They lived in the house before, and now they re-explore the covered bridge and farmland around it; they sense its ghosts; they make love and remember making love there in the past.
    A series of three ominous pieces, "Parfumeur," "Mandragora," and "Tankroom," suggests that one of the lovers ÷ the woman, in my interpretation ÷ dies.  Then, in "Phosphorescence," she speaks from beyond the grave: "What passed between us once was but a dream / that cast no shadow on the world of things. / Think of me now, in these dark days, as flame."  She is gone and yet the dialogue between the lovers continues.  She has been transformed into one of the four elements ÷ earth, air, water, and fire ÷ that Carter alludes to again and again throughout the collection.  Here a woman, a child of the earth, becomes a flame.  In "Tankroom," similarly, we see cadavers intended for anatomical study floating in a large receptacle:

        Asleep and drifting in these still waters,

        they must be born again, as broken embers
        carried on the wind, or fragments of flame
        come together at last ÷ no longer strangers
        asleep and drifting in these still waters.

The poet envisions human beings immersed in water and imagines them transported from the earth by wind or fire.
    In the poems of the fourth and final section, the speaker is alone and yet aware of his lover's presence.  In "Sortilege," for example, he says, "I hear your step along the path ÷ no stranger to these branching ways."  In "Hawkmoth," he pleads, "touch me now with your wings' / imagined light, lift me toward your world / of vision, of dark flight."  Although he addresses the hawkmoth, the world he refers to is the spirit world where he imagines his lover has gone.  In the final poem of the book she calls to him from beyond the barricades that separate them, and he considers the path into the other world she now inhabits.  The last stanza reads:

        Along this path we cannot be conveyed
        but move as particles or waves, returning÷
        somewhere not far, beyond these barricades÷
        to the dim light and the large circle of shade.

This ending can be seen as a meditation by the speaker brought to the edge of the barricades to contemplate his own mortality, or as his lover's message to him from the ethereal world.  Neither he nor she can cross the barriers now.  And yet perhaps something of them remains, something transcendental, pure and disembodied as light itself.
    Through the many narratives of his first two collections and the narrative of love and death that brings the villanelles together in Les Barricades Mystérieuses, Carter reminds us that we need to remember the past, partly so that we can learn from it, but also because understanding and treasuring it makes us aware of our bond with other human beings.  His first two books describe a communal American past that we sense in stories like the one about the football heroes who fought the Klan, as well as the millenial past of the earth that reveals itself for a moment in the rain-darkened ledges of a quarry.  His most recent book focuses on the history of two lovers remembering their lives together as they face death and loss.  In all three books, the present includes the past, or as George Cleveland expresses it, the poet reveals for us "the past working on our present, even the past that has disappeared" (109).
    In their poignancy and their stark realism, Carter's stories are much like those of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and he looks back on earlier eras of American life in ways that are also highly reminiscent of the epitaph poems of Master's Spoon River Anthology, as several reviewers have noted.  As we follow him on his poetic journey, we see a stone quarry, an arrowhead, a junkyard, a comet; we hear improvised music and the voice of an absent lover; and we learn to appreciate the place of these people and things within the cosmic labyrinth.  We see them again, or perhaps for the first time, because when we find them in his poetry, we are no longer "looking straight ahead."

Carter, Jared. Les Barricades Mystérieuses: Thirty-Two Villanelles. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1999.  ISBN: 1-880834-40-5  $10.00

Carter, Jared. After the Rain.  Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1993.  ISBN: 0-914946-97-8  $10.00

Carter, Jared. Work, for the Night Is Coming.  New York, New York: Macmillan, 1981.  ISBN: 1-880834-20-0  $8.00


Burnham, R.P.  Rev. of After the Rain in The Midwest Quarterly 36.1 (1994): 113-116.

Cleveland, George.  Rev of After the Rain in New Laurel Review 19 (1995): 109-110.

Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson's Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson.  Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1961.

Gioia, Dana.  "Eight Poets." Poetry 140.2 (1982): 102-4.  Republished as "Jared Carter" in his Can Poetry Matter?  Essays on Poetry and American Culture.  Minneapolis: Graywolf, 1992.  188-190.

Gundy, Jeff.  Rev. of After the Rain in The Georgia Review 48.2 (1994): 410-11.

Hosmer, Robert.  "Meditative Gazing: On Contemporary Poetry." The Southern Review 30.3 (1994): 631-40.

Jeffers, Robinson.  "To the Stone-Cutters."  In his Selected Poems.  New York: Random House, 1924. 3.

McPhillips, Robert.  "The Year in Poetry, 1993."  Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1994.  Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.  38-39

© by David Lee Garrison


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