Jared Carter: Review by David Lee Garrison


Carter book photo


Darkened Rooms of Summer by Jared Carter (University of Nebraska Press)

This is the first volume in a poetry series launched by Ted Kooser at the University of Nebraska Press, and his selection is an excellent one—a retrospective of the work of the Midwestern poet Jared Carter.  It includes poems from Carter’s five previous books, providing a comprehensive survey of a writing career that stretches back over the past four decades.  His work has earned awards, fellowships, and high praise from critics during that time.

     Carter has added thirty new poems to the collection, and Kooser has furnished an introduction that sparkles with his characteristic generosity.  In a brief presentation of the poet and his work, he refers to the “remarkably fine poems of Jared Carter, which I have been reading with pleasure, admiration, and jealousy for almost forty years.”

     Work, for the Night Is Coming, Carter’s first book, won the Walt Whitman Award in 1980.  In it, he begins the story he will come back to, again and again, of the land and the people of mythical Mississinewa County, located (according to the poet) “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County.”  The title poem is a haunting reminder of our mortality.  It describes the look of a quarry as rain begins to fall, outlining the geology of the rock face,

                         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 pool of water
          rimmed with broken stones, where rain, now
          falling steadily, left no lasting pattern.                               

     After the Rain, from 1993, won the Poet’s Prize.  One of my favorites from that collection is the Carter poem that has probably been anthologized more than any other, “The Purpose of Poetry.”  It tells the poignant story of an old cattleman who learns that his land will be flooded for a reservoir.  It closes with these lines:  
                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. 

     Much of Carter’s work is narrative in nature.  Les Barricades Mystérieuses is a collection of villanelles (the title in French suggests the French origin of the form) that tells a story of love and loss.   In one, “Clavichord,” the instrument speaks, its voice a subtle parallel to what the lovers might say: 

          Touch me once more, until these separate strands
          begin to stir.  My inarticulate keys
          quicken beneath your soft, attentive hands,

          my strings, responsive to your least commands,
          give back strange overtones and harmonies.
          Touch me once more…

     Like virtually all of Carter’s poems, this one has a vivid ambiguity to it—two hands playing at the same time, two kinds of touching, a text and a subtext.

     Four of the long narrative poems from Cross this Bridge at a Walk appear in this collection.  These stories are often historical and personal at the same time.  “Recollections of a Contingent of Coxey’s Army Passing through Straughn, Indiana, in April 1894,” for example, about a poor people’s march on Washington, describes a large movement of men through the streets of the town in which many of the onlookers throw rocks and even bricks at them.  As they leave the town, though, a girl offers some hedgeapples to “a gray-haired man in a faded blue coat with badges / on the lapels, tarnished buttons, one arm pinned at the shoulder.”  What she remembers is not what he says, but the way he thanks her, “reaching down to press / her fingers, then hurrying on, turning back once to wave to her.” 
     A poem I had forgotten from A Dance in the Street attracted my attention this time around, “Up in Michigan.”  It is a tale of adultery in which a man, caught in the act, suddenly feels “something cold and sharp set against / the bridge of his nose.  Even in the dark / he knew it had the heft of a shotgun.”  The triangle of three people and their desires leads, strangely and circuitously, to a revelation, to an awareness of the sacredness of life.

     The thirty new poems at the end of the book all have one-word titles and take the same form, which Carter has dubbed an alexandroid: “three quatrains, each composed of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter rhyming abab.”   Here is an example:


          It’s not a labyrinth, I said,
               more like a maze
          That opens circles in your head
               until the daze

          Of noon has vanished, and you hear
               the hollow tread
          Of some hoofed creature drawing near.
               Give me the thread,

          He said impatiently, I have
               kingdoms to win,
          And more than schoolgirls to save.
               I pushed him in.

     In these poems, and also in A Dance in the Street, Carter occasionally takes up classical themes and gives them a new twist.  Throughout his work there are classical allusions, and it is always obvious that Carter writes with a deep knowledge of the history of poetry in his bones, an awareness of what has gone before.  Poems on classical themes, though, are a relatively new and very interesting trend in his work.

     This collection reminds me of one by a Spanish poet, José Bergamín, La poesía incompleta de José Bergamín.  Since Bergamín was still alive when it was published, the volume was not the “complete” poems, but the title has other ironies as well.  It implies that the poems themselves are unfinished because the poet may at some point revise them or incomplete until someone reads them.  Bergamín was suggesting that poetry is like the tree that falls in the forest—it is not really poetry until someone appreciates it. 

     This is the incomplete poetry of Jared Carter.  I hope the poet lives long and writes many more books, and I look forward to reading them.  Until his next one, I know I will pick up this one again and again with appreciation and pleasure, as will many other people, even those who do not ordinarily read poetry.  As Ted Kooser notes, “The importance of Darkened Rooms of Summer will not derive from its place in American literature, where it shall earn the respect of scholars and critics for years to come, but from its place in the hearts of the broad audience that it will surely find.”

David Lee Garrison's poetry, translations, and reviews have been published in many journals and anthologies.  His latest book is Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro, the title poem of which was featured by Ted Kooser on his website, American Life in Poetry.