by Julie Carr
Solid Objects, 82 pages
reviewed by Johnny Payne
The first order of a book of poetry, irrespective of its particular style, is to give pleasure. It’s that simple. Whatever releases the dopamine from the nucleus accumbens qualifies. This was my experience with Julie Carr’s Think Tank. I suspended immediate comprehension, simply following the text’s pulses and impulses. Pick a through line: trail the images from start to finish, or the sounds, until understanding accumulates like dewdrops on a Maine slicker.
This is a volume of extraordinary discipline, cerebral yet appealing, loose and playful:
Yeast minutes leap to
swamp the city’s borders
Honk geese: soprano, duck duck
hobbles, belly first a girl-falcon spins
a headlock is to a hat as a tourniquet is to a condom
a headlock is to a hat as a paring knife is to tongue
I could go on giving examples.
A narrative emerges, aided by the sentient tease disjunction provides. The mother surfaces numerous times as a conflicted presence, lending an emotional heft that keeps the poetry yeasty (see above), not stiff or academic.
Never have I revered enough of my mother
or reserved the rare knot of arid desire,
bequeathed upon me by her dry mouth.
The proposition remains well this side of confessional, aided by a lexicon and diction as precise as one could wish. To state the matter in Carr’s own elegant words:
The sentences are grammatical and taut. This annun-
……………………flowers by rhetoric: vegetal verb
The joys of a hyphen or colon (o blighted fecal word, Carr might say) get rediscovered. I’m sent back to my inspired eighth grade teacher, passionately requiring us to diagram sentences as if growing saplings.
As the title suggests, Think Tank is full of ideas, some borrowed, others invented.
Here and there things are made, but how?
…………………….“By a future mouth without teeth”?
These unrevealed days lie reading the forehead of an eerie young girl
lie beaming in the deaf rippled bay
lie flat like a party where everyone cried
had nothing to do, no will to invent, no wish to go outside
…………………….Like alkali from ash, leach
………………the wet heavy pubescent trees of their ire
One wishes to exclaim, with gawky adolescent admiration, “Wow.” Hermeneutics is made palatable. Nature shows up, transient, its spirit somewhere between that of a flash mob and a lone discreet beauty. The concise and changeable imagery often startles, whether anaphoric or saturated with simile.
Carr is scrupulous about attribution, citing sources for phrases at the end of the book, under Notes. That is less a rejection of Dadaist pastiche than it is just being polite and respectful. Yet while eschewing the high school desire to find the answers in the back of the book before finishing, I was happy to see at the end what I suspected all along: the presence of César Vallejo as an informing spirit. Influence and homage are overstatements.
I was reminded of the transcendent and justly famous volume of Clayton Eshelman’s translations of Vallejo. After reading Vallejo in the original, I can remember holding Eshelman’s version in my hand, with a certain wonderment. Like Carr, the Peruvian gangbuster can’t be categorized easily. Surrealist? Avant garde? Plain speaker of a private truth sometimes expressed only by strange neologisms and rare vocabulary in the constant attempt to provide a pathway to his recondite inner world?
Why tap the pupil with my chalky hand?
………………A man into an arachnoidal evening, leggy with the voice of
walks hungry. The white street’s fat with blizzardly garrulousness
the garage snickers wayward in
…………………snow, and I’m braced
braced as an injured
James Wright and Thomas Merton could only get at Vallejo by including translations in their books, as homages. Carr goes straight for him, as equal to equal, and comes off strongly as her own woman. I don’t mean to overpraise the book, but I can say, perhaps more modestly, that she gives that ungainly word experimentation a good name. The poems show great and true economy. As William Gass once wisely observed, you’re not economical or efficient just because you write short phrases and sentences. (He was comparing long-winded Hemingway unfavorably to Henry James.) It’s all a matter of yield. Of giving good weight. Certainly the spacing on Carr’s pages is appealing, down to the asterisks.
In one sense, Think Tank is a single, continuous poem, discriminating yet not overly concerned with delineating “sections.” Sex, love, indolence, ratiocination—it’s all here. One of my favorite moments in the book is when the speaker lies on her friend’s bed, looks out the window, sees a man approaching, fantasizes about him, and has an orgasm without moving or touching herself. Then the man enters and turns out to be her friend’s husband. The episode is brought off (in fewer words than my paraphrase) as a fleeting daydream of desire.
Some poetry books are meant to be read slowly and a second time; this is one of them.
Johnny Payne is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. His most recent book of poetry is Vassal. Forthcoming is the poetry collection Heaven of Ashes, from Mouthfeel Press.