Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines by Julie Carr. Coffee House Press. 74 pp., $16.00.
In a blurb on the back cover of Julie Carr’s fourth collection of poetry, Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, Peter Gizzi praises the book by noting that “there can be no poetics of daily life that does not confront loss.” I tend to already be halfway into a book before letting myself read the blurbs or the introduction, not wanting those other voices to be in my ear when I begin; instead I later welcome them as a form of intermission. And when I finally paused to read Gizzi’s quote—Gizzi, himself, a poet well adept at articulating loss, as evidenced in his Periplum and Other Poems—the notion of the poetics of daily life immediately triggered alarm bells in my mind, of the kind that would have made me resist the book had I not already begun it. Poetry is not alone in the arts in its struggle to build from and move beyond the quotidian, but it is perhaps the genre in which a failure to do so can be most immediately glaring—by way of its concision and its reputation. The everyday and the personal are essential to literature, and without this reliable foundation of relatable detail even the most futuristic worlds of science fiction could not be built. But especially today, in the narcissistic era of “I,” when blogs, Tweets, and Facebook updates can make it appear as though friends and strangers alike might care what we are doing or thinking right now, the challenge to make the individual experience relevant to a readership (and possibly avoid that adjective that is now hurled as an insult to poetry—confessional) is greater than ever.
There are no rules for how to do this, but many great examples in both poetry and prose, such as Marcel Proust, whose work celebrates at length many personal pleasures and pains, but does so while recognizing that the “book is a product of a different ‘self’ from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” I am not in general one who favors reading poetry through the lens of the author’s biography (perhaps because I would be terribly frightened were someone to do so to my own work), but in the case of Carr’s Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, the personal too strongly underlies the themes of the poems to be overlooked as mere intentional fallacy. This said, Carr rises to the challenge and creates poems that are at once intimate but not so much so that they are closed off to the reader, leaving no space for the reader’s imagination to inhabit. Even Carr acknowledges in the opening poem, “It would be absurd to imagine the absent person in the / margins of the book.”
In her most recent book before this one, 100 Notes on Violence, Carr put into brilliant and intense dialogue the voices of many sides of violence—killers, victims, caregivers, journalists—sensitively inhabiting the myriad perspectives of a complicated social problem and its many manifestations. In Sarah—Of Fragments and Lines, the community Carr invokes is both much smaller and more universal; she returns to the themes of mother and child present in her earlier work, Equivocal, but with a renewed sense of gravity. Now, the poems grapple with what it means to become a mother while losing one’s mother. While writing the book, Carr was pregnant with her third child, while her mother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. This necessitates an evocative doubling—in which one is both mother and daughter simultaneously and yet inhabiting a liminal space between. This sense that one is always oneself and an other is precisely described in the poem “Western Wind: An Ode,” which in its title, but less overtly in its subject, alludes to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” The poem concludes: “The body is a hole through which other bodies move.” Compared to Carr’s delight in sound throughout the rest of the book and compared to the resultant more elliptical lyricism, the line is blunt and shocking because it is direct and unexpectedly graphic. And more so, it is precise and accurate—in the concrete sense of conception and birth and in the abstract sense of memory, experience, and love. Carr tells us in “Grief Abstracts”:
The doubled woman is a common thing. Nothing more
common than this, this slide of myself from one to two to
none. Something to something more to nothing then. And
the nothing that my maker becomes contains me as the
space does a bit of air. Flawlessly and firm.
In some of the poems, the idea of doubling manifests itself physically, just as one looks for an image of the parent in the face of the child, and the guilt that the child might feel if the parent cannot see her own face staring back: “I see your entrapment as a / fault of my own, my failure to house you in my own face.” The intricacies of the mother-daughter relationship are made palpable in such an image—the mother does not want to see her identity rejected by the daughter, and yet the daughter resists growing up to be her mother. To avoid the psychological push-pull, daughters might seek their paragons elsewhere: “But when I sleep your face remains placid: the face of all women who were not my mother but who I imagined as my mother. Wander through.” There is a guilt and empathy that develop together as the speaker acknowledges her dual role—knowing that she too is about to put another daughter in such a position.
As the title indicates, the book for the most part consists of poems that are in some way entitled “fragments” or “lines for” or “lines of,” as well as “abstracts.” The very structure and titling framework implies a sort of casualness or half-completedness that is deceiving. In no way are these poems half-thought, or gestures toward a work to come later. Instead, they feel fully conceived, if not always fully successful. Carr is at her best when working with the full stop. She is a poet who knows how to work the poetics of prose to her favor. She is a poet of the independent clause. For this reason, the “fragments,” like “Conception Fragment” truly feel fragmentary:
daylight and tree buds
detritus and dust
in the open of your pregnancy?
My interest was piqued, and yet there wasn’t enough—it stopped short. In contrast, the “abstracts,” in their prose poem format, carry the emotional weight of the book—and perhaps even its thesis—while displaying, as in “Pregnancy Abstracts,” Carr’s fantastic mastery of how sound and the tongue move through words:
Slack as the cigarette smoker slouched in his seat then
taut as a show tune turned toward closure. Lacks no
louche motive, she’s lavish in her secure culture. No
longer just cluster, now tasting future. Wamble or
stumble not, not in that locked sea she was in.
Now I see a face. Sea then snow then ice.
The lines that haunt me most, even after the book is closed and back safely on the shelf, are from one of the last “Sarah” poems that give the book its namesake: “The / idea, which she knows to be illogic, but cannot let go of, is that / if she is pregnant the baby will keep her mother alive.” It is unbearably human and unbearably moving, in particular because the speaker acknowledges it is irrational and yet cannot stop the pulse of thought. She simply cannot help but imagine this equation, despite herself. The pregnancy would keep everyone alive at once—all roles of self and other would be co-existent. And it is in moments like this, that though the poems may be inspired by something individual and personal, in their desire to make sense of place, identity, and loss they transcend what would have otherwise been an enclosed experience and open themselves out to the daily life that might be called the human condition.
Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a poet, poetry-filmmaker, book publicist, and the poetry editor for Black Ocean and Hunger Mountain. She is the author of Intervening Absence (Ahsahta Press 2009) and the forthcoming Forty-One Jane Doe’s.
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