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Oct/Nov 2012 Reviews & Interviews

...that leaf-shadowed house by the river...

A Dance in the Street
Jared Carter.
Wind Publications. 2012. 114 pp.
ISBN 978-1936138272.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Jared Carter's first volume of poems, Work, for the Night is Coming (1981), contains more than a few poems about cemeteries and endings. In it, Mississinewa County is disappearing under the waters of a new reservoir never to be seen again but in memory. The way of life that was lived there had already long been in the process of disappearing under the waves of time.

One undertaker hires a crew to exhume the bodies from the cemetery and to take them, together with their stones, to a place chosen on higher ground. Another, who takes photographs as a hobby, brings his box-camera to the places that will soon disappear:

...I came to that leaf-shadowed house by the river—
late-summer afternoon rain falling long into evening—
To visit a favorite aunt, who had asked the undertaker—
his blue pickup truck pulled off just under the willows—

To take photographs of the house, and the gardens,
and the parlor—with us in it—one last time
Before the waters began to rise, and scavengers came
to pick over the buildings too big to be moved—

In his mid-20s, Carter's beginnings were already endings.

But they were beginnings, nonetheless. He would soon be attending Yale University and doing a tour in the military. In ten years' time, he would return, a changed man, to a changed Indiana and a changed world. The stamp which Mississinewa left indelibly on his heart would endear the works of the Chicago School poets, of Hamlin Garland and Sherwood Anderson, to him. In time, also Faulkner.

Less embittered than Garland, still Carter would seem to have no closer literary cousin. Edgar Lee Masters came before the flattened affect that would give Midwestern writers' and Carter's characters depth. Carl Sandburg had too much of a naive Midwestern optimism that would be choked to death in the dust bowl experience. While both Garland and Sandburg's populisms were heavily colored by their Socialist creeds, Garland kept his early stories apart from his politics. Carter's populism is unmistakably of the apolitical, common man variety from first to last.

In the final analysis, Jared Carter shares more in common with the short story writers. He is primarily a narrative poet. His poems often read like a snippet lifted out of a story by Garland or Anderson or Faulkner. His characters, like theirs, are deceptively complex for all of the apparent simplicity of their lives. Sometimes only the trappings of their worlds are different, sometimes not even that.

All of that said, Carter has written many poems in traditional forms. The title of his fifth, and present, volume—A Dance in the Street—is taken from Blake's abstruse mystical poem The Four Zoas. The sources of the epigraphs in the volume include Jane Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, the poetry of Shelley and Di Piero, the prose of Leopardi, a biography of Picasso. Carter has always struggled, like the character Will, in Garland's story "The Branch Road," to straddle two worlds:

He wanted them to understand that he could do as much pitching as any of them, and read Caesar's Commentaries beside.

Quite the opposite of the early 20th century Chicago School days, his wide reading is no longer rare for a Midwesterner, while the humble country life of his youth (and what lingers of it still) is. The latter, then, in particular, makes for a poetry of exotic beauty.

In A Dance in the Street, Carter seeks to meld his two worlds to together. The first poem in the volume is again about things funereal. In the old days, not so long ago, a dead body had to be preserved through the winter until the ground would yield to shovels. In the second poem, crosses "crop up now and then" beside a "freeway" contemporary except for the telling noun used to name it.

In the second of the six sections of A Dance in the Street, the world that once was tended is now crumbling in landscape and life. Characters stand around a flaming 55 gallon drum or are emotionally troubled hitchhikers or criminals fleeing flashing lights:

We are in the YMCA of an ancient city
of abandoned mills and red-brick factories
that stretch along the river. This is the pool
built years ago, for the youth of the town,
when there was still some money. These days
the walls are pocked with broken tiles...

It ends with a description of a wafting plastic bag à la the movie American Beauty.

The next four sections take the reader from fairytale to dream to myth and back to Indiana, itself perhaps now offered as a myth replete with more hitchhikers, with husbands standing over wives and their lovers, in flagrante delicto, with a shotgun, with simple names of small towns, beautifully simple landscapes, vestigial hotel rooftops:

Those hotels always had a room perched on top
of the third floor. You reached it up a long stairway.
On each step your shoes scrunched bits of plaster
and twigs and fluff from abandoned birds' nests.

It was the laundry room. You climbed into a cupola
that looked out over iron standpipes, brick chimneys,
roofs patched with tar. The room would be filled up
with laundry equipment—galvanized wash-tubs,

wringers, wooden drying racks folded or broken
and stacked in corners.

As always, in a volume by Jared Carter, the words are carefully chosen, simple, their pace another thing too sadly all but lost now to Indiana and the world.

Step by step, the stark simplicity of the first section gives way to strange concatenations and convolution. The old Indiana enters a grim present. The fairytales that follow begin with disclaimers, the myths embrace cruelty, the landscapes of the past are eerily empty. In the fifth section, some of this informs Indiana. In the sixth, the lovely bits and pieces that remain come to mind. The snow begins to fall. It calls him, like it called the "Weather Prophet," in Work, for Night is Coming, out "into the night."

Jared Carter's A Dance in the Street is an exceptional book of poetry. Insert any of the names of his other four books in the previous sentence and it remains entirely true.

 

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