Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

Kooser's Choice

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems.
Jared Carter.
University of Nebraska Press. 2013. 220 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8032-4857-1.

Jared Carter's Darkened Rooms of Summer begins with a brief introduction from Ted Kooser. "Several years ago," he explains:

I asked the University of Nebraska Press if every couple years they would permit me to introduce a significant selection of poems from the life work of a writer whose work, I felt, deserved more attention... My first objective in approaching the press was to entice their editors to share my enthusiasm for the remarkably fine poems of Jared Carter, which I had been reading with pleasure, admiration, and jealousy for almost forty years.

Carter's work deserves more attention, indeed. As is so often the fate even of exceptional poets, his work wasn't flashy enough to establish a Carter brand. His books appeared at long intervals. In spite of early awards, the momentum was eventually lost.

His first volume Work, for the Night is Coming (1981), received quite a lot of attention, it is true. It was selected, by Galway Kinnell, for the prestigious Walt Whitman Award, from the Academy of American Poets, in 1980. The Indiana and the national media were particularly attentive at the time. The slender book was reviewed by Dana Gioia, in Poetry, and by Helen Vendler, in the New York Review of Books. Reviews also appeared in the New York Times Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, the Hudson Review, and others.

The attention was well deserved. The poems are of a rare quality throughout. The rural themes are rich. When a tornado strikes little Mississinewa County,

Thousands of hens, who've never seen
The light of the sun, or
Touched the earth with their beaks,
Go up the funnel like souls to God.

The county is about to be evacuated, in several of the poems. The Army Corps of Engineers has built a dam in order to control flooding along the rest of the Mississinewa River. That much is history that Carter covered as a young newspaper reporter in Central Indiana. The resulting Mississinewa Reservoir defines the border of the quasi-fictional county, of the same name, in which so much of his poetry takes place. The residents are preparing, and their poet, for his part, is moving the stories of the place to higher ground.

Even the poems that do not explicitly take place in Mississinewa County seem to belong there. At "The Oddfellows' Waiting Room at Glencove Cemetery," visited, it would seem, after the reservoir had done its worst, we see "the polished floorboards of quartersawn oak." Many such observations make these poems unusually vivid, situate them in a place exotic with detail.

Grants, fellowships and writer-in-residence invitations arrived in gratifying numbers, following the Whitman prize. His second full-length volume, After the Rain, appeared, some 13 years later, in 1993, and was selected for the also prestigious Poets' Prize. Again there were highly complementary reviews by Gioia and others. Ted Kooser himself wrote a glowing review for the journal New Letters.

After the Rain is a still better book than the first. The poet has gained a greater ease. That, in turn, has given him confidence to expand his repertoire. In perhaps his finest poem, "The Gleaning," a crew has spent the day threshing when suddenly a large separating machine flies apart:

...parts explode through the swirl
of smoke and chaff, and he is dead
where he stands—drops the pitchfork
as they turn to look at him—and falls.

It is a poem as chilling as Robert Frost's "Out, Out," which surely inspired it. Rarely does a critic or reviewer mention the volume without highlighting the longer narrative poem "Barn Siding." Both poems are among those included here.

Following After the Rain Carter began spending considerable effort on writing formal poems, especially villanelles. As the result, his poems began to be published in smaller, less prestigious journals. At the same time, the grants and teaching positions ceased. His third book, Les Barricades Mystérieuses—a collection made up entirely of villanelles—appeared in 1999.

The poet's versatility with the form is impressive. Poem after poem exhibits the often wistful and haunting beauty of lines such as these from the end of "Labyrinth" (which also appears among the selected poems).

...this endless straying
somewhere within the murmuring of things.
Drifting in the wind, a loose door swings.

The volume was the last he would place with the University of Cleveland Press. Until Darkened Rooms of Summer, his remaining books would be published by Wind Publications, a quality small press.

Carter's next book, Cross this Bridge at a Walk, appeared 10 years later, in 2009. In it, he has returned to unrhymed narrative. Arguably, it contains the finest of his longer narrative poems. "Covered Bridge" and "Mussel Shell with Three Blanks Sawed Out" display a mastery, in this line, that few if any can match. The pacing is perfect, the tone conversational.

Not to say that, however well written, it is a volume of the expected. The poem "Spirea," about a young woman who wanders through her own magical world, is also included in Darkened Rooms of Summer, and well represents the range of style and theme.

...gliding—not carefully, one step at a time,
like a tight-rope walker, but recklessly, wantonly,
as someone oblivious to danger, who knows already
what lies ahead, and has nothing to fear.

The limitations of a selected poems is particularly felt in the case of this volume. The reader who has come to love the original book regrets that the new reader, coming to it only through the few poems included here, misses the also psychologically wounded character of "Catalpa," the "Reminiscence" of an aging Scott Joplin, and much more.

The final volume covered—A Dance in the Street—was published in 2012. It marks a genuine change in direction such as is rare in an established poet. A bit of Mississinewa persists but the contemporary world has altered the crumbling landscape and social structure around it.

It would not be unfair to refer to the books that went before as not only narratives, but somehow a great elegy at the same time. In all but the rare instance, the characters portrayed are common people showing the beauty and struggle of our common life. In A Dance in the Street, that world is coming to its end. The subjects of the elegy are no longer struggling but collapsing. The effect is quite astonishing, coming from a poet who had always written so confidently about the combined virtue, on balance, of the common characters of the earlier books.

While the criteria have radically changed, by which we must evaluate A Dance in the Street, it is arguably Jared Carter's finest volume of poems to date. It certainly takes many more chances than the earlier volumes, more chances than might have seemed possible. For one, the shorter lyric which had become less and less present in each successive volume, until it was entirely absent from Cross this Bridge at a Walk, returns with (often grim) force here. Far more often than not, the various gambits succeed.

The "new" selection in this New and Selected Poems continue the new tack toward the lyric with a vengeance. All 30 poems are written in short-lined, rhymed quatrains, the intention being that the full text of each poem will fit entirely on a standard smart-phone screen. They are the poetry component of a smart-phone poetry app.

As the result, these poems resemble the villanelles of Les Barricades Mysterieuses more than anything else from the earlier poetry. They are marked by wistfulness. Unlike Les Barricades, the poems are often written on classical Greek themes. Others celebrate small phenomena of nature, or our brief, tenuous connection to each other. An entirely different talent of Jared Carter is shown to advantage here.

While the population of American poets has exploded during the past 30 years, and the experimental has resoundingly come into the foreground, the poetry of Jared Carter is so exceptionally well conceived and constructed that it remains fair to say that it stands among the best of the time. In the rush and clamor of that explosion, it has, indeed, received too little attention. We may hope that changes with this fine volume, Darkened Rooms of Summer.


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