Elegy for the Floater, Teresa Carson, CavanKerry Press
Of all the tragedies that can happen within a family – mental illness, abuse, poverty, suicide – there is one tragedy that outweighs them all, and that is the burden of silence. Part memoir, part objective observation, Teresa Carson’s Elegy for the Floater explores this silence in a thoughtful and attentive first collection of poetry.
Carson divides her book into five sections, and in the first section, the reader learns of the suicide of a mentally ill brother. Interestingly enough, in the first poem, “The barking boy” a young man is introduced as a lone figure who “Snorts as he slaps his cheeks” and “sticks his hands in gutter water/picks out a crushed cup/throws it like a girl.” As readers, we are not sure of the writer’s relationship to this “barking boy” especially with such lines where the narrator actually hides: “I dip my umbrella so I can’t see him.” But, by the end of the poem, we know more:
Someday the barking boy’s sister
will sit in a police station
across the desk from Detective Nankivell
who will hand her an autopsy report
and three Polaroids of human remains.
Other poems in this section explore this relationship, where the speaker often hovers between objective reporting and personal revelations. In “Autopsy Report” we get a subjective, if not somewhat cold description of a body in phrases such as “No identifying scars, tattoos, deformities/noted at this point in time” (9) next to a more personal story explaining, “He taught me to make kites from/rice paper, balsa, electric blue paint” (9). In “Weights and Measures” we are given a list of items and their measurements – all physical objects ranging from “white jockey shorts” to “a spleen” designed to tell a story that is both morbid and heartbreakingly sad. But perhaps the most honest reaction is found in the last poem of the section titled “Stop” where the speaker declares the following: “Everything I’ve told you about Joe’s suicide/has been slanted – you feel sorry for me/not him.” The ending lines are a sharp warning: “Listen even closer. I have to whisper this part:/his death was a relief.”
Since “Stop” closes out the first section with such honest declaration, it’s not surprising that the rest of the collection pushes forward relentlessly, exploring the other painful calamities of the poet’s life: her mother’s mental illness, her father’s abandonment, her own rape and abuse. Any poet who takes on these stories runs the risk of writing mere sentimental confessional poetry, but one will find only a hard truth in Carson’s work. For example, in “Life Everlasting” she confronts the advice of a nun who declared “that poverty on earth was a blessing” with the honesty of a child:
But despite their insistence that scraping by
was a stroke of luck, I would – given a choice –
have picked the ruffly dress in Pesin’s window
nonpinching shoes, a shelf of dolls, bags
Of penny candies, and, oh yeah, enough blankets
To keep me warm through January nights
enough food to fill my bottomless hungers.
Other poems follow this pattern of frank earnestness combined with sharp, tight language and details. Sometimes her poems are lists, sometimes personal narratives, sometimes lyrical confrontations. In “My Mother Said” she discusses her mother’s reactions towards family, faith, and life in general, often with direct quotations such as “I’ll stuff paper in the toes and then they’ll fit.” This particular work, a sort of found poem, goes on for over two pages, eventually ending with the haunting couplet: “But most of the time/she said nothing.” In “In Family Court” Carson details a custody case in fragments, as if sorting through a painful and foggy memory that seems to be made up of what others in the courtroom, including lawyers, family members and psychiatrists, actually say. And in “Afterwards” she reports her detached actions after a rape: “I used a kitchen towel/to wipe blood off my thighs.”
In spite of the subject material, there is no “poor me” attitude in this book. Instead, these poems all take a chance of balancing realistic depictions of a troubled life without presenting yet another anguished existence often found in so many of today’s tell it all memoirs. And nowhere is this truth more artfully presented in the simple, yet painful “Prayer” where we see a lone person detailing the losses in her life by ending with a simple request, “Take me by surprise —/bold, brick, crash, or in my sleep. Let it happen/when I still want to live.”
Certainly, Carson is not the first poet to write about such family and individual sufferings, but she is unique because her words are not afraid of confrontation. Her tone is brisk and serious, yet never judgmental nor self pitying. Elegy for the Floater is the type of book that you will want to read, that you will want to put down because of how much the honesty hurts. Ultimately, however, you will pick the book back up, savoring every line and stanza, wondering how the poet turned such anguish into art.