DEVOTION AND PROVISION: Joseph Hall on Carrie Olivia Adams’ Intervening Absence

Intervening Absence, Carrie Olivia Adams, Ahsahta Press

what speaks this isn’t


which gets forgotten (Retroflex)

I feel a strange terror when I come up against how little I know and how weak my ways of knowing are, as if what I am missing is exactly what I need—some taste or music. The poems of Carrie Olivia Adams’ debut full length collection constantly situate the reader at this brink of knowing and not knowing. At the line level what could be a straight forward statement and an anchor point from which to schematize the rest of the poem is often complicated by gestures which render its place within the poem’s larger syntax ambiguous. The above lines, the sole occupants of an entire page, reflect such ambiguity, and this is augmented by the white space which holds them. And while Adams’ work is not built entirely from abstractions, the clarity of the images the poems do have is further complicated by Adams’ concern with frames and rooms, attention to which accentuates the limits of vision and implicates its primary role in our own meaning making processes—

This scene is set
on the road in front

so as the driveway comes into view, move

to the left of the frame
to foreground her face

just the eyes and above. (Notes Toward A Short Film)

The eye is focusing and refocusing, moving toward and away from its object. Adams reminds us that it knows through the restlessness of its shifting, that sight, mechanical or organic, is always about construction—what is known is known in pieces and with difficulty. What is lost in this approach? Sentimental epiphany, naturalism or a sense of organic unity. The poems ask: “How can we know through experience when most of what we have done is to forget?” What is gained is a recalibrated kind of clarity, real insight into the relationships between sight/knowing, desire, and memory free from the conditions of narrative or the lyric moment, accomplishing themselves less through representation than through interrogation—


Was it built for this?
I thought, but seem mistaken.
If it could be so divided
I would hold it outside my body.

If you could look at me
when my words find you;

If you could tell me
that they have arrived. (A Useless Window)

The plaintiveness of these last four lines—a plaintiveness that punctuates a number of poems—can seem almost devotional in nature. These are not poems of praise or prayer but they do embody a drama of faith. They can speak in a desire to be heard and acknowledged but not in the certainty that they will be. Her poems share this quality with other Ahsahta press authors David Mutschlegner and Paige Ackerson-Kiely (at least in her absurdly good poem “Shepherding”), as they plead for intimacy from a position of fallibility. Yet if we think of these poems as devotional, it is not clear who they are devoted to as the identity of the you does not remain fixed. It seems, by turns, an impersonal and powerful force, a lover, and you, dear reader.

This holds together the seven sections of the book: the interplay between I, You, and Us/We, absence and uncertainty of the other and the desire for contact, certainty, acknowledgment this breeds. Adams’ diction can by dry, clinical even, and this quality serves as an effective because understated counterpoint to the explosive force which seems gathered beneath the poem’s surfaces. This force is often augmented by the stasis of counter-meanings created by sliding syntax. An integral part of the experience of this book is the way that through the deceptive sparseness of the sequences this desire accumulates, how even through just a third of the book it comes to seem unremitting—

What she would like / If I said / What he doesn’t know / I meant / What I want to know / If you were listening / You want to watch me. Some days. / I want you to. Watch me. / I don’t know how / I could not / you not whispering / me, not whispered / we could, we could…and soon (10,12,13, 20, 21, 25, 26, 29).

In the work of many classic devotional poets contact with the divine is identified as grace. The great irony which is the engine for the twisting and turning of these poems, the constant proposal and setting aside of simile and metaphor, is that one of the rewards of grace is certitude but certitude is also one of the preconditions required to attain grace. Because one writes, one is not in contact, one is not certain—what one writes must of course be provisional, seeking to make the reader aware of its own representational strategies and limitations. It is precisely because Intervening Absence builds a highly provisional world—one where the satisfaction of sight is not complete because sight is not contact, a world of If/Thens, I want/I can’t—that it remains imminently re-readable. This is an incipient, wakeful debut collection, one that always leads through its various paths to a something that radiates force:

Though it should be here
Though it should be still
Opening and closing the space between / Dwelling
in the dark
As we should (Intervening Absence)

2 responses to “DEVOTION AND PROVISION: Joseph Hall on Carrie Olivia Adams’ Intervening Absence

  1. Pingback: Intervening Absence? Yes. « Pigafetta, Poetry, and Painkillers

  2. this is a gorgeous review. i’m definitely going to check this title out. strong work
    nick demske