To be born is to experience a kind of violence. To be born is to enter the world, a pact to live among and beside violence, to experience violence, and to inflict violence. In Julie Carr’s Sawtooth Prize-winning book, 100 Notes On Violence, she writes of a dream in which she and her son kill themselves with a letter opener through the temple. When death doesn’t come, Carr writes:
There was a gun and I asked him to pass it to me so I could speed things up. But holding the gun to the back of my head I was suddenly overcome with remorse. I put the gun down and ran my fingers through his hair, now wet with warm blood. Oh Benjamin, what have we done? Is the world not good enough for us?
This stunning, absurd question frames Carr’s 100 Notes. The notion that we humans are somehow ‘deserving’ of a more just and peaceful world is of course faulty. But how not to wish it when the world is so unbearably terrible, when the violence contained within it is at times so tremendously personal, and at the same time so insanely beyond individual control? How not to hide one’s eyes, to look askance, to circle around whatever horrors we engender day after day? Is this why we are violent then, out of some rage at the world—the glorious, inexplicable, not-good-enough world? Is violence escapable or inherent?
Carr doesn’t answer these (or any other) questions; instead she dwells in the complexity. Instead she writes, “then, just as I feared, violence began to seem banal.” And later, “Some poems on the table make me sick.” And still later, the word “worthless,” on an otherwise blank page. She wrestles with writing about violence (“[b]ecause I cannot write the words “school shootings” into the little search box”). She hovers around her subject, keeps it at a distance that is at times frustrating because it feels fearful of getting too close. That fear is so closely tied to violence is inevitable; perhaps infinitely skating around the twin pillars of violence and fear is as apt a metaphor as any for this intentionally mostly-arm’s-length read. Perhaps nothing is so unknowable as our human capacity for violence, and it is to Carr’s credit that she doesn’t try to know it as much as acknowledge its many facets.
Indeed, instead of solving the question of violence, 100 Notes mirrors the way we act upon violence in the world. Carr illustrates just how deeply rooted is violence in us with lines that read like addiction: “Creator, get me open, get me bloomed and / get me wasted.” Lines that blur animal and human, firearm and arm, desire and action: “I want a horse and I am a horse. …I want a horse and I am a horse. …I want one and I am one. …Want, am.” The endlessly human desire is for our solutions to be solids instead of liquids in which something bitter is diluted, dissolved, dis-solved.
At times, Carr skates into the dangerous territory of first-hand knowledge. I am reminded of the Cid Corman poem, “enuresis” in which he writes, “[t]error is not – Ed – / sitting in one’s piss…” and ends:
… Terror? That was
and always will be
Mother cursing Dad
and there there I am
alone in that night
hearing that door slam.
When Carr’s poems sit in their own terrified piss, it isn’t for comfort, as Corman’s child does, but because they want to articulate the world through experience of violence. They want to, and—childlike—they can’t. Their stuttering and their silences say the unsayable:
She’s stilled in her bath
A nine-year-old male
She left to starve
The baby cries in her damp
locked in their rocking their bouncy chunky—I might have—
whose is the foot that—broadens—wide the sky don’t—be absurd I—
or the endless line, “[b]ut I have a hard time—” (which comes at the end of an email Carr quotes in which a man recounts the bludgeoning of his ex-girlfriend’s parents by their son).
In writing around violence, Carr writes around the culture of acceptance and propagation, of erasure, of “…this TV and the other TV and the other TV and the light: / soft and white.” She writes around the violence of speech (“wire-breath”), and the violence of desire, the propagation of violence:
She slapped me and I was pleased.
He took me by the arms and shook me.
I called him a prick and a loser.
I looked at my child’s face and I slapped it.
“The book about violence,” Carr writes, “must be a book of quotations. / For everyone speaks about violence. / Is a book of memories, for everyone’s life is riddled.” Her wide use of quotation, from poet and email exchange, news and webpage confirms that violence is everyone’s story. Yet it seems the story being told is always her (our) own. Carr writes:
In defense I imagined my future children, how well I would love them, how calm I would be. In fact, I am not calm. But it is true that they remain the reason I am writing this, the reason I am afraid to write this, and the reason that writing this cannot be the only activity within any day that matters.
Our own story, then, is a secret one. Wherein violence happens in the world, yes, but more terrifyingly, as Corman’s poem expresses, in the home. More terrifying because the world isn’t a place we expect to be safe. The myth of the home, on the other hand—when that veil of safety is broken, we are broken:
Out of the cradle endlessly—shameful—out of the rocking the mocking-bird’s throat—bludgeoned the musical, the musical shuttle—out of the parents the child, from bed….
In the end, this private fear of mother inflicting violence on child is mitigated somewhat by the presence of the Beloved, by the child him-/herself. “Is beloved,” she writes, “more thought than said … is sound to speak to sing to utter to cry is this to cry is this is this[.]”
Or, in the kaleidoscopic way one comes to know this disturbingly beautiful book, the end could be simply Carr quoting Jean-Luc Nancy: “There is no place outside of the world.”
Ellen Welcker is the author of The Botanical Garden, forthcoming in fall 2010 from Astrophil Press. She has recent poems in Mudlark and Shampoo. She lives in Seattle.