On Not Answering the Question: Ellen Welcker on 100 Notes on Violence by Julie Carr


100 Notes on Violence, Julie Carr, Ahsahta Press, 2009

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

or:

locked in their rocking their bouncy chunky—I might have—
whose is the foot that—broadens—wide the sky don’t—be absurd I—
almost hurt

her

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.

Trillions & Trillions of Conflicting Thoughts: A Letter to Meg Hamill from Ellen Welcker


meg hamill

Trillions & Trillions of Heartbeats, Meg Hamill, Resonant Books

Meg Hamill it is difficult, so very difficult, to praise and lament. I have just read Trillions & Trillions of Heartbeats, Meg Hamill, your book, and I read in the introduction that the poems in this book “allow all that is happening to live simply within these poems, unclouded by [your] own guilt, fear, blame, or judgment”; that they are “written from the perspective that all is unimaginably well, and…at the same time not well at all” (Introduction).

And while I believe that I am of no more importance than any other being Meg Hamill I also know, as you do, that I and my species are negatively affecting all of the beings in the web. And so it is difficult, Meg Hamill, so very difficult, to praise and lament. It is difficult not to feel angry, despairing, hopeless, helpless, and also powerful, effective, capable, dynamic and also sentimental, lustful, tender, worshipful. It is so difficult not to be caught (Lake Victorian Chichlids), in trillions and trillions of conflicting thoughts and emotions, Meg Hamill, and I think this is called being human.

Meg Hamill yours is not a positionless book, your book is naming what we inhabitants of Earth are collectively losing and what we have lost and what we will continue to lose. But Meg Hamill the 23 species in your book have not been misplaced in another pocket of the web. They have not been lost, and I worry that when we wonder if it is “actually lovely to feel that free” (Cascade Funnelweb Spider), if we are sliding dangerously into an allowance of our species to carry on with our reckless gambling away of other species’ existences. I would like to find some balance between the language that recognizes the strong threads that spread “like a blanket stitching us to it over the geography of wherever we happen to be living” (Banded Rail of Chatham Island) and a language that both acknowledges and acts upon the fact that loss is not happening so much as our species is making it happen. And Meg Hamill I wish you would write about that.

Meg Hamill I fear that this letter is just the rant that is in my head right now, and I know that it is not your responsibility alone to write the book that I wish this were. It is just when I read a book that is almost the book I am dreaming of, I wish all the harder for it. And I know from looking at your website Meg Hamill that you are actively working to slow the human devastation-mobile. Meg Hamill why is your writing so gentle Meg Hamill?

There is a sickness in some of our heartbeats that urges us to start pulling as fast as we can with all of the strength in our bodies and minds on the disasters we are creating in order to just barely not fall off the edge of our life, our collective life, the one without all the gaping holes in it (Western Black Rhinocerous). I worry that it is the stepping back and observing “the world blowing through [us]” (Przewalski’s Horse), that is passively responsible for the continuation of our species’ global ruination.

Meg Hamill is this just the rant that is in my head? Or are we having a conversation? Do you think the act of naming is audacious and doomed Meg Hamill? I am starting to wonder if naming is only a beginning, if naming is a prayer I say to myself, in order to begin the writing or the saying that matters. I am wondering about all of us who seem to be making sad lists of things and I think sometimes that we are only litanizing our deaths and it is either too late for that or not late enough. But Meg Hamill I also think saying gives a meaning particular to the not-lumping-in with everything else—intentionally, eachly, with our breath and of the air that we share, and that is what you and others are doing and what I am also trying to do.

Meg Hamill your name is the kind of name that feels and sounds like a friend name so Meg Hamill I feel I can say all of this to you. Your words are rushing into me and passing through me and they are dimpling the blanket of time (Lesser Bilby). They are making me get all worked up again about the “everything-we-have-already-seen” and the “everything-we-know-to-be-true” (White-Fin Dolphin). I am changed by everything.

Meg Hamill I cannot observe for feeling sometimes. I cannot document for the sickness in some of my heartbeats and neither can you Meg Hamill. So I would like to ask you about the way you “see the world as a miracle and then it is, the way [you] see the world with a certain blandness, and immediately, so it is” (Sumatran Rabbit). These things are not opposites and it makes me glad because duality does nothing to mirror the complexity of perception. Meg Hamill when I learned that Bob Dylan was singing lay down on my big brass bed, it didn’t move me the way I was moved when I perceived him singing lay down on my big-ass bed.

So if what you are saying Meg Hamill is that there are trillions and trillions of perceived realities coexisting all the time and therefore how could one perceived reality be right, I agree with you. But at times I feel like what you are saying is that isn’t could be lovely. And that feels very much like a dangerous position of perceived reality. The life in me doesn’t want to be isn’t, and if it doesn’t want to be isn’t then there is necessarily more value in is. Therefore to sing a living thing that isn’t isn’t enough, is it?

There was a time Meg Hamill when I went far away and in that place I thought I was becoming a person not caught in the things of this life but when I came back I remembered how very caught I am. I am both in and of the mess that I love and despair, this mess that I cannot and do not even try to extract myself from.

I would like to emulate your talent for singing “clearly and not through cloudy shrouds of suffering” (Lesser Bilby), for weaving that “is not confusing to the mind” (Llin Island Cloud Rat) for “document[ing] everything becoming something else” (Ivell’s Sea Anemone). I would like to emulate your talent for compassionate hovering and also your ability to dwell in the mud with the Lake Peddler Earthworm. For a moment. While the moment passes. And is gone.

And then again, Meg Hamill, I would like more from you and from me both. Meg Hamill this is a conversation that has no beginning or end and yet I am only just beginning. And all the while we are spinning and things are ending and also things, some things, are just beginning.