Circumstances Un-Embellished or Prettified: Larry O. Dean on Richard Carr’s Mister Martini


mister martini

Mister Martini, Richard Carr, University of North Texas Press

(the poems quoted have had their original format altered)

Alcohol and writers have a longstanding association with each other. Some deify what they perceive as the transformative power booze has over wordsmiths, arguing that Charles Bukowski wouldn’t have been Bukowski without the omnipresent six-packs or Dylan Thomas less Thomas-like if he’d never set foot in the pubs of Swansea or Mumbles. And what about Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud’s extreme absinthe joneses? Would their oeuvres remain so resonant sans la fée verte?

Richard Carr has the necessary cred to tackle such a topic. His careers have alternated between white collar academic gigs and the computer industry, but as many moon manager of a Toledo, Ohio tavern, he unquestionably has witnessed alcohol’s multifarious mood enhancements from the standpoint of a clinical observer—from the first tentative toasts of celebrants to the lugubrious last calls of inveterate inebriates. It is such hands-on interaction that informs and measures the poetic proof in these particular pages, though in Carr’s published work overall there is an affinity for the tragic, for circumstances un-embellished or prettified, yet rendered with precision—it’s a pitiless, non-naval gazing method that is disquieting, focused, and tranquilized for our inspection.

Amazingly, this is Carr’s fourth full-length book in the last two years; three won separate national awards—Honey, the Gival Press Poetry Award; Ace, the Washington Prize; and Mister Martini, the Vassar Miller Prize. He also has two chapbooks to his credit. Where the origin of Carr’s seemingly sudden outpouring of work can be traced to is less astonishing than the awards in recognition of it; rarely, if ever, has a poet made such an acknowledged and accredited splash.

Mister Martini follows the arc of a father-son relationship, starting with the son’s nascent comprehension of that kinship’s defining details:
My father was an inventor of martinis.
He acquired archaic languages,
collected Renaissance textiles.
But mostly he made martinis.

He worked at night in a closed room.
Carr’s language is plainspoken, a mixture of the factual and the fatalistic. He fluctuates between the unadorned logic of a small child, and the more refined vocabulary of an aware adult. Following each bare-boned poem are recipes that mirror—as well as amplify—the preceding verse:
Martini chilled among purple crocuses,
served with two drops of spring snow
gathered from the petals.
These chiming counterparts are Mister Martini’s most unique conceit. Initially I found myself wondering if it might not work as well, or even better without them? However, that query evaporates into comparisons of apples and oranges; like father and son, each sectioned poem is tensely twinned, intertwined by bloodline. Each could be separated and perhaps perceived as well as enjoyed as distinct works. Yet it is Carr’s careful pairing that gives every poem its bitter tang. These are not poems about father, son, but rather father and son as a single, fused unit of disharmonious accord.

He shifts from the personal to the objective deftly:
In the house bearded with ivy,
there was a man with him.
I turned on the television and listened,
slouching in the slack-jawed yoga of boyhood

as the pushing and shoving of their tussle
shook the wall.

§

Martini with a granule of sugar
submerged in the taut liquid,
an alien sentience

suspended
in the conic space of its vessel.
The house, “bearded with ivy,” is not so much a home as a hirsute presence unto itself, as unpredictable and untamed as the unnamed person, “pushing and shoving” Carr’s father with intoxicate abandon, the young author blotting out the fracas with television noise, yet inquisitive still, “slouching in the slack-jawed yoga of boyhood.” Complementing those two stanzas is the martini mix which follows, offering an impressionistic take on the situation—the boy Carr “a granule of sugar / submerged in the taut liquid,” adolescence suspended in the depths of a troubled home dynamic. A bit later, the genetic as well as generational commonality is made explicit:
On a summer day in the park,
when he was not old and I was not young,
we leaned over the rail of the footbridge
and looked into the green lagoon,

our faces rippling together.
Time ceases to matter as measurer here; father and son are frozen in the moment, personalities and proclivities merging. The instant is almost joyous if not tempered by narcissistic providence—“we leaned over the rail of the footbridge.” What’s less safe, the solidity of that rail or the durability of paternal bonds? That this is one of the more optimistic images of family ties in Mister Martini is telling.

Inevitably, things take a turn for the even-worse. Carr is merciless to both parties:
Every time he went into the hospital
I wanted to pull the plug,
let his eyes stare up at the ceiling forever,
his mouth hang open in a question.
The next poem in sequence is even more harrowing, as well as self-incriminating:
It was murder-suicide:
we both wanted him dead.
But neither of us could do it.
We clung to the material world—

our hats, our shoes—
doubting there was anything else.
We clung to each other.
By extension, father and son are as much things as what they crave—though there is little truly covetous in their microcosmic world. In alternate versions of their story, the sanctuary offered by the promise of “each other” in the final denouement would be life-affirming. Here, it’s purely solipsistic.

To Carr’s credit, Mister Martini’s chronology may drift, yet the push and pull between points in time never feels false or ostentatious. Rather than building to a climax, its poems creep inexorably toward a doomed denouement. The lives it examines, and the manner in which those lives are conveyed to the reader, can be sipped tentatively or slammed back and swallowed in a single jolt.

No Fish-Out-of-Water Sequence: Larry O. Dean reviews Philip Dacey’s The New York Postcard Sonnets


 

The New York Postcard Sonnets, Philip Dacey, Rain Mountain Press

 

The subtitle of Philip Dacey’s fun little book is “A Midwesterner Moves to Manhattan,” but as he explains by way of introduction his New York-born mother took him along on annual trips to the city. For a summer in 1963, the just-married author lived in Barnard’s dormitory before shipping out to do Peace Corps work in Nigeria and he made several jaunts on his own as well, prior to moving to Manhattan in 2004. So this is no fish-out-of-water sequence, but instead a rapturous and clear-eyed assessment of the city’s virtues, as well as some of its vices.

 

Key to The New York Postcard Sonnets success is the fact that Dacey eschews adhering strictly to form. One working definition of sonnet would be a fourteen line poem, usually in iambic pentameter, consisting of an octave (eight line stanza) and a sestet (six line stanza). Any writer worth his or her authorial salt knows how hard it is to write smoothly and comfortably in forms, and more so, that sometimes the idea being written about becomes more important, and therefore more vital than the restrictive form allows. In those instances, it’s time to either abandon the poem completely as a capital-S Sonnet, or bend the rules and let it stand as is. Happily, and wisely, Dacey chooses the latter.

 

Dacey is well aware of time here. He lived and taught in Minnesota for 35 years. Like a vacationer eying the calendar, he counts the days in a new and invigorating environment scrupulously. But unlike a mere tourist, his New York adventure has no expiration date:

First month. Have seen no snowmobiles or rats.

Noise? Deep in Central Park, the squeak of swings.

Curt locals? Who cares? At least they’re Democrats.

On subways, furs and sweats, and everything

from saxophones to shovels, bongos, bikes.

A city short on public johns, but not Irish bars.

Dogwalkers here are pros and make good bucks

walking fistfuls of four-legged movie stars.

Drivers believe in horns. On New Year’s Eve,

Broadway’s thick with taxis, limos, cop cars.

People-watching’s prime in this human hive:

old woman with cellphone, chewing on a cigar.

The great dead on my shelves, the living out

my aerie’s windows, the pageant of the street. (16)

A four-week transplant, Dacey already has a feel for the cityits rhythms, oddities, sounds and supplications. He addresses the concerns of more parochially-minded peers“At least they’re Democrats”not by scolding or mockery but through simple illustration. Things are what they are, to the delight and detriment of those who choose Manhattan as their stomping ground: the squeak of swings, plenitude of Irish pubs, choke of traffic backed up on Broadway; mink stoles and sweatpants, side-by-side on the MTA. Nobody bats an eye, but it’s up to a poet of Dacey’s caliber to put those disparate images into perspective. He reflects later:

My one-year New York anniversary.

How sum it up? I’m still on honeymoon.

Midwesterner, I came here not to be

a New Yorker, but just learn how to cope like one. (36)

 

Another key to Dacey’s success is his humility. He may well be keenly attuned, open and receptive to his urban environment, but he’s no poseur, assuming East Village hipster patois, or the cocky posture of a borough lifer. Still a Midwesterner, and with all the baggage that admission brings, he’s eager to expand his palette, opening himself up to his adopted home town’s influences, both as poet and citizen. He continues:

I’ve succeeded too well, become the typical

parochial resident: each neighborhood’s

a small city, self-sufficient, and I stay whole

weeks at a time in mine, happily burrowed. (36)

Dacey’s sonnets are each also like “a small city, self-sufficient.” He doesn’t exceed his grasp because with these poems, the reach is determined by the subject matter, and how much may be explicated in fourteen lines. He accomplishes an awful lot, with so little.

 

Recurring subjects in The New York Postcard Sonnets include Juilliard, “a fifteen minute walk away” from home, where Dacey’s “in music heaven” (20) because of all the free concerts, and overheard remarks from fellow Manhattanites, which he more or less records verbatim, grouped irregularly bythe day he heard them? Neighborhoods? These statements do give a kaleidoscopic dim sum of the city’s various voices, but they are among the book’s least arresting poems; spaced throughout its pages, they’re like little breathers between the moments where Dacey as observer and eventual recorder zeros in on a particular subject matter such as his sonnets on other writers. Perhaps the best, and most New York-centric, is #18:

Within a minute, the dermatologist,

Noah Scheinfeld, has examined a mole

on my back and put my worried mind to rest.

Then he eyes my book, a bio of Robert Lowell.

 

“Writers,” he says, “are hard to live with. Ted

and Sylvia combusted. Or take Zelda and F. Scott.”

I quote Eliot: “Writers are shits.” “Pound edited

Eliot to fame. But I think Four Quartets

 

is a masterpiece.” And Prufrock?” As if on cue,

he recites line after line till halfway through

he laughs, rising: “But I really have to go

enough talk of moles and Michelangelo.”

 

I thank him for the impromptu seminar:

“I’ll get a rash, Doc, and come back for more.” (33)

 

What a marvelous miniaturization of what it is that makes New York so endearing as both place and idea for where else may one converse wittily with their dermatologist (!) about Plath, Hughes, Fitzgerald, and Eliot? Dacey’s anecdote sounds almost too good to be true, but I don’t doubt a word of it, or at least the veracity of the encounter itself. If Dacey has fudged the language a little to fit the sonnet’s paradigm, I don’t see it, nor do I hear it. There in a nutshell is what makes The New York Postcard Sonnets such a great read.

Place Neither Vilified nor Sanctified: Larry O. Dean on Karen Harryman’s Auto Mechanic’s Daughter


Auto Mechanic’s Daughter, Karen Harryman, Black Goat/Akashic Press

 

Akashic’s independent Black Goat imprint espouses a commitment to well-crafted poetry with a focus on experimental and/or thematically challenging work. The series also aims to give voice to underrepresented groups such as women. Karen Harryman’s Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is indeed skilfully crafted, but far from any definition of experimental. What it is, simply, is beautifully written, and as solid a debut as I’ve read in some time.

 

Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is broken into four sections, examining Harryman’s Kentucky roots as well as her adopted southern California. In For Some Reason, an early entry in the book, time and memory elide, the poem’s creation sparked by a serendipitous image:

For some reason

when I see the young mother

underneath the mercado sign

pushing a stroller on Alvarado Street

and her older daughter, a dark cloud

sulking behind her,

I think about the time my mother

slapped me hard on the cheek

and I slapped her back. (22)

I like how Harryman declines to find or clarify a definite answer as to where her mind takes her—“for some reason”—and then us, as readers; we certainly benefit from her willful meandering. Imagine that opening line excised—the poem would be more declarative, and less ruminative. From this quiet, but evocative beginning, Harryman slips back into a reverie of her own troubled past, this mother-daughter dynamic glimpsed on a busy Los Angeles boulevard igniting multiple sensory reactions:

            I was sitting on the lip

of the claw-foot tub. I remember

imprints of brown and yellow seashells

on the linoleum, the green and white flowers

of the threadbare towel wrapped around her head.

How when my own hand sprang back at her,

I felt like we’d jumped

off a wall together, too high,

like there was no way we’d land in one piece,

no way we’d walk away from this one. (22)

 

Her sense of place and detail is fine-tuned, yet deceptively nonchalant—the claw-foot tub, with its seashell motif, and mom’s shabby flower-pattern towel paint a picture of domestic regularity disrupted by the casual violence of mother on daughter, and daughter in return. Harryman describes her reaction as impersonal—“my own hand sprang back at her”—as if she had no choice in the matter, as if the hand itself was the instrument of recompense, acting on its own volition. Psychologically, she disassociates herself from the act, at least in the past, but not its consequences, which continue to haunt her in the present. For Some Reason concludes on a note on contrition:

I remember everything,

how tired she looked,

the swollen rims of her eyes

already reddening with tears, everything,

except why we had argued,

what I had wanted

that she couldn’t give. (22-23)

 

The title poem again scrutinizes familial relationships. Harryman’s sense of place is assured, but her tone is carefully illusive:

Evenings after dinner, after dishes,

when she’s looking up, searching for a word like fulcrum

to describe the night sky resting, with its few bright stars,

on the palm trees in her front yard,

she remembers greasy Saturdays

 

in the shop on Parker Street,

the bundles of red and blue rags, the pans

of black liquid pushed to the wall, soot clouds rising

from the old sofa worn to the color of flushed midnight. (26)

 

The segue from meditative state to unctuous reality is abrupt, but cautiously designed. Auto Mechanic’s Daughter begins much the same as For Some Reason, with an image or situation opening the door to memory and memorializing, its impetus lying in the main character’s mental deliberation of the word fulcrum, which itself becomes the fulcrum for a different poem than she is writing, an elegy to the titular father. As the poem continues, it rewinds even further into the past, resolving surprisingly as well as poignantly:

She barely knew him then, her mother’s boyfriend

hunched under the hood of a Ford. At closing time

he took off his cap, loosened his ponytail.

 

Lifting her to the rusted fender, he said, Spark plug,

carburetor, intake valve. He said, Filter, fluid,

radiator, hose. He pointed to her heart, said, Oil

is the blood. Oil is the blood, like it meant everything.

Pointed to her heart like the world could balance there. (26-27)

 

Balance is what Harryman achieves in Auto Mechanic’s Daughterbetween the emotional components, which give these poems their juice, and the minute details, which make them imagistically interesting. The book’s milieu vacillates between the working class south and modern day California, but one of Harryman’s easily underestimated strengths is that neither place is vilified nor sanctified. Consider The Vista:

In our new neighborhood

we have one of those restored movie houses

that shows first-run movies, the best

of the past and the present, digital sound,

great popcorn and rows spaced wide enough

to drive a golf cart through.

The red velvet seats, the baroque likenesses

of pharaohs and goddesses under-lit

by geometric sconces—

it’s so beautiful Kirk doesn’t bristle

when the stranger’s kids in the front row

become restless, run up and down the aisles,

chase each other through the rows.

When the lights dim, he grips my knee,

a twinkly-eyed boy again, remembering

the first time he saw a light saber.

We’ve been together six years.

Every day is better than the last.

Outside, underneath the marquee,

Sunset Boulevard is all neon and streetlights.

There is a blue bicycle chained to a rack.

It has pinstriped fenders,

a wide wicker basket with plastic flowers.

I want to touch it. I want to touch everything

to know it’s real. (48)

 

LA is the movie capital of the world, but the poem doesn’t devolve into the myth of Los Angeles just because Harryman is writing about “one of those restored movie houses/ that shows first-run movies, the best/ of the past and the present.” That would be too easy. Such a venue is more common in big cities, but you don’t have to live in one, or some place like it to picture it through Harryman’s poetry. What she wants us to take away from The Vista is not merely a deft depiction of this architectural gem, but the thoughts and feelings of the people plopped down in its wide aisles and seats, clutching boxes of “great popcorn,” Harryman included. “Every day is better than the last,” she says, and that realization, for her, is rooted in the ephemeral as well as the physical—the blue bike, with its “pinstriped fenders…wide wicker basket with plastic flowers.” It’s not enough to see it all—one must “touch everything/ to know it’s real.” The poems of Auto Mechanic’s Daughter take us along on various journeys where it’s not just the destination that’s important, or the trip, but both.