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
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.