Sarah - Of Fragments and Lines, Julie Carr

Coffee House Press, 2010 Review by Noel Thistle Tague

Wallowing in the perpetually cloudy Missoula, Montana, this spring, I found my solace in books. This in itself is not new, but living in a valley that sucks in gray weather and holds it close for weeks is, so the solace was especially meaningful. Two of those books were Julie Carr’s Sarah—of Fragments and Lines and Marina Tsevtaeva’s essays on poetry, collected and translated by Angela Livingstone in Art in the Light of Conscience; this review is about only one of those books, but mine has also been a spring of Russian obsession (again—the weather), so I can’t help but write of one by writing about the other.

In fact, Marina Tsvetaeva did teach me something about what a review should be—and what poetry, in its fullest, most wondrous capacity can be. Her 1922 review of Boris Pasternak’s My Sister Life, “Downpour of Light,” is not only an ecstatic introduction to an extraordinary Revolution-born(e) collection, but a lesson on how to let a book of poems pry open and transform one’s life, how to live with such a book, how to live. Consider: “[Pasternak] is lightning to all experience-burdened skies. (A storm is the sky’s only exhalation, as the sky is the storm’s only chance of being, its sole arena!)” Or this command: “Read it trustingly, without resistance and with utter meekness: it will either sweep you away or it will save you! A simple miracle of trust: go as a tree, a dog, a child, into the rain!” And this prophecy of the book’s power (of poetry’s power!): “And no one will want to shoot himself, and no one will want to shoot at others…”

This last might seem a logical segue to Carr’s previous book 100 Notes on Violence, but right now, we are in the presence of Sarah. Sarah, who—at once named and nameless—haunts the fragments, lines, abstracts and addresses of this most recent collection. In navigating the spaces of conception and dementia, life’s shadowy bookends, Carr puts her faith in form and language—and to great effect. The slippery, the inexpressible, the duplicitous—all of these seem captured, or at least confronted, in these poems. Take “Daylight Abstracts”:

“Now flight, now gift, now speaking of plastics, of rapture of rise. Woke corridored by calendar, woke exhausted in face, spoken of and speaking into thing cold and needing. Needling too.”

In the negation of the ending of one life and memory as another begins, language does not fail; language is, perhaps, the only thing that cannot fail, as etymologies, sound components, syllables, are transformed and multiplied throughout these poems.

Language dazzles—

An election year. O. Dust mites spin on guilt-ridden heat. Dire guilt.

What’s an eye spot? An eye-sore a

sunspot, piss pot

—(and in this, there are echoes of the interests Tsvetaeva took in language in her prose, rendered so well by Livingstone), but it does not overfill the poems. Which is to say that Carr is aware that certain things are inexpressible, respects this, and gives space to this by giving precedence to the components of the poem, rather than the whole. Given the richness, the purposeful craft of Carr’s lines and fragments, made stark by the ineffable white space between and around them, one feels as if at the center of this book there is a void and all of these poems peer into it. Eileen Myles, who selected the book for the National Poetry Series, said, “As a reader I feel included a lot in Julie Carr’s hard and beautiful book.” I feel included, too, because in this book I see an honest, earnest reflection of the way life is experienced—and not limited to carrying a child while watching one’s mother progress through the stages of Alzheimer’s. At the core of our most difficult and our most beautiful experiences, there is the unutterable, threatening to overwhelm, dangerous. And poetry is that thing that allows us to safely look into it.

So there is one thing Sarah—of Fragments and Lines has taught me about the intersection of poetry and life. Carr is, of course, no Tsvetaeva, the phenomenon and circumstance of whom is unrepeatable, but she is a poet to learn from—from pondering the result of giving all to the line to working with the transformative power in language—and her book is one to dwell in on the most overcast days.

--- Julie Carr's previous books are 100 Notes on Violence, published by Ahsahta Press in 2009, Equivocal, published by Alice James Books in 2007, andMead: An Epithalamion, which won the University of Georgia Press's Contemporary Poetry Prize in 2004. Her poems have appeared widely in journals such as Volt, Verse, New American Writing, Parthenon West, Boston Review, Bombay Gin, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, American Letters and Commentary, and Public Space. She also has poems in the anthologies Not for Mothers Only (Fence Books), and The Best American Poetry 2007. She teaches poetry and literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is the co-publisher, with Tim Roberts, of Counterpath Press. --- Noel Thistle Tague was born in Ontario and was raised in the Thousand Islands region of northern New York. Currently, she is pursuing an MFA at the University of Montana where she also teaches composition.