CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Think Tank" by Julie Carr

Think Tank by Julie Carr
Reviewed by Davy Knittle

Think Tank, Julie Carr’s sixth book, is as much a repository for policy as it is a receptacle for recreational submerging. It’s interested in the procedures of living in a way that’s so basic it’s hard to see and write about, where the work of a think tank is to step back to think about how best to participate, and what kinds of structure that participation needs. The work of a dunk tank, arrived at by association that the book invites, is to reverse standard power structures in the interest of play, to submit the school principal to goggles, send her falling into a small pool. Play and theory are both ways to defamilarize, work the book does as a way to get closer to its familiars.

The work, which I read as one long poem in segments, is interested in the average day and the emblematic one. It’s a book that’s interested in an ontology synthesized from the offhanded parts of the day, which affords the work a casual intensity. Carr writes: “Do the average citizens understand the longing of rain, / the blood that turns Saturday to Sunday, the body turning a certain corner from disgust to desire and back again” (46). The speaker is separate from the “average citizen” even while she does average things, notes an average longing. Blood is what turns the day over, and the body moves as the day does, where the day is anecdotal and theoretical at once.

The themes of the book are subsets of its collaged ontology. Being a self includes being an observer in the same breath as being a mother. It remembers a childhood while witnessing and hearing about the childhoods of others. When Carr speaks directly to the goals of the project, she writes: “I began thinking this random document onto my computer / The best way I can capture events is by trying to resurrect the concept of / the beautiful” (53)

The book’s moments are fragmentary, unassembled, and this is how Carr takes up the project of capturing events. The poems’ snapshots are resurrections of “the beautiful”:  quick sketches that move from the visible to the speaker’s affective response, and which locate a physical world as well as a figurative one.

Carr writes: “Sun goes down over duck pond / Like the low roar of the mower under storm clouds, with me it’s like / this it’s like perfect it’s like // sleeping in the body of a bird” (67) Turning is, Carr reminds us, the way thoughts move, a cue they take in the book from what poems do, turning in their tenor once or twice, and turning over from line to line. Carr’s fragments often diminish beyond their vanishing points. Carr’s work in Think Tank is wildly dynamic, shifting scale from sky to a bird’s body, from outside the body to deeply within it.

It’s the bodies of children that occasion much of the book’s dynamic range. It often feels, as the book considers children, that the poem moves like a child, alternately frenetic and with prismatic care, surfacing against the whole world or being absorbed into one small fragment: “A child jumps from the calendar, moves into the discontinuous scheme / Fluid-fate / Who notices the mute snow’s stamina or the drama of numbers / in the too bright light by the bed” (56) What’s especially lovely about Think Tank is that it’s committed to time being as tactile as physicality. A child jumps from the calendar, snow has stamina, numbers have drama, all of which are attended to by an absent person (“who notices”) and illuminated in “the too bright light by the bed.” In absorbing the figurative into the book’s firmly quotidian physical world, the poem advocates for the normalcy of conceptual grappling. Ontology is as basic as the weather to Carr. What it means to be alive is inherent in recording what children say and do. The distortions Carr creates to situate the conceptual in the physical allow the book to be gracefully, quietly gorgeous, with a logic so plain and true it’s hard to say how right its gestures are, gestures that go outside what the book can name to what it knows it cannot.

Even so, the poem insists on being a record: “I’m wishing for gardens and salty stars without context -- / but that’s far too extravagant – and then the phone rings with a light of / its own // Fog returns     a catalogue / Eleven-year-olds in fatigues for the first time run / from home, home, dear Denver” (6)

The gestural nature of the poem feels both like a distillation and a shorthand. Fog is a catalogue. The phone has light, where either it lights up or its sound registers as a kind of brightness. The speaker wishes for physical entities “without context,” where it’s unclear whether it’s that wish or the items wished for that makes them “far too extravagant.” “Eleven year-olds” wear fatigues, possibly to hunt and blend in, possibly to emulate a militarism that their clothing connotes, possibly to run away from home, possibly to leave the city alone for the first time. The poem, like the state of observing and having children that is its locus, considers each moment as though its detail, embedded in time, communicated something essential about being human in the abstract.

Children in the poem are not only embedded in the sites of ontological questioning, they’re central to its mechanics: “Loved nothing so much as a spot on his head / as the valve in my wet / snowbound / day” (10). Here, the love of another person, perhaps a baby figured by its fontanel, is the syntactic pair of the weather’s hardware, where a valve in a snowbound day might let the day in and usher it out. Children, in the poem, are not only what the movement of the poem looks to emulate but the model for considering how its modes of thinking and seeing work together.

For all that it considers the responsibilities, practicalities and ethics of being a parent, Think Tank refuses to be a book about motherhood. Carr advocates, in the poem, for a speaker who can scale beyond the range of systems that govern her life, all the better to see them with, and to hold onto that seeing while they explore what else its circumstances afford:  “Penetrate the eco / nomical mire // Or take ‘the real’ and shrink it,” she writes. “But what’s the point of being a mother if that’s all you get to do?” (44)


About the Author:
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta, 2010), RAG (Omnidawn, 2014), and Think Tank (Solid Objects, 2015). She has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including The Sawtooth Poetry Prize, and The National Poetry Series. Her co-translations of Apollinaire and contemporary French poet, Leslie Kaplan have been published in Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere, and a chapbook of selections from Kaplan’s “Excess-The Factory” has recently been released by Commune Editions. Carr was a 2011-12 NEA fellow. Her work has been anthologized widely, including in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. She is the co-founder of Counterpath Press, teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and lives in Denver.

About the Reviewer:
Davy Knittle's reviews and poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Fence, Jacket2, Denver Quarterly, and Iowa Review. His first chapbook, cyclorama, was released by The Operating System in April. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is a PhD candidate in English at Penn.