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In her first book, Mead: an Epithalamion (2004), Julie Carr employed marriage as both a theme and as the starting point for her poetic inquiries into relation and interconnection. Her second book, Equivocal (2007), goes a step farther in its scope, exploring specifically the roles and bonds of mother and child, and of child-becoming-mother, as well as opening into questions of family, history, and identity. In this investigation, Carr seeks to confront issues of an individual’s responsibility to others, whether they be a child, parent, spouse, or the world itself. “What prepares me for this particular pain,” she asks, setting the book’s tone, “the pain of leaving things as they are — /of taking them as they are?”
The four interrelated sequences of Equivocal — “Wrought,” “Letter Box,” “Eleven Odes,” and the final sequence, also called “Equivocal” — take relation as their subject as well as their formal-procedural principle, weaving together disparate realms of discourse, from the poetic, linguistic, and philosophic to the familial, autobiographical, and domestic. In the prose-poetic section of the “Equivocal” series called “Illiadic Familias,” Carr splices lines from Homer’s epic into a presentation of the speaker’s children fighting in the back seat of the car, while drawing parallels the speaker’s mother’s experience living during the Vietnam War and her own experience of current global conflicts:
My mother used to cry in the car while driving. This was terrifying to me in the back seat. Not only was she responsible for my safety, but I could not see her face. And now I cry in the car while driving. My children behind me fight over who gets to hold the twist-tie. This is a particularly deadly fight.
She used to say, It was not politics, what did I care about politics? Is there any mortal left on the wide earth who will still declare to the immortals his mind and its purpose? This is the famous fierceness of mothers. We do not want to listen to these children because it will distract us from what makes us.
This relation of the cyclic to “what makes us” recurs (properly) throughout Equivocal, beginning with the book’s epigraph from Coleridge: “the quiet circle in which Change and Permanence co-exist, not by combination or juxtaposition, but by an absolute annihilation of difference.” For Carr, this “absolute annihilation of difference” — the daughter-becoming-mother presented here as the model of (individual) change and (cyclic, historical, biological) permanence — posits a radical negative capability in which the self may indeed be “nothing.” As shown in “Time Paper,” a section of the “Wrought” sequence, this openness to the uncertainty of events, to the potential nothingness of self, is lodged in the everyday, domestic and, ultimately, in one’s relationship to others:
I am nothing, writes Pessoa, I am the extended commentary
on a book that doesn’t exist.
In the center of me is a vortex like the crawlspace
in a house never built.
The morning comes according to its numbers, which means it is
safe to rise.
The family that shares my DNA, my name, and in some cases
my memory, is getting out of bed, peeing, putting on slippers,
walking out for the paper, beginning to play.
Emerson says the private thought is the universal
but it must never be construed as the universal
lest we kill its difference.
But if such negative capability implies a state of “taking [things] as they are,” however painful that may be, Carr’s practice refuses a passive relation to the world (that is, of “leaving things as they are” — my italics). It entails, rather, a responsibility to engage with the world and, indeed, to be a “maker” of it — even as it is making us. Being a maker implies both an interpretive and a creative function, modeled throughout Equivocal, as an imaginative — even childlike — interaction with the world. It is the poetics of the gerund, of the liminal noun-verb: of “thinking,” “moving,” “standing,” of “[the] sick child in his parents’ bed making the plastic things talk.” As Carr notes in “Wrought Gerund,” this “making things talk” is itself a kind of survival technique: “Gerund: from gerundus or gerere — /to bear, to carry on.”
This interpretive-creative model of engagement with the world is best expressed in the “Letter Box” sequence. As Carr discusses in the book’s front matter,
The untitled lyrics in “Letter Box” were made with the help of a series of quarter-inch cubes (as pictured on the cover) constructed by the artist Elizabeth Lewis. Each cube is painted on four sides with one of the letters of the alphabet; the other two sides bear an image of an object that begins with that letter. Q: queen and question mark. M: moon, Marilyn Monroe.
It is, in short, Carr’s imaginative interaction with these blocks that produces lyrics such as the first section of “Letter Box,” with its stunning movement among playful, philosophic, and elegiac registers:
A tree looks
like the letter T
which is what it represents.
The moon appears to be backward
but only mimics a cat.
The duck might be talking on the phone
and will have to be turned over.
I’ve decided to remove the king
but doing this leaves a hole I cannot fill.
Examining the hole with my finger disrupts the painting
and now within, the characters weep.
Carr’s poetic animation of the letter blocks — the putting-into-relation of sign and signified, of tree and T, moon and cat — provides the reader with a model for engaging her disjunctive, splicing poetics, taking the disparate images and discourses the poet presents and imaginatively constructing them into a meaningful whole or gestalt. In this sense it is the “wrought” nature of her work (clearly influenced by Objectivist poetics, particularly Oppen’s) that in turn models an imaginative co-creation of reality, a way of bringing the contradictory and disparate aspects of the world into coherence, if not to beauty.
“Gaze at an ordinary object, I instruct my children,” Carr writes, “let’s see if it transforms before your eyes//into a portal to the eternal.” While this imaginative engagement with the ordinary object may result in “a portal to the eternal,” it’s the uncertainty — or the equivocality — of the “let’s see,” with its simultaneous sense of uncertainty and hope, that chimes best with Carr’s book as a whole. “In the logic of becoming unmade, I make myself a mother,” Carr writes, employing poetry “to find the name of love, the definition of a maker.” Lyric and constructivist, investigative and synthetic, with its multiple tones and discourses Equivocal works to express the paradoxes of being in the world, of contending with the multiplicity of roles one performs in becoming — or un-becoming — whatever “oneself” may be.
Andy Frazee is a PhD student in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His reviews have appeared in Boston Review, Verse, Word For/Word, and elsewhere. His poetry chapbook, That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed By Flood, was selected by Dan Beachy-Quick as the winner of the New American Press chapbook contest, and is forthcoming in 2009.