Omnidawn, $17.95 (paper)
Rag, Julie Carr’s fifth book of poetry, is a streaming collection of untitled prose and poem segments. Lines, images, and fragments circulate, alternately recalling and anticipating their reappearance in longer passages. In this continual flux and flow, the book takes on the form and force of a body. But it is not a body in the sense of “a body of work,” which implies the presence of a remote authorial intelligence controlling an accumulation of matter. Rag belies these traces of the dualist schism between mind and body, beginning with the way its streaming elements seem to grow into each other, achieving in their combination a living intelligence. Rag, in this sense, is an organism, composed of multiple interacting systems—sensing, reacting, circulating, digesting, rejecting, signaling.
Carr’s book-as-body speaks: now forthrightly, now obliquely, now in anger, now in love, now in security, now in insecurity. Porous, it receives and sends forth news of the conflux of violence and growth that constitutes our political life in its several interpenetrating scales from the neighborhood to the national.
For Carr, writing is a process of sensing and articulating that is inseparable from bodied experience and from the empathic capacity to imagine and experience the pain of others. A crude form of this empathy underwrites our national addiction to stories of outrage and awe, through which our instincts are amplified into a culture of fear and scorn. But in Carr’s hands, empathy—especially a mother’s empathy—becomes a fine instrument for collecting and measuring the currents of force and energy that course through particular stories.
Taken as a whole, the book has an astonishing physical energy, coursing with movement and electricity. Carr asks, “What else is a line of verse but a casting and recasting of the inside of the body?” Throughout Rag the moving senses of “casting”—throwing a line, assuming a shape, assigning parts to play—adhere to her lines, creating, in their friction, “static on the whip of the day.” In her writing the nervous system meets systems of public language. Carr writes nervous, nerved words.
The stories told in Rag are reported as the writing of a mother. Empathic intensity is linked to the ways a mother’s care, fear, and hope for her child overlay her taking stock of the world, the polis. She has nurtured a being to be sent forth into it:
I think resin into the wine. I mean to speak of the future. The world within her shoulders. A place I am afraid to touch. My child is a lover of music. Buoyant in her pursuit. Of the snow the grasses beneath the snow the treble clef. In this document of my intentions I will create a puppet for my girl. And so I evoke the name of my mother, the name of my childhood friend. I feel as if a residue adhering to a rim. As if I am only reflexive. A melody drawn down from the avenue casts its voluptuous swell against the doors. Doors of the house, fence around the school—higher than any child could climb. One by one the old senators retire, while the youngest girl sits up in bed. A tongue of flame around her head. A near park of meek trees shudders. Sink reason into rhyme. For my mother sleeps chemical and my mother sleeps broken.
The cracked lip of the cup reminds me what I meant when I swore upon the black earth my allegiance.
This passage knits a present-tense account with a register of tragedy and oath characteristic of our oldest stories, with their “black earth” and “tongue of flame.” The book’s first line comes from this old place, a single fragment low on the page: “—from out of the wretched tide through the heat mothers pass—” The following page returns to the contemporary: “I want the narrative of walking to a bus.” In this merging of tenses and registers, Carr shows how the “allegiances” of motherhood are ancient.
This ebb and flow of time mirrors the ebb and flow of place—the America of this book. The precarious nearness of deep-time images to school fences and parks (“a near park of meek trees shudders”) pervades these pages, often in the coupling of scenes of violence with the small details of domestic life. One effect of this nearness is to convey a non-hierarchical understanding of civic experience: it registers civic life as the cost of a culture’s norms upon the bodies of its people in all the spaces they inhabit. Carr reminds us that norms carry their own violence.
Carr attends to power as a physical phenomenon—not a governing center or social contract.
Daily life comes relentlessly close to violence in a dense accumulation of fragmentary stories. Less than thirty pages in, we have already encountered a father who set himself on fire, a friend dying of cancer, the announcement of a boy’s funeral, a woman crying on a plane, another fire, and an accident in which a woman driving an SUV strikes a six-year-old girl. A later passage brings a contemporary instance of violence explicitly close to home:
At 3 in the morning a sound. It was my son gulping water from the faucet. It might have been anyoneThe nine-year-old shot in Arizona is notMine she is mine
Though I have answered your questions about the molestation of children
and have offered a definition of rape
Though I have invented a blue-skinned bath-witch who turns your
bathwater to ice
and a benevolent squirrel who after spying through the window,
spirals down a tree to find yourmother, I have no true gifts beyond the gift of placing the pieces one
beside another all day and all nightuntil you wake up and I yank at your hairWith my brush
In these lines that link a child’s questions about molestation and rape with the quotidian pain of hair brushing and the constructive gift of a mother’s care, Carr writes directly against the idea that we could seal ourselves in safe zones, communities gated by boundaries “higher than any child could climb,” spaces not part of an order whose darkness must be acknowledged.
Acknowledgment, in fact, is often what Carr’s lines ask of us:
My country, said the boy to the girl, likes its children shot through
My country, said the girl to the boy, likes its women weighted or flayed
This sense of the bodied costs of belonging reminds us that the pulses, heat, smells—the currents and forms of force—enacted upon bodies are also acts of law, both national and natural:
But this is a vibratory nation poem—and it refers to the law
that dictates hair grow more thickly on the left side of the face than the right
(a universal truth). Prepubescent girls give off terrible smells from their soles.
The “emotional body” and the “aural body” experience a huge thirst
forcing the shoulders too far forward. I’m speaking about the fertility
of Wisconsin’s girls. Her mouth doubles. Her skin
a functioning product. Feeling is space slipped into time.
This “nation poem” vibrates as it runs on the energy of a body digesting the nation’s activities. The bodies in this book—reduced in these lines to the “emotional” or “aural,” even as thirsts and appetites propel them onward—beat to a constant rhythm: “I’ve read the stories and am still a constant pulse.” Carr’s use of the adolescent female body in this passage is characteristic of the way she telescopes in and out from particular bodies to the “universal truth.” The “law” is not only abstract, but also organic: not just the morass of findings that constitutes our legal code, but something that animates flesh and blood. Carr never loses sight of the complex commingling of nation and body, of nations populated by bodies, nations in which the smell of a prepubescent girl’s sole can’t be divorced from her contributions to the national birth rate: “I’m speaking about the fertility / of Wisconsin’s girls.” The book’s title underscores this simultaneity: “rag” is at once a cloth for cleaning messes, slang for a woman’s period, a tabloid rant, a shred of something once whole.
As public form, a vibratory nation poem must offer images of power. Carr attends to power as a physical phenomenon—not a concentrated possession of a governing center or feature of a social contract, but a mundane, structural aspect of municipal space. In the book’s opening pages we read:
Alcohol sped to my eyelids
How power moves when hidden underground
A red flag marks buried electricity
But I’d thought it was buried everywhere
Buried power becomes one of the book’s recurrent figures. In one section Carr retells one of Grimm’s dark fairy tales, in which a stepmother cooks a boy into a stew and feeds him to his unsuspecting father. The daughter, “crying tears of blood,” carefully wraps the bones and buries them beneath a juniper tree.
Then the tree began to move—how power moves when hidden underground.
inside of the body—
This is just one of Carr’s many recapitulations, joining electrical lines with vital force, joining the growing tree with her description of verse as a “casting and recasting of the inside of the body.” From the opening page, violence has been both a condition of life and a component of renewal. Carr’s first epigraph, from Barbara Guest, reads, “I wonder if this new reality is going to destroy me.” Her second, from Guillaume Apollinaire, concludes, “O Tattered-one the rivers mend you.” Carr’s registration of violence and renewal—the reality that destroys and the river that mends—shows writing (another way of placing pieces next to each other) to be one means of surviving as a civic body, one way to “cast” the experience of inhabiting the larger structures of which we are a material part.
Near the beginning of the book, one line hangs high on a page: “—but is grieving a politics?—” The question is answered with white space and a single line below: “a civic lyric on the house floor.” Is the floor on which the lyric lies that of a private home or the House of Representatives? Is it on the floor to make demands—as grieving becomes a politics for parents of our nation’s many victims of violence—or simply to be discarded underfoot? Carr doesn’t answer these questions explicitly, but she suggests that grief can be demanding and discarded, useful and useless, and also none of these. In her vision political life is only one of the many forms of organic life, which itself has no political argument.
The final image of the book returns to Apollinaire’s river with a body both living and dying: “One way to say it one way to fall / as a body from a bridge / falls or pushed, pushed or is leaping, leaping or diving—that river will take her / neon: neon in the river so red.” The river, so read, gives us all aspects at once.
Photograph: Dimitris Papazimouris