Think Tank by Julie Carr
Solid Objects, 2015; 83 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn
As Ali Smith writes in Artful: “Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are.” In Julie Carr’s sixth book of poetry, Think Tank, these edges may slope gently into a calm sea, or they may involve a fast, surprising fall into rough waves. Here, self-discovery and reflection occur within the context of daily life, inside the private mind, and in conversation with other writers, blossoming in the overlap of the political and social, familial and creative. Traversing this landscape requires courage, attention, and a willingness to experience the world in all its discontinuous terms.
Form refuses consistency, the book-length poem shifting, over and among the pages, some lines long, tumbling, sound-rich, and others nearly staccato in their pulse of one or two words. At times, the energy catalyzing and accelerating the work calls to mind William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All.” As Williams writes, “In other times—men counted it a tragedy to be dislocated from sense—”. Though Think Tank habitually pushes past the edges of accessibility, Carr’s fragmentations and disjointed leaps are bridged with carefully placed seams. Sometimes, as in Dickinson, each word is itself an intricate stitch. Or, as in Hopkins, it is sound that does the suturing. Often, they converge:
It’s 6:47 and magisterially the sky incubates easy gentlemen
& massive bitches
of cloud. Blue me blond; I am lost
The flattening of lilacs in the rain— (54)
Beneath runs a narrative of the human condition, woven of existential concerns, family roles, and domestic dramas. The voice is introspective, yet exuberant; interrupted, but not distracted, and avoids the sentimental or tragic. Hyper-acute, the focus does not wane as various elements—sonic (Blue me blond), temporal (It’s 6:47), abstract (I am lost) and concrete (lilacs in the rain)—continually jostle between foreground, mid-ground, and background. Sound and self regularly take precedence above sense:
Banter trees and blowsy blooms, my eyes are drained of their pupils
Week six of rotting mouth, and my erotic fantasies focus inward:
the edge of the edge of the knee (48)
The strong initial force in the consonance (banter, blowsy blooms) of the first line is paralleled at the end of the second line (fantasies, focus). In the third, the sonic devices at play are repetition (edge) and the assonance of the, and knee, which echoes trees in the first line and week in the second. Meanwhile, within three lines the reader is transported from the lush romance of “blowsy blooms” to a corporally and psychologically Kubrick-ian scene where eyes are devoid of apertures. Then, just as quickly, occurs a jump into an intellectualized eros, where fresh boundaries are re-established beyond the tangible.
As in her previous books of poems, Carr is uninterested in creating a hermetically sealed text and includes quotes from writers and poets such as Shakespeare, John Ashbery, Alice Notley and Eileen Myles. The most influential of these outside voices is that of Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Noted in the acknowledgments, Think Tank has a vital connection with Clayton Eshleman’s translation of Vallejo’s second book of poems, Trilce. As in Vallejo, in Carr’s hands words can be broken, mid-stream. Words are created, or made to seem so. Several recurring motifs are shared between the texts, such as the fool and the cock. Or, as in this passage from Vallejo, the face and the mirror:
a margin of mirror there will be
where I run through my own front
until the echo is lost
and I’m left with my front toward my back.
“my front toward my back”: In Vallejo, the speaker’s transfiguration perfectly captures the somersaults and backbends of Carr’s continuous examination and analysis of the inner and outer worlds, and her serious-yet-playful engagement with craft and imagination. Think Tank is a book of process, a testament to questioning what we observe and have come to believe. This is a universe of inclusion, not containment, a place where frayed sleeves and crying babies brush shoulders with “huge invoices” and “automatic budget cuts.”
In his poem, “Ars Poetica?” Czeslaw Milosz writes: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” On or off the page, identity is never as fixed as we hope. As Carr’s book demonstrates, growing into and through adulthood necessarily demands the assumption of new obligations and the divestment of the old as we move through the grand accumulation of living. Eschewing isolation, the speaker’s roles are distinct yet blended: Mother, daughter, wife. Philosopher, teacher, citizen. Part search, part adventure, part excavation, Think Tank is an interstitial cacophony and a chorus, as Carr writes, “Suspended between two worlds superimposed one upon the other.”