Nesting Dolls: Julie Carr’s Objects from a Borrowed Confession

Reviewed By

Dear J.

I’ve been meaning to write to you for some time, though I am sure you are surprised to hear from me… a writer you have never met, whose correspondence comes in the form of this unconventional review. I couldn’t resist, though, could I? My name is Julie, too, and I was struck by the way your most recent collection, Objects from a Borrowed Confession (Ashata Press, 2017), begins with the lines I’ve italicized above. In fact, the whole first section is a series of epistle-proems addressed to “J.,” as I am often addressed by those closest to me—and occasionally by those seeking distance from me, those who might resist the full weight of my given name.

In class, my students and I talk a lot about art that implicates us, art to which we feel an obligation of some kind. I won’t deny that I felt especially implicated by those initial letters (as in missives), the first twenty pages of your book, as well as by seeing my name’s initial letter—which is yours, too—looking so poised and serious at the top of each page. This “J.,” the J. of the book, shares an ex (though marked as “x”) in common with the poet-speaker.

How much of yourself, the Julie-Poet, have you invested in this speaker? I wonder but do not ask. It’s none of my business, for one thing, and it doesn’t really matter, for another. I like her, your speaker, and I like you for writing her. She writes to J., or you write as her

I wanted to know something about you—were you a mother, were you alone. I’ve wanted to know that you are happy. At one time I wanted the force of our accumulative happiness, yours and mine, to reduce his to a ball of lead sitting at the bottom of a granite quarry unexamined for eternity.

She also writes, or you write as her: “I imagine these things and then I recoil from them.” I think you and I, the Real Us, share strong imagination and frequent recoiling in common.

Since I am writing to you about a confession, which is perhaps another way of confessing, I’ll reveal this: I have one significant “x” who is “xy.” I remember, though this was long ago, how I clung to stories he told me about his ex (“xx”), a woman named Susan. At some moment in our relationship, I realized that I was most interested in him when he was speaking, at my insistence, about her. She had been a great love for him. I wanted to have a great love also, which was not him and which was not likely to arise (does love arise?) with any “him.” Let’s call this particular him “C.”

Years later, I wrote and published a story, fictionalized, called “Split,” in which a woman finds herself fantasizing about her ex’s (“xy”) ex (“xx”), perhaps even falling in love with her. I wish now I had written a series of epistle-proems to “S.,” a woman I have never met, will never meet, and would never be able to find. What might/would I have said to her? Something like “The secrets under the hat are a kind of fuel for me, driving this incessant interest in letters”? Or: “As often happens, I woke up thinking of you.” Or: “As if all men were one man and all women me.” These are all things you, the Julie-Poet, have written that I love. There are many more things you have written that I love. I experience your writing as secularly numinous—or perhaps numinously secular? Is this an insightful oxymoron, or nonsense? Sometimes it is hard to tell, and harder still to know how you will receive my characterization of this work. But as your speaker writes, or as you write as her: “I will return to this.” Right now I want to ask you about fiction.

Your collection, as I read it, is a kaleidoscope of genres. The first section, comprised of J.-poems, is even classified in its section header as “A novella.” Another section of the book is classified as “A memoir.” But the book itself, as a whole, is classified as “Poetry,” published by Ahsahta Press, which claims only to publish poetry. Mind you: I’m not the Genre Police. In fact, I think they have a warrant out on me for my own cross-genre activities. (We might be on the Genre Lam together.) Rather, I am an avid reader of hybrid forms, and I think this might be the most hybrid book that I have yet encountered. Your poetry isn’t always poetry. (Mine isn’t either.) Maybe the poetry in Objects from a Borrowed Confession is confessing that it wants to see other genres, but confessing too late. It’s already in love with every genre. (Maybe you are, too.) Maybe this is another thing that we, the Real Us, have in common.

I would like to write a postcard to “S.” that reads, “And I, in thinking, in remembering, am I making you?” I would attribute the question to you, of course. It had never occurred to me until now that maybe S. never existed at all, that maybe C. invented her because he saw how it pleased me to hear him recount—or conjure—and perhaps recounting is always a kind of conjuring?—narrative glimpses of this woman’s beauty, intelligence, compassion, humor. Maybe he wanted me to love him through her.

It also occurs to me that kaleidoscope is the wrong image for your project here. I should have said nesting dolls. The novella, the memoir, the meditations on beauty and envy, even the “afterthought” are smaller dolls that fit inside the larger—the largest—which is Poetry. Would you say poetry, for you, is the vessel which houses all other forms? I would say it is for me.

Your speaker confesses, or you confess as your speaker, or some combination of these: “J., all the ways in which I’ve hurt others have made those others more beautiful to me.” This is an example of what I meant earlier when I referred to the secular numinosity of your work—the startling way you have of stating something profound that is neither dogmatic nor deniable. Such a declarative implicates me, as much as if you had grabbed me by my shirtfront or pulled my hair as I ran past. I find myself working your poems+ (may I refer to the work like this, as poetry-plus?) the way I once worked inductive proofs in a geometry class: If those we hurt most become most beautiful to us, then we must consider the converse—that those who are most beautiful to us have become such because of the ways, intentionally or not, we have hurt them.

I must confess I am thinking of “A.” now, the woman I love, the woman to whom I am married. I am thinking also how I hate when men at award shows thank their “beautiful wives”—how tokenistic and reductive that phrase feels. Yet I have a beautiful wife, too. What would I say about her if I received an award? Would her beauty be relevant in such a context? Do you see now the way your art implicates me? I catch my breath. I realize I must have hurt A. the most of anyone because she is the most beautiful to me.

Now I wonder if you, the Julie-Poet, will find it tedious/tiresome to see more of your work written back to you here—or will you, like another writer I know, be jolted (and not unpleasantly so) by reunion with your own words? “Did I really write that?” my writer-friend asked, and I was chuffed as I told her “Yes!” and showed her the passage.


She asks whether she might go back inside my body for a while. When I say no, she considers my refusal to be nothing but a misunderstanding. She will, she explains, reenter my body later when she is very old. My body she considers “open,” time also “open.”

The speaker is speaking of her daughter here. I have no children, have never wanted children. But I was so moved by this child’s worldview, her cyclical conviction of returning to her mother’s body at the end of life. I was also startled by the syntax of “My body she considers ‘open.’” What if you had written, “She considers my body ‘open’”? It would be an interesting observation, but not a profound one. You have profound syntax. I wrote it in my margin: “More of Carr’s profound syntax.” Really, most of this missive is me sharing my marginalia with you, itself a kind of confession. I hope you don’t mind. Also, I have a deep wish to consider both my body and time as more open vessels. My mother’s body, however, I consider closed.

In your section titled “THE WAR REPORTER: ON CONFESSION”:

Here you use Martha Gelhorn’s letters as a frame and also embed them like epistolary gemstones in the text. The excerpts from Gelhorn glitter, and in light of your earlier epistolary endeavors, must be read as both letters and meta-letters. This fact I also love.

When you write, “Some walls cannot be scaled by optimism,” I write back to you in the margin: “But of course optimism is a periscope. We don’t have to get over just so long as we can see over.” What do you think about that? Too glib? Too naïve?

One student wrote on my course evaluation that I am “preposterously cheerful.” I have no idea if it was intended as a compliment or a complaint.

In your section titled “DESTROYED WORKS (OR, EXPANDED CINEMA)”:

This part is extremely compressed, numinously so. I feel I too can touch “the textured walls of the old museum,” that I too can “turn to page 14 of the enthusiasm manual,” though for reasons that defy reason, my fingers are not “doubtful” as this speaker’s are—as perhaps yours are?—in turning those pages. I have speculated before that my enthusiasm is greater than my intelligence. This worries me some. I would like to write an enthusiasm manual, though, and when I do, I will make sure page fourteen is worth turning to.


Only 30 minutes to find a way to melt the animosities springing up within my social group but there are books I can read and faces I cannot and yours is one of those I cannot under the bare light bulb or in the rising dawn make my way in any way toward.

I love the way animosities here are “springing up” like flowers. I couldn’t stop thinking of little animosities as daisies, or clover in a parking strip, or poppies in a field. You personify the abstraction so gracefully that days later, as I am watering plants on the balcony, I keep thinking of the particular animosity of the Christmas cactus and the lemon tree and the asparagus fern. (I live in Florida.) Do plants have their own animosities? Do all humans tend animosities like gardens?

I tell my students: “First, we are implicated by a meaningful text; then, we are infiltrated by it.” See how your work has infiltrated even my mundanities? See how your book is among the most meaningful that I have read?

In your section titled “THE LIGHT OF IS IS: ON ANGER”:

Writer-Julie (who is also a reader, of course): “When thinking about anger, I see my mother. Is this true of you?”

Reader-Julie (who is also a writer, of course): Yes.

Notice how you don’t say: “When thinking about my mother, I see anger.” That would be an interesting observation, but not a profound one.

Either way, I would answer “Yes,” though. Either way, I am implicated by the question that follows.

In your section titled “ENVY”:

“And why would envy automatically be assumed to be unwarranted?”

I suppose most envy is warranted, isn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that before.

“A particular situation of ‘not having’ might bring a person to examine more closely the object she thinks she desires […]”

True, we do this—we fixate on the object of desire, turning it over and over like a Rubix cube we can never set chromatically right. I think we do this even when we recognize that any particular situation of “having” also creates its own extraordinary, if not entirely unique, set of problems.

“One way to soothe envy is to draw pictures of horses.”

Alas, I cannot draw pictures of horses, but as a child, I had a stencil of a horse, and I enjoyed sketching the silhouette of horses over many other things. Perhaps this was a coping mechanism after all.

In your section titled “DESTROYED WORKS 2”:

This sequel-section is likewise quite compressed. Is it fair of me to read this entire volume as an ars poetica and also, simultaneously, as an elegy? Perhaps beauty and envy—two pulsing themes—are always fuel for the art as well as distractions from mourning?

And Julie, may I simply say, I love especially here:

[F]or memory is the only way we know we really were the children we were, and not some other child crawling under a table or dancing on the bed to some other musical score, memory is, in fact, the one method we have for proving the existence of time, so that, really, she was my mother once.

In your section titled “PITY PRIDE AND SHAME: A MEMOIR”:

The image of the nesting dolls proves useful after all. Within the memoir-doll are nested mini-memoirs, mini-dolls, subtitled:

“Pity Pride and Shame”
“Bales of Hay”
“A New Idolatry”
“By Beauty and by Fear”
“More of the Same”
“Hard Task”
“Strands of Man in Me”
“For the Day is Breaking”
“And Chill Thy Dreaming Nights”

I think I will write these subtitles out several times each on slips of paper and let my students draw them from a bowl. What can a title elicit from us? More precisely: What can a title obligate us to elicit from ourselves?

In this section, you have words floating in your margins, words that seem to fly out from the body-text and hover. The body-text is like everything bolted down inside a spaceship. The words at the peripheries exist in zero gravity. They mingle with my marginalia.

Something stellar and interstitial is happening here. Every space across each page is charged. I draw all the margin-words in. I place them paratactic in the order in which they appeared. What are they? Guide words? Sensory-thematic glossary? A fragmented poem?

the passive sky in me read pride of earth aura tribute fog vortex excess dread red public suck faith forswear fled is that happy happy speech a temporary stranger fall spit pity bird pity fog flag sublimate show job thigh eyes twilight meat happy happy flame & dirt a blight gun wow war against myself diamond boy ghost absent lament sick slack grief hard and fast pepper game boy dust striven & believing no broken wind flesh flesh/belt wings

D: All of the above.

In your section titled “BY BEAUTY AND BY FEAR: ON NARRATIVE TIME”:

“It’s been said that our name is our first story,” your speaker says, or you say as her. “I learned to paint mine on an easel, steadying myself with letters.”

Our name, Julie, means “youthful spirit,” according to my coffee mug. According to Wikipedia, it also means “soft-haired,” “beautiful,” and “vivacious.” Apparently, our name is very popular in the United States, but in this model, popularity requires commonness.

Perhaps popularity is always based on how common something is, but that’s not how we perceive the popular kids in school, is it? They seem to be popular because they are stand-out, rare. It amuses me to think now that playground popularity might actually derive from social redundancy masquerading as uniqueness.

In 1971, a year that falls between your birth year and mine, the name Julie peaked in popularity at #10 on the Social Security Administration’s list of most popular/common baby names.

Confession: I would like to like our name, but I don’t. I never have.

In your (final) section titled “THAT’S NOT ME: AN AFTERTHOUGHT”:

The book turns epistolary again. This last letter is addressed “Dear F and all.” I imagine “F” stands for “Family,” and “all” for the rest of us, the readers. “F” could also stand for “Fans” or “Fellow poets.” I am both of these. I am implicated.

By this time, the book is such a palimpsest. I wonder if palimpsest is a better image than nesting dolls? The sections fit inside each other, true, the genres stack, but everything also bleeds through.

Look here, on the penultimate page, where you or your speaker—surely you’ve merged by now—are addressing someone unnamed: “What you said in an interview I read, quoting Baraka, is that ‘art is a sliding away from the proposed.’” So you’re quoting someone who is quoting someone else, and now I’m quoting you. I want to participate is all. These poems+ seem to implicate, then infiltrate, then obligate the reader to respond, or correspond. So many ponds in our language, and somehow our tongues learns to walk on water. (Or they don’t. Perhaps we learn to write about them sinking.)

You continue: “Maybe what you’re getting at is that poetry or art or music lights up that space of not belonging, of not belonging to a self we could ever call one.” This book makes me feel unpopular in the best sense. I am enjoying my unbelonging more and more, and all the while I am savoring the rarity of your book, which is not trying to be liked as much as it is trying to be true. And succeeding.

Thank you for everything, Julie. You have given me more than I can name, and you have named it, too, the numinous paradox at the heart of our enterprise: “Poets, though they trade in words (or because they do), recognize and defend the unnameable core that burns.”

I borrow from you again as I end:


Julie Marie Wade is the author of nine collections of poetry and prose, including Same-Sexy Marriage (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2018), SIX (Red Hen Press, 2016), Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016), When I Was Straight (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014), Postage Due (White Pine Press, 2013), Small Fires (Sarabande Books, 2011), and Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Bywater Books, 2014; Colgate University Press, 2010). A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. In 2019, Noctuary Press will publish her first co-authored collection with Denise Duhamel, The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose. More from this author →