These poems often resist the reader in the same way his speaker resists his father, but the book’s exploration of such distance creates a closeness between the reader and the poems, and the speaker and his father, that’s almost too much to bear.
Richard Carr’s debut collection, Mister Martini, does not have something for everyone. This is no carnival of contemporary poetics, nor is it a semi-strong beginning to what I hope will be a stronger second collection. Mr. Carr’s second collection is already out; so are his third and fourth; all of them released in 2008. This alone should signal that Richard Carr is making something worth our minutes.
A quick stroll through the table of contents reveals that Mister Martini is resisting the compact organization so often offered in two, three, or four section books. The sixty-four poems collected here are a straight shot from beginning to end. I say this book does not have something for everyone because the more-than-happy-to-read-a-poem-here-read-a-poem-there reader is going to struggle for understanding if he tries to choose his own adventure. Mister Martini has an agenda and it requires willingness and participation on behalf of the reader. Richard Carr has created an album, not a hodge-podge of hits.
The book’s first poem, “Inventor,” introduces the reader to the speaker and his father:
My father was an inventor of martinis.
He acquired archaic languages,
collected Renaissance textiles.
But mostly he made martinis.
He worked at night in a closed room.
In these first five lines, Carr has delivered the context that his book’s world will inhabit. The voice heard here remains consistent throughout, as does the focus on the father-son relationship.
The second part of this poem is given to the martini, which ubiquitously performs as a character, metaphor, simile, clarification, and the only solid aspect of the father-son relationship occurring directly above it:
Martini chilled among purple crocuses,
served with two drops of spring snow
gathered from the petals.
This structure endures throughout the collection in every poem except the last. The italicized moment given to the martini is often as elusive as the above example.
Such complex compactness evokes thoughts of Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, and Mark Strand. The displayed control of tone, syntax, and line recalls Anne Carson or H.D. In these comparisons I’m suggesting a lineage that may be appropriate for Carr’s first book, but I look to the idea of “Inventor” as a suggestion that Carr is acutely aware he’s working within a tradition and working, in part, to extend said tradition. I’m not at all suggesting an allegorical reading, but I do find it fascinating that the lineage mentioned in this opening poem is highly reminiscent of poem-making in the contemporary moment. What a relief to find a poet who’s aware that his work isn’t happening in a vacuum.
From this initial poem the collection’s movements are largely governed by the course of the father-son relationship. This is not to say that the book’s movement is entirely narrative; it’s not. The movement is also not entirely lyric. I remain ambiguous on how to label this work, as Carr seems to be drawing from almost every poetic movement since the 1800’s. In “Language” Carr writes,
Martini with a formation of tundra swans
flying a mile above it in blue space,
only the ghosts of their voices reaching the surface
passing through their white bodies.
and you can see my anxiety over a label. Is this passage surreal? Is it symbolic? Is it lyric? Does it work to clarify the poem’s initial narrative? Yes. As the book moves each piece plays along and off something that has come before and something that will come after. This tenuous ambiguity is one of the collection’s main sources of pleasure.
The pleasure though is not with out its equal pain. While Carr has composed these poems without giving in to the urge toward sentimentality, he has given-in to the idea of raw emotion as a dual agent for exploration and characterization. This dual agency is highly evident in one of the collection’s last poems “Clams”:
Over a dinner of clams,
I bragged to him that I would succeed
where he had failed,
and he replied dryly: Then you will do nothing.
But it hurt him
to know I had made an account of his failures.
He tapped a shell with his cocktail fork.
It angered him.
The language here is, like the father’s reply, very dry, but this allows the seething emotion and conflict between the characters to leap off the page. Arriving at this poem, I don’t get the feeling that this is a one-time occurrence. In making an account of his father’s failures, the speaker shows he’s been biding his time (and timing in this collection is everything). The account is also peppered with the painful notion that this speaker wants to hurt his father and get back at him. Carr doesn’t let us rest there, though. Moments like these create a heavy dramatic irony for the reader because we see that while the speaker is resisting his father, he can’t help but carry some of his qualities. The cool surface tone paired with the emotional lava beneath reminds me of Louise Glück’s “At the River” where her characters and readers arrive simultaneously at an end that emanates from the page in a multilayered wave of grief, pain, and closure.
Naomi Shihab Nye, judge of the 2007 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry says about this winning selection, “This is a truly original book. There’s nothing extra: sharp and clear and astonishing. Viva!” I absolutely agree and I rejoice in her choice to close the statement with such an exclamation. I had a similar reaction upon closing the covers and I almost felt guilty because both the relationship and the poems are anything but celebratory.
These poems often resist the reader in the same way his speaker resists his father, but the book’s exploration of such distance creates a closeness between the reader and the poems, and the speaker and his father, that’s almost too much to bear. Richard Carr’s ability to not only expose, but also create, such humanness and connection out of such discord and brokenness is my understanding of Nye’s “Viva!” And it’s the first thing I’ll say if Richard Carr comes up in conversation anytime soon.