There is so much empathy in Carl Adamshick’s Saint Friend—for the reader, for his multi-voiced characters, for the poetic form itself—that it seems the lines are not enough to contain its self-aware effusiveness. Luckily for us, we are not expecting them to. In his second poetry collection, Adamshick rampantly pushes forward the way emotion is neatly received, and displays how thoughts can jumble, jostle, and cross each other with expressive sureness.
Adamshick’s interest in people is the heart of the empathy. A man walking aimlessly through an airport, Amelia Earhart imagined as a practicing nurse during World War I, two lovers captured over the course of a month as physical destruction looms, are among the subjects that occupy his poems. But the empathy lies at the core of what makes us human, the internal struggle of trying to ration humility and mortality amid the quest for eternal meaning. Adamshick’s answer, I believe, is that meaning requires the sum of its antithetical parts, a way of culling these uneven histories together into the specter of the moment. And these are the moments that catapult Saint Friend to a special, almost discerning realm. Throughout the collection, fantasy converges with reality as in, “She told me her dreams/are water and bone, grief, ash and mold//She is fifty-four./Gray strands tangle in the white bedding./How do you collect the details of her,/the creases by the eye?” It’s a rhetorical question, meant to imply how unconsciously our perceptions are deluded by our dreams. We see through people often without seeing them.
The lyricism in the poems is apparent despite the lack of form, a smooth and elegiac rhetoric that is more concerned with sonic repetition than it is flawless consistency. “The sadness isn’t their sadness./The sadness is the way//they will never unpack the russack/of happiness again,” and “again and again,/they will never surface.[,]” he writes in “Thomas,” the first of three consecutive poems meant for different people. These poems’ set-ups are that of odes, but Adamshick transforms that form’s purported seriousness into something more transcendental, unfastened. Even when he writes tired, recycled phrases like “My only wish/is that I die before you/so I don’t meet that pain/or court that suffering/or marry that awful hollowness.[,]” he transfers the activeness to the forefront of the line, accentuating the verbs with musical affinity, wherein the retort to them defiantly becomes, “So I don’t have a child with grief/that will open my breast/and drag a thread of loss/into the infinite pool of air.”
These lines are from “Near Real-Time,” the collection’s longest poem, an interplay of two voices that are madly in love with each other but are unaware of each other’s more menacing capabilities. Just as the two lovers are offset by acts cruel and unusual to them, so are Adamshick’s turns of phrases, which he writes with maddening rapidity in between domestic scenes. Perhaps my favorite: “Days kept passing./I remember now./We were drinking red tea./You were telling me about the stars/and all I could think was how your hat/was blocks away sitting/on a pile of raked leaves.” There is an Oppen-like simplicity to this verse, a subdued insinuation that is neither harsh nor didactic, but makes us more aware for reading it. What pile of raked leaves? Which hat?
Meanderings like these are natural to a poet’s oeuvre. Indeed, the collection’s first lines prompt a thematic meandering, the invocation of the other unto the self, and the forbidden places our thoughts and people go. Adamshick writes, “They keep paging Kenneth Koch at the airport./Someone should let the announcer know/he is dead, that there is no city he can go to,/that no one is expecting him. Once, I applied/to be a horse.” It’s a comical opening, but the airport scene that follows proves the multifarious destinations thoughts can go within a single setting. The result is sensory, deafening, transfixing. Adamshick writes these pages with such flair and speed that we are lost times over, only to realize that nobody is expecting us either. And that is the point. We give Adamshick permission to jump between ideas simply because we trust he is not leading us to a single destination, but rather a multitude of places, each stranger than the last. That is rewarding.
But the uncertainty has shape, too. There’s philosophy in these poems, fostered by a quaint levity. In “Happy Birthday,” he writes, “As long as you are living/it is your birthday. And maybe,/even if you are not./So, happy birthday.” The mood seems sarcastic here, if only because the poet has to justify the space between a singular event and future events to come. It’s scary, so what is a poet to do? Fill in the space, naturally. But as many details, images, and symbols fill up Adamshick’s poems, they are only the precedents for the distillation of moods he’s relaying. He cares that we feel them, too. That is empathy.