Monday, April 23, 2018



(Ahsahta, Boise, ID, 2017)

The difficulty of Julie Carr’s Objects from a Borrowed Confession is also its triumph. I don’t mean that Carr has written a book that is hard to read (though, in a gripping, psychological sense, it is). Rather, what I mean is that, in her book, Carr crystalizes a certain kind of difficulty. Having felt it, she tries to make it felt. This isn’t an easy task, since it exposes both the writer and her reader to a feeling that repulses: hating how easy it is, in the end, to overlook—that is, to resolve repulsion and what repulses in the same annihilating stroke. And yet, hating is never the aim of Carr’s Objects. In fact, in its labors to confess love’s difficulty, Carr’s is a book of awful, careful, agonized love.

In Objects, the specific difficulty to which Carr witnesses is that of witness itself. To make sure that this difficulty stays difficult—or, rather, remains self-critical—Carr strains at the limits of forms and forms of expression, deploying a hybrid mix of journalism, criticism, memoir, diary, and poetry. Using every available resource, then, Carr’s improvised but tireless efforts try to keep open the possibility of witness, while being honest about the risks—both the risks of witness, and the risks of witnessing witness.

For sure, like any job, even witness has its risks. Poetry, too. I heard the risks of writing poetry described once as “psychic.” There is a strenuous psychic exertion demanded in the attempt to keep open what—like the eye, like the I—wants to shut by itself. 

Maybe this is why, in the ninth section of Objects, an essay titled “By beauty and by fear: on narrative time,” Carr can’t fall asleep, can’t close her eyes to rest. In this essay, Carr confesses to some of the origins of her project, from which flow the origins of her insomnia, too:

“Back in the library sits a cart of photography books, each more gruesome than the last. I told the librarians I was researching violence, and am embarrassed by how seriously they took me. In fact, I am researching my own fears.”

And, since “insomnia plagues the fearful,” Carr’s decision to gaze fearfully at violence triggers the fearsome vigilance of gazing. Here the risk of looking is constant, sleepless looking. But, like the rest of Objects, Carr’s essay is not about—or, at least, not only about—the risks of witness. Instead, Carr pushes deeper, asking what happens when witness itself is witnessed. I read by “By beauty and by fear” as the attempt to initiate, enact, and offer a stopgap response to that question.

In the process, this essay (which I focus on because I believe it’s representative of key themes throughout Objects) also reflects on Carr’s mother’s dementia. Given this, Carr lays out for us the knot of fears she is, or has become:

“I could not sleep because of fear, because the year I spent reading websites and staring at photography books that featured some of the most monstrous things humans do to others was also the year my mother shat in the furnace room when she could not find the bathroom, the year she wandered the house sobbing ‘miserable, miserable’ to herself or to us. The year I lost her to miserable was the same year I spent in the archives of American violence, as if one set of fears might outshine another. Of course I feared losing her to misery. Of course I also feared losing myself, to her misery or to my own, or to the misery that is all of ours—a particular American misery. Perhaps not sleeping became a way to protect, with avid intensity, the fiction of the coherent narratable self, this temporary invention of the day.”

Irrupted by American misery and by her mother’s misery, Carr finds her insomnia is both physical and existential. By Carr’s writerly logic, insomnia is also the condition of the poet, who knows, perhaps better than anyone, that the “coherent narratable self” is a “temporary invention of the day.” If fear is what keeps the eye and the I open and protective and vigilant, then “there really is no poem outside of fear, no sublime on one page and beauty on the other. To write is to call to that fear, to lie down in it.” Of course, the ethical consequences of such a claim—the claim that the poetic I might only exist as a parasite of fear initiated by witnessing misery—are repulsive and devastating, and Carr knows it: “…[T]o put it more bluntly, the terror of the un-narratable, un-nameable ‘I’ that I encounter in my mother's mind full of holes, is fucking the beauty I want—the anarchic violent poem.”

Her blunt account of the poetics of fear refers back to a moment earlier in the essay where Carr allegorizes the story of Hephaestus, Aphrodite, and Ares. To simplify, Hephaestus gets figured as a writer, his wife Aphrodite as beauty, and Ares, her lover, as violence:

“Hephaestus, the ugly forger of technologies, was in a rage against his beautiful wife’s promiscuity. The net he wove of gossamer thin wire was meant to capture Aphrodite in the act of betraying him. But when he trapped her and her lover, the irascible and violent Ares, the other Gods gathered around and only laughed and laughed.”

The writer wants to do precisely what Carr does in this essay and recognizes as one of the difficulties of her book more broadly: “That gossamer net forged with precision is one way to understand narrative. And beauty, which rises out of foam, defies the traps narrative sets for it…And so beauty slips out of the grip of craft and into the arms of brutality.”

Or, to put it more bluntly, Carr seems to realize that, in searching to capture the beauty in misery—that is, in trying to write poetry, to find my “I” in the hole in another person’s head, to borrow objects from another person’s confession—the outcome can only be an anarchic fucking violent poem.

Carr does not stop at this realization. She implicates, but does not resign herself. Perhaps this is the truest, most difficult work of confession: self-indictment without the satisfaction of closure, of consequence or punishment. Unresigned, impelled to explain, to narrate, the confessor-poet speaks out of error in order to be countenanced in, and never retrieved from, their error. Redemption, if it can be called that, takes for its basic architecture this recoiling self-repulsion, this negative space—that is, the opening openness—of the erring I. The openness of witness redeems, even as it always nearly ruins, the witness, who has to confess to confessing in order to be redeemed in and from and wholly in spite of the witnessing self. Applying roughly this clement metaphysics, Objects from a Borrowed Confession factors confession as the necessary work of vigilant witness. To always attend, wary as a mother, which is not to overlook.

This task belonging to the poet is, of course, exhausting, which is maybe why Carr wonders out loud:

“But maybe it’s time to let all this go. The naming and the wrestling. (Judgment.) The naming and renaming of the self. Maybe it's time instead for the giving over of the self. (When will will myself?) I give myself to you, for you I must lie down and be quiet.”

Though it risks the tautological collapse of solipsism, true of every lyric enterprise, the great marvel of Carr’s book is the achievement of a radical self-rupture that nevertheless swerves to attend critically to that same drive toward radical self-rupture—that quiet impulse toward the “giving over of the self.” In the ethical universe of Objects from a Borrowed Confession, there is no such thing as an easy route or a straight line; there is no such thing as a monumental, unswerving I. There is only ever clinamen and curvature, just as the lens of the eye is curved, taking in light at an angle, always at a slant, as truth is told.

By my reading, in the effort of trying to understand why poets and philosophers are so drawn to “the giving over of the self” at the ransom of selfhood itself, Carr manages a more honest version of self-rupture, or—better put, perhaps—self-elision, eying the I. Pulling on her intimate relationship with the Romantic tradition, Carr spends time indexing and questioning the origins of the desire for oblivion. She asks:

“What makes poets in particular want to have or be or perform this ‘nothing’ so badly? 'I am nothing, who are you?' I read when I was eight and kept it by the bed. 'I nothing am' says Edgar, hiding in the body of another. Sometimes it's the freedom that comes with language, language's vapor-like qualities, how it's nothing and can be everything, that we start to identify with, want to not just use but be—like Keats climbing up to his muse Moneta and begging to peer into her hollow brain, to see through her eyes that see nothing, or like Plath on Ariel becoming foam.”

Carr observes that this desire is “a spiritual longing, but it's a political longing, too.” Addressing these meditations to her friend, the poet Fred Moten, Carr summarizes: “As you said, or as I think you said, in emptying out the self, in alchemizing it into vapor, we get to that complicated word: empathy.”

Carr extends the consequences of this process to confession—“those confessions of self-negation, self-effusion, and self-evacuation that so abound in poetry”—which “might serve a cathartic urge…, [and] serve a political purpose, too …, cutting us loose, even momentarily, from our steadfast attachment to being selves that the law names, granted the equivocal privilege of ownership, the uneven privilege of 'rights'.”

Carr’s realization that the alchemy of self-elision can result in empathy on personal, social, and political levels triangulates her in the long tradition of French and British Romantic poets and writers with whom she engages throughout Objects, including Keats, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Rousseau, and Flaubert—some of whom were responding to eighteenth-century moral philosophers like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Smith and Burke wrote extensively about sympathy, but describe it as a kind of repulsive body-snatching. Here’s Smith on the psychological process of sympathizing, employing language similar to Burke’s account of sympathy in his own book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), published two years before Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments:

“Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.…[But] by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations… His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels…”

As I have tried to show, much of Carr’s book is an attempt to perform and critique what Smith sketches out: what happens when we respond to other peoples’ misery and suffering. Carr’s intervention in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century figurations of interpersonal sentimentality or sympathy—and its more rarefied expression, empathy—is to try and achieve the sentimental, confessional self-voiding that Moten implies and that witness requires. In other words, instead of sympathetically entering into and extracting from another person, empathy happens when the other person enters us. As Carr confesses: “A self possessed, not self-possessed. It's what I've wanted to be.” Elsewhere she reports the effects of empathetic love on the self in similar terms; Carr describes the self in love “as a space for longing, a place for the other to reside, even in her absence.” The hollowed-out self becomes a “passage”—cervical, and also textual: “I'd say in some moment I've known myself as a passage through which others move.” Indeed, Carr compares the feeling of self-evacuation to child-bearing and raising, saying, like Donne, “that you’re a space for another, the hole that can hold someone, not just in arms, but in the belly, or the ass—this shame-infused space of desire that can’t really ever be is what I'd call the fantasy of motherhood. Which I continue to choose.”

In Objects from a Borrowed Confession, motherhood (both being-mother and being mothered) becomes a subject of meditation that refracts questions of witness, confession, subjectivity, empathy and poetry. It’s worth pointing out that, because she is also working so closely with nineteenth-century Romantic writers, when Carr foregrounds motherhood, she manages a critique that subverts, revises, and updates what has otherwise gone down in the textbooks as a male-dominated literary tradition. She provides a sentimental poetic alternative that makes it possible to read Objects from a Borrowed Confession in the context of nineteenth-century women writers like Felicia Hemans, Lydia Sigourney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Susan Warner, and Julia Ward Howe, among many others. Like the hard and sometimes unforgiving work of mothering, Carr’s quiet, brutal distillation of sentimental concerns chooses to dwell inside the difficulty and consequences of care—whether that’s care for a child, your own or a stranger’s, or for a mother, or for a country.

In parting, I want to submit that, while it’s fashionable to lyricize about the lyric, Objects from a Borrowed Confession is one of the most rigorous, critical, and innovative expressions of that trend to date. For this reason, Carr’s book lays out a definitive turn for both the House Lyric and the House Confessional—here configured as one and the same.  


Kylan Rice has an MFA from Colorado State University, and he is working on his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book reviews have been published by Colorado Review, West Branch, Carolina Quarterly and the Emily Dickinson Society Bulletin. Some of his poems can be found at Kenyon Review, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.