Monday, July 23, 2018



THINK TANK by Julie Carr
(Solid Objects, New York, 2015)

An ethics is a technology. An implement selected to help me calibrate myself, measure up, negotiate my proximity to other beings—that is, to rationalize what it means to live a good life, to hold dear or have done. An ethics is a technology, too, in the sense that it is a techne. Different from epistēmē, disinterested knowledge, a techne is applied knowledge; meaning, in Greek, ‘craftsmanship,’ ‘craft,’ or ‘art,’ techne is about making or doing. As a techne, ethics (the question of living and breathing among others) is a making-doing—the art, perhaps, of building communities, giving justice, weaving the peplos for the social body. To the extent that techne is an active art, ethics as techne is an activist art.

For Julie Carr, poetry is just such an activated, activist art—an ethical technology. The enduring lynchpin of her work is engagement. The good life is an engaged life, a life that attends, that applies itself. The good life is a making-doing that imbricates the self and its body among other bodied selves and objects. The poet of the good life, the poet as ethicist, lives entwined, enmeshed, as essentially distributed as possible, abroad in the world so as to be inextricable from it. This poet understands belonging as a principle of proximate support. By belonging and drawing near, entities prop each other up:

…the phone balances the page
            wine glass balances countertop

But there are consequences to living a life so essentially distributed. Such a life is a gossamer, gaseous one. A flung-apart, wind-blown one, everywhere and nowhere diffused. A Keatsian non-identity. It becomes hard to stay in one place: “The mother says: ‘There is no you, so no way for you to fail or fall,’ so thus, “Nothing / keeps you here.” (You, here, meaning me, too.) This is one of the crises of Julie Carr’s Think Tank: a life that has given itself over to the “all, all” has a hard time focusing, devoting, loving fully. The paradox of the engaged ethical poet is that the principle of radical care that has for so long guided her life actually prevents her from caring for those closest—for her mother as she dwindles into dementia: “My Mama will not remember me.” So it is that

In the event of her death, the phone balances the page
            wine glass balances countertop

Blunt and wooden. Shrouded, sudden

The supportive, tensegral propinquity of thing to thing is, in reality, tenuous, riddled with and by mortality. In the light of death and loss, thing leans impossibly against thing, barely there. The slightest disturbance sends tremors through the whole structure. Everything sudden is shrouded. Think Tank is torn between two types of care, sympathies specific and general, local and global. Carr tries to negotiate a form of attention that is responsive to both kinds of sympathy, fielding the risks involved when the “I” dilates so into an “O.”

When it is busy caring most generally, beyond the personal, when it says “O” instead of “I”, Think Tank registers a world of chaotic hyperreality:

a bird in water. Girl in flames
A man walks onto a train: Anyone, anyone?
Windows blaze, all, all—the train jumps its tracks  

Everything appears on the horizon. Everything is recognized in its suddenness. In fact, “Any talk of transition is simply exaggerated // Sudden is all is all.” When everything shocks, nothing does. The world an arid sand storm—particular and proximate, yes, but particularized and proximated, pulverized into a swirling dust. This desperate, exhausted alertness is best illustrated in a relatively extended dreamlike anecdote in Think Tank:

The body is a scavenger under the cold common protection of roofs
From bus to piano, no one is home. My
Good Pen: I entered another poet’s hotel room
crawled into her hotel bed, and slept. When I awoke I lay still
gazing out the window. Eventually, a man appeared, biking up the driveway
in his red plaid shirt. Lying there I imagined us fucking
and came without stirring an inch. I slept again and when I woke this time

the poet was there, kissing her husband, laying her

            baby down

In this scene, the transient speaker seeks refuge in a transient space, confronting both her own exhaustion while still affected or burdened by her own erotic hypersensitization. The sequence concludes with a voyeuristic glimpse onto the tableau of another’s domestic intimacy. The poet as dust-storm struggles to settle, to see clearly dearness when everything is dear, scalding and touchless. The poet tries to get a grip while “gripping onto the self, eating it from the inside.”

Transcendence is held up against the friction of immanence: “things move beyond themselves through their indifferent relationships: motor oil, ketchup, boot polish, gold.” Interrelationships concatenate into an expanding network. The network-pronoun for negotiating between nodes is not “I” but “it”—“it” connects to “it,” object references object: “it simply doesn’t care if it’s ketchup or motor oil or a light bulb.” But Carr adds, “not like you, / you care.” Here Carr acknowledges that care ultimately routes back to identity. Care is a force that closes down the transcendent network of indifferent object-oriented interrelation. It cuts against “beyondness” and puts immediate presence in its place.

Perhaps it has always been the task of the poet to leap wing-footed between the planes of transcendence and immanence, mediator of the heavens and earth. In Think Tank, where Carr reflects on the ethical consequences that crop up in this middle ground, the mother is put forward as a figure of the gate between dimensions both near and far, a portal between non-existence and an emergent world, a world in emergency. But mother or poet or both, the problem with poems is that, in the end, there is “no milk” in them. No real sustenance, no pretense for nearness to breast. It doesn’t matter if “I want your voice in my poem, which is like I want your body in my own.” It doesn’t matter if “all readers and non-readers desire that pouring” of milk. After all, the poem is just a poem, words on a page—a no-thing; as a token of love, King Lear would cast it aside. A poem does not actually provide the reader with a tangible experience, something warm in their throat or belly. The poem does not, like “my mother…, wrap[] my body in a towel and carr[y] me from one room to another, comb[] my hair under a lamp.” And yet, as Carr has written about in her recent collection of essays on poetics, Someone Shot My Book (University of Michigan, 2018), the ethereal, unreal no-thing that a poem is can still return the reader and writer to the world of experience. Or, as she puts it in Think Tank, “these experiences are absolutely unwriteable which is why I am putting them here.” To acknowledge, in writing, the unwriteability of real events is to invoke the hyper-specificity of reality, but in negative relief. The struggle and subsequent failure to render any part of the world on the page—“mango skin, arch of the / foot”—is to preserve the presence of mango skin and foot-arch in the form of its attractive absence.

So when Carr writes “I'm asking a real question here. Can you hear me when I rustle my shirt? When I close my eyes?”, the rustle may not be real, but the question is. And the question gives me pause—I strain, suddenly, to listen for presence; I am made to attend. The poem is a technology of care.

Think Tank is a care-giving book that asks “Who’s breathing whom here?” It strives to account for who is present. It is set in the aftermath of the con-fusion of global attention, after attending to “sky-troubles”—rotten ozone, Iron Dome—which “no longer demand monologues.” Even still, Carr resolves to occupy the personal intimacy of the monologue, the monologic of the lyric “I,” insisting “but I'm the one who'll not not speak, not not eulogize / the ones I've loved.” Ever a witness, Carr’s “I” positivizes negatives. The “I” of Think Tank

Will present my body as a newspaper, will give you apples
to cool off your mouth, a windshield shot
through with sun

Perhaps, then, the lyric “I” is less a witness than a care-giver. Not administering actual care, coolness to fever, but dispensing instead what it is to care: the question, what was that? Was that me? Can you hear me, my eyelids as they rustle shut, and open again?


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.