An intriguing poetry surprise landed in my mailbox recently — Richard Carr’s latest collection of poems, One Sleeve, published by Evening Street Press. Richard is a neighbor in my apartment building, and I see him occasionally in the neighborhood. The last I’d heard any news about this collection, it was that publication would be later than originally scheduled, which had been fall 2010. So, seeing the published collection pleased me.
The surprises continued. Upon opening the package, the book’s cover startled with its stark black and white, and the photograph of Richard looking quite menacing. I asked him about that — yes, he’d intended for the menace, and had even wanted a more “in your face” effect by filling the cover with the photo. It’s a strange introduction to the poems inside, but the dark tone it sets proves all too relevant.
“One Sleeve” is one of two characters that the poems follow. The other is “I.” It’s worth noting again that Richard’s “I” narrators are not him. In this case, the “I” creates an intimate connection with the reader. If read aloud, “I” of the poems becomes the “I” of the reader. “One Sleeve” conjures the images of an amputee, perhaps a war vet, or someone born without both arms, or a shirt missing one of its sleeves. The missing arm or sleeve could mean a sense of incompleteness, or on a darker note, a deformity or crippling sense of inadequacy.
As I read through the poems, I realized that “I” and “One Sleeve” were one and the same — two facets of one personality. One Sleeve seemed to be the rebel, defiant, unconventional; “I” was the opposite. What astonished me about the poems concerned the focus on the mind, living in the mind vs. the body, and a preoccupation with death. An undercurrent of powerlessness pervades many of the poems also — “I” complains that he doesn’t know his lines, he doesn’t know what to believe, about being a human chess piece in the park.
Gradually, conflict emerges: I vs. One Sleeve and death vs. life. The language of the poems stays close to the vernacular even as Carr creates startling images with them. For example, in “The Art Museum is a Tomb of Good Intentions,” he writes, “How easy for a madman with a razor//to approach a canvas,/ to slice across a wrist,/the man, blinking,/suddenly exquisite and precious//like a painted image of a man.” In “One Sleeve is Looking for Something to Believe,” One Sleeve flips through books, inspects a sentence, then “sometimes/runs his finger down the cleavage between the pages.”
As the skirmishes continue between “I” and One Sleeve, the action begins to coalesce into scenes, with more exterior description. The narrator and his alter have ventured outside of the mind and into the world. With frenetic energy, One Sleeve demolishes Time in “One Sleeve Trivializes Time” in contrast to “I” who is “A piece of lint on the carpet….” I tried to see if these two personas switched places during the course of the collection, but I don’t think they do, at least not completely. They become more of each other.
A line in “I Look Down the Subway Stair in the Rain” brought me to a complete stop in my reading. The poem addresses Hades and the subway as “the underworld.” “One Sleeve mocks the symbolism,/as though there were two realities,/one the shadow of the other.” This echoes a famous Carl Jung quote about power and love: “Where love reigns, there is no will to power; and where the will to power is paramount, love is lacking. The one is but the shadow of the other.” While a sense of powerlessness exists in these poems, death is more dominant than anything else, and love isn’t really to be found, not even in some of the sexual and sensual references. Carr refers, I think, to “I” and One Sleeve being shadows of each other, as the two realities, or the two worlds of life and the underworld.
This collection is dark, unhappy, gritty, suffused with violence at times, and always questioning. I was surprised by the unrelenting focus on death. As I read I was beginning to wonder if this collection would end as Mahler’s meditation on mortality, his Symphony No. 9, does with a quiet fade away, or if there would be a sunbeam that cuts through the darkness. One Sleeve and his energy turn out to be the sun in the final poem, the force that keeps “I” alive, the energy and movement, the curiosity and drive for exploration: “I want to quit. I want to go back to sleep. He’s ready for a new day, even in the rain….He rolls up one sleeve, willing to reconsider everything./I button one down, unable to resist.” Resist what? Sleep? Or One Sleeve’s energy? The tone of this last poem suggests the latter.
Every time I read poetry, I’m struck by how different it is from prose. Both use words, but they use them to build and tell stories in different ways. Richard Carr uses them to appeal to the “One Sleeve” in all of us — that part of us that’s not quite complete and always searching for the answers.