Lucifer is Latin for “morning star.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Lucifer was originally an Archangel in Heaven, the Morning Star, who refused to bow to Adam as the ruler of earth. God kicked him out of Heaven and he fell from the firmament to become a “fallen angel,” the Devil, ruler of Hell. Poets have used Lucifer as a character freely — Dante in The Inferno and John Milton in Paradise Lost as two examples — usually adhering fairly closely to his original role as the propagator of evil, the tempter of Job representing all humans. Archibald MacLeish wrote my favorite rendering of the story of Job, the Devil and God, in the play J.B. Given this rich history in literature, it’s not that surprising that Richard Carr decided to spend some time with him.
But who, or what, is Richard Carr’s Lucifer? In the first line of the first poem in Lucifer, he makes his entrance in a twisted way, “clinging to my ear like a tick.” This isn’t the little devil who sits on the left shoulder whispering into the ear, this guy draws blood and then tells the human narrator to “never mind.” The tone has been set. Lucifer is in charge, at least of the narrator. Carr’s narrators and his use of the pronoun “I” have, in the past, implicated the reader in the actions and world of his poems. This is the first time the narrator is truly a separate character, a male, in his early to mid-twenties, and aimless, a user of illegal drugs, a heavy drinker, a thief, an abuser who doesn’t seem to want anything in life except to exist outside of life. After two readings, I can honestly say I found this narrator to have no redeeming characteristics.
Wow. That’s a really ballsy thing to do — make the narrator totally unsympathetic to the reader. I suspect Carr had something more in mind, i.e an exploration of the descent of man, “The Fall,” if you will, and the forces that bring it about. In the beginning, the narrator is in college, living with his girlfriend Juliet, and pursues a party life. But you know something’s rotten:
Last night we made dark love/when we should have argued, slept as calmly as staring corpses/writhing with maggots inside.
Yeah, this relationship with Juliet is on its way down, as are all the narrator’s relationships. It’s like watching a train wreck: it’s impossible to take your eyes away from it. In this book, Carr pulls the reader in by making her a witness to a kind of Job story that lacks God.
I’ve been reading Richard’s poetry for several years now, and regular readers of my blog here know that he’s one of my neighbors. This collection is by far the darkest, the most despairing, and frightening of all his books, including One Sleeve which took the reader to the edge of death and back. But Lucifer is also more emotionally distant than his other books. The reader is no longer directly implicated in the crimes of life. Instead, the reader can sit back and watch this story unfold, or “descend” would be a better word, from the safety of her own life. Frankly, I’m glad Richard chose to create that distance. The life he describes is beyond redemption, I think. The narrator has thrown his towel in with Lucifer because Lucifer “enters my consciousness like a dragonfly on warm sunlight/and forgives my sins.
As I read this book, two symphonic works played in the background in my mind: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 “Tragic,” and Anton von Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, sometimes called “Apocalyptic.” I was also reminded, oddly, of the hippie life in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the free-love, get high, peace to all movement that refused to grow up and be responsible. There are also hints of domestic violence in the narrator’s relationship with Juliet. She has a black eye in one poem, extensive bruises in another, a cut in another. I was happy when they broke up. Domestic violence was far more common than young people today can imagine, I think, and it was the emergence of Feminism and the Women’s Movement that began to expose it for what it truly was — assault on another human — in the early 1970’s. A third character, Mick the Bastard, starts out in cahoots with the narrator, but makes different choices. But then, he has not allied himself with Lucifer.
Richard has written the narrator’s story in gritty, urban language, with his usual stunningly appropriate and powerful images — I half-expected Lucifer to reveal that the narrator was in fact a vampire and I’m not convinced he isn’t — the urban landscape of a Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Los Angeles. He refers to “the lions outside the city library” and I thought immediately of New York City’s Public Library, the front entrance flanked by giant lions. He doesn’t name the city, however. The narrator remains nameless as well. The cover of this collection is stunning, and Richard’s photo is appropriately “Beat Poet”-like, I think.
This is poetry for the fearless reader, the reader with a strong stomach, not faint of heart, and with boundless imagination in order to take these poems in to the heart and become empathetic. This powerful poetry is well worth the read! I know that the next homeless guy I see on the street will remind me of Lucifer….