Self-isolation has turned me into a burrower into my personal library for books to read. I bought Fitzpatrick by Richard Carr in 2018, along with his chapbook Our Blue Earth. I read the chapbook right away and put the poetry collection away for another day. Well, another day arrived last week! I’m glad I let some time pass so that I could read Richard’s poetry again with an uncluttered mind. And this collection proved to be an interesting diversion away from the pandemic.
Fitzpatrick is an artist. He paints. Carr approaches him from 4 different angles: the bartender in his favorite bar, his best drinking buddy, his wife, and his work. It was like going from standing far away to standing nose-to-nose with the man. And while the blurbs on the back cover describe this collection’s aim as “the search being the mystery and nature of art,” I read these poems as being biographical, a search for the artist, and how is an artist defined. In that regard, the bartender is the impersonal public who recognizes the human being but doesn’t really know the artist; the drinking buddy is closer, a guy who shares Fitzpatrick’s sense of the world up to a point; his wife is closer still, but even she does not really know that part of him that imagines and sees his paintings in his mind before he puts them on canvas; and then there’s the work itself, a series of poems describing paintings by an “I.” I wondered about that “I,” as if it were really Fitzpatrick speaking about the work he never talks about with anyone else.
I actually thought the best description of Fitzpatrick came in the 7th poem of the “His Wife” section: He was a pyramid, and in some tiny, deep chamber/a pharaoh folded himself for sleep. The wife recognizes his protective and defensive exterior, its silence, its stone hardness, but also that deep down inside himself he is the king of his life, with all the problems, frustrations, and excesses that means. What is not said explicitly is that pyramids contain lots of corridors and rooms, and could be an analogy for the mind, and the pharaohs inside are entombed.
Carr’s choice of words to paint images is one of his strengths, and its in fine form in this collection. For example, he describes the drinking buddy as “a smudge trying to catch a cab.” That drinking buddy in the next poem describes Fitzpatrick as “a dark snowbank splashed by trucks.” In the previous stanza, Carr writes “He tensed when someone opened the door/and let in a snake of wind.” In poem No. 12 of the drinking buddy section, Carr writes the drinking buddy saying, “His wife staged the opera of his public life.” And with every poem in the drinking buddy section, I felt I was learning just as much about the drinking buddy as Fitzpatrick. This was true for the other two sections about people as well.
These are unsentimental poems in this collection, Carr “groping in the darkness of his own creation” for not a revelation about the mystery of art, but for what it means to be an artist as seen by people in the artist’s life. The work becomes a reflection of how the artist — or Carr — sees his art, and perhaps sees himself through his art. In the poem “Self-portrait,” he says “I am a harlequin.” A clown, an entertainer, a fool? I know that feeling. In the final poem, “Evening Lights of a Great City,” he states, “I can’t paint what I mean.” This is the frustration of all artists — taking the meaning in the mind/imagination and putting it out in the world so that it is seen and understood, but once it enters the world, it’s not the same. Composers are astonished the first time they hear their music performed because it’s never really like what they’ve heard in their imaginations, and the system of notating music cannot capture completely the sound and meaning.
I thought this was a lovely collection and I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. I especially liked the change of direction that this collection has taken compared with previous collections of Carr’s poetry that I’ve read. Being a writer, I could relate to these poems, the striving to reveal, the frustration, and sometimes the success. I think this collection was an unqualified success, and I’d recommend it to readers who love poetry.