Review of Darkened Rooms of Summer by Jared Carter

University of Nebraska Press, 2014  

$18.95 paper

by James Crews

The spherical stones were everywhere on the Oregon beach where we were walking. When I asked my scientist-friend what they were, she explained that they’re called concretions, and they form when a lump of cement lodges in sedimentary strata that has already been deposited, but has not yet hardened. Eventually, the concretions grow even harder than the host strata, due to pressure over the years, and they drop out, rolling down onto the sand. At the center of each one, my friend told me, is usually some nucleus of organic material: a leaf, tooth or piece of shell.

I could not help but think of Jared Carter’s work as we stood there that day, looking down at the stones. Perhaps I thought of him because each of his poems seems to fall onto the page fully formed, as if it had always been waiting to be brought forth from the earth, from the world we actually inhabit. Or maybe he came to mind because of the poem, “Geodes,” that begins his astounding new collection, Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems. “Geodes” serves as a fitting welcome for readers into a book that collects a lifetime’s worth of painstaking work, and while reading the final lines of the poem, it is hard not to think that Carter is also talking about his own creative process:

I take each one up like a safecracker listening
 
for the lapse within, the moment the crystal turns
on crystal. It is all waiting there in the darkness.
 
I want to know only that things gather themselves
with great patience, that they do this forever.

 

Isn’t that how poets know to break their lines, “listening/for the lapse within”? Don’t the best poems seem to linger “in the darkness” and then “gather themselves with great patience,” coming into being over the course of many revisions and many layers of words laid on top of each other?

Published as the inaugural volume in the University of Nebraska Press’ Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series, and lovingly introduced by Kooser himself, Darkened Rooms is long overdue, especially since it brings together work that, I am convinced, has no equal in American poetry at this moment. The amount of attention paid to every word, line break and stroke of punctuation lends these poems a quiet urgency that is more than hard to come by these days: It is downright rare. Though so many poets rush to publish book after book and for no discernible reason (we are not offered advances, after all, and publication seldom guarantees a tenure-track job anymore), it is refreshing to come upon a poet who has kept mostly away from worldly ambition, and who has instead focused his energies on the making of pitch-perfect poems whose drive seems nothing less than a genuine and honest urge to show us a corner of his own particular world.

The most surprising and delightful aspect of reading this book is bearing witness to Carter’s range, for he is comfortable in both the lyric mode as well as in longer narratives like the masterful “Covered Bridge,” which recounts a story about the Civil War that the author heard from an uncle at a family reunion. Though you have to read the whole poem to get a sense of how wonderfully and patiently Carter eases the reader into and out of a scene, here is a taste:

so when three mounted rebel soldiers stop
at the east-bank entrance, they look inside
and see my great-grandfather with the last
of twenty armloads of brush he has piled
 
against the center arch so that the draft
will fan the embers straight up to the roof
and fire the cedar shakes. The whole bridge
will last about as long as a pine torch
 
on election day . . .

 

Having spent a large portion of his life in Indiana, where he grew up, Carter has made it his vocation to gather and preserve stories like this one. It should come as no surprise either that he once worked for the Herald-Press, a Huntington newspaper, since he seems to understand intuitively what Barry Lopez has famously claimed: “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Carter gives ardent voice to a vanishing and, in some instances, already vanished way of life, whether he’s invoking the moth his mother used to call a “gallynipper,” or describing a drugstore where “the soda fountain was a slab/of black glass chipped with tiny moons.” Nor will Carter let us to forget the sign painters (“those solemn old men with skin/bleached and faded as their hair”) or the farmer in “The Purpose of Poetry,” who shot himself when he heard the new reservoir would flood his property and destroy his way of life. Who else will remember this man who “grazed thirty head of cattle/in a valley just north of the covered bridge/on the Mississinewa”? Who else will notice the roadside crosses and stands of ditch weed “in the forgotten places where it still grows.”

The “forgotten” clearly has obsessed Carter over the years, and his work asks us to slow down and notice what we too might have been missing about those places we only think we know so well. Carter’s earlier poems tend to take place in the imaginary Mississenewa County (though the Mississinewa River, a tributary of the Wabash, is very real). His project thus brings to mind Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, but his later poems seek and achieve a greater timelessness and universality that reaches far beyond any hint of regionalism.

He writes in both free verse and traditional forms, often employing rhymes that sound so natural to the ear most readers will cruise right past them without noticing. Among the most thrilling discoveries in Darkened Rooms of Summer, for me, however, were the poems excerpted from his collection, Les Barricades Mysterieuses (Cleveland State University, 1999), which is a book composed of nothing but villanelles. A villanelle, with its two repeating lines and two end rhymes is hard to miss and even harder to write. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is probably the most anthologized and well-known example of this form, yet I was struck by how Carter (unlike Bishop and most others who attempt to write villanelles) refused to cheat. He did not tinker with the language in his repeating lines in order to make them fit, and only adjusts the punctuation here and there, very sparingly. The effect of the difficult-to-sustain repetition, in Carter’s hands, becomes incantatory, giving each of these poems an even more ephemeral, otherworldly quality. “Improvisation,” with its subtle, commanding tone, gives me the sense that Carter is once again talking about two things at once. On the surface of the poem, he is offering instructions for improvising on the piano, yet beneath that language seem to be imperatives related to his own creative process as well. Take the last lines, for instance:

Risk is the pilgrimage that cannot stay;
the keys grow silent in their smooth repose.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray.
Each time you start, expect to lose your way.

 

I cannot help but imagine a writer sitting before “the silent keys” of a typewriter or computer, trying to give herself the permission to “stray.” I think here of another of Carter’s possible ars poetica, “Mourning Dove Ascending” in which he discusses the uncommon, barely audible music of a bird taking flight:

It is a sound more rare, more hushed than song,
issuing not from the throat but the body,
the body working against time and space,
 
finding purchase, trusting in the outcome
of that endeavor . . .

 

The body of work gathered in Darkened Rooms has certainly “worked against time and space,” and it is clear enough to me that Carter has come out on top again and again, having “trusted in the outcome/of that endeavor.” His work will certainly endure, and this volume should help to cement his rightful place in American poetry as a maker of organic, authentic, and above all, sincere poems. One minor critique of the new book is that a few of my personal favorites are missing (the longer narrative, “Mussel Shell with Three Blanks Sawed Out” is one unfortunate omission), but there were no doubt issues of space to consider when publishing such an already generous sampling. And anyway, this is all the more reason for readers to seek out Carter’s previous collections, especially Cross This Bridge at a Walk (2006) and A Dance in the Street (2012), both from Wind Publications.

Having lived with Darkened Rooms for several months now, I keep casting about for poets with whom I might compare Jared Carter, but none come to mind. This is perhaps because the best poets, in their single-minded pursuit of excellence (often to the exclusion of material reward), become incomparable. And so, I can only add Carter to my own list of contemporary masters that includes poets like Wisława Szymborska, Tomas Tranströmer, Jane Hirshfield and Ted Kooser himself. I suspect that those in positions of power in the poetry world will go on rewarding the new and flashy, disdaining Auden’s long-forgotten dictum: “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” Nevertheless, those readers lucky enough to encounter Carter’s work will find themselves pleasantly surprised over and over by poems that are as timeless and solid as the stones I saw on that Oregon beach. And those of us who practice the craft of poetry will want to keep Darkened Rooms of Summer close at hand, so we can study these poems, and wonder how Jared Carter ushers us so seamlessly into his world, and thus, more deeply into our own.