It has been three years since Jefferson Carter published his most-recent and deeply satisfying verse collection, My Kind of Animal. The themed poems gathered in Animal speak to the idea that man, another dumb beast, redeems himself with humor.
Even accepting that a divine spark animates us, Carter consistently keeps his tongue in jowl. His verse in that book remains playful and poignant. You should own a copy.
The Tucson poet's latest collection, Get Serious: New and Selected Poems, is a different beast. The 33 brand-new poems, which precede a larger group from previously published and long-out-of-print collections, are cruel by comparison. It's as if, minus a menagerie of creatures to lighten his tone, Carter lets a bit of nihilism creep into his recent stanzas. Serious sounds at times like an aging, embittered poet's final testament or last verses. Previously, Carter could stare into a cat's butthole ("Please," included in Serious) and sniff a geriatric yogi's fart ("Helen," also included), and weave emotional poetry out of such indignities. With the new poems, he doesn't bother to sugar life's lemons into something tasty and refreshing. He squeezes in the rinds and seeds—and expects us to drink.
Take the book's opening poem. It's an ugly self-portrait called "Stone Loop," in which the instinct of writing a poem is undermined, ridiculed. Halfway through an aborted liftoff, the single stanza drifts into comic self-abnegation.
Where was I? Not
in the middle of my life,
not like Dante entering
the profound wood. More like
a sit-down comedian, a communist
allergic to theory, a retired
ping-pong with his wife.
The funny yet pity-inducing metaphors pile up to hopeless effect. It may cause readers to ask: If writing poetry in one's later years contradicts, and is so inherently at odds with, the joy and light of existence, why should I bother reading this book? Before, Carter could smile, even bow, to absurdity's divine traces. He now allows concrete absurdities the final say. Sure, they resonate with a measure of truth. But these farcical moments suppurate like infected wounds in a reader's mind.
An example: the entirety of "Victim Poetry," which begins with a zinger.
Cliterature just rejected
my latest poems.
It's three P.M.
& I go back to bed.
I wake to the sound
of gospel-sized hail.
I go back to sleep,
my new Posturepedic
for a bad back & thin skin,
so comfy you'll never
get up again.
The idea of a verse magazine named after a word play on women's anatomy is humorous. A rejected poet soothing his wounds with a midafternoon nap is silly. But the coup de grace—sinking into the coffin of a designed-for-old-folks bed as a storm batters the windows—is an expression of a poet's bad faith.
Get up and gaze into some kitty bung, I want to tell the poet. Also, that two of Carter's new poems end with an image of formaldehyde tempts me to urge: Do not go quietly into that embalming preserve! The bard dwells inordinately on death's decisiveness.
When he remembers to pop his literary Viagra, Carter is compelling. The delightful "Sunlight" illuminates a scene, years ago, when a poet recites his verse while sandwiched in bed between a girlfriend and her older sister. This, and other poems, like the randy "Mall," brighten the book's overall tone.
They're not enough to balance what should have been a triumphant collection. It's great to encounter rich poems I hadn't read before, like those from 1987's impossible-to-find None of This Will Kill Me. Ovid-referencing "A Centaur," yoga-riffing "Johnny-Jump-Up" and the flu-borne "Strep Throat" are some of the finest verse devoted to family and how the institution is a force that changes people. Often for the better, but sometimes for the worse.
Still, the desolate humor and poetry-insider-on-the-outside approach of the first 45 pages are tough to overcome. Carter is a powerful, underestimated poet who deserves a Billy Collins-size audience. Too bad Carter doesn't care to please an NPR-listening audience.
He should consider sneaking Splenda into his moody lemonade.