Poetry as Commentary (or Irreverence Imitates Life)

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Sure, over 300 people subscribe to this blog, but who knows what percentage actually read each post? Even more obscure? The percentage that bother reading or writing comments.

If you are part of the rare, comment-reading breed here on “Updates on a Free-Verse Life,” you’ve no doubt come across that boisterous peanut gallery known as “carter7878.” Who is this 7878 guy anyway, you might ask? Turns out, his day job is not critic-at-large, but poet. One by the name of Jefferson Carter.

For Carter, comments come easy. He’s been around the bush (just don’t say George Bush) a few times, and he does not lack for opinions. And, as he’d be the first to tell you, he sometimes steps on toes, sometimes regrets what he says, and sometimes doesn’t. At all.

Read his poems, though, and you’ll find more nuance, strains both similar and different from his critic voice. First thing you’ll notice is the simplicity. His is the voice declaring war on wordiness and sentimentality. Eminently approachable, his voice is at home with such quotidian topics as marriage, cats, and the state of America’s sadly-divided State.

As you read the poems below, focus on the voice, which of course belongs to each poem’s speaker and not necessarily its author. The sometimes caustic commentator is there, sure, but so is a softer side, bringing to mind turtles, who are hard on the outside (carapace) but soft on the inside (soup).

How else do you explain such devotion to cats and a wife of many years? In the case of the former, he is similar to Hemingway (just don’t tell him as much, because EH is lower than the bottom of a well on his list) — tough, but sensitive, and happiest when surrounded by cats (who to this day rule Hemingway’s houses in both Key West and Cuba).

Ready, then? Feline fine? Try these two:

 

CAT & APOCALYPSE

I’m watching our little black cat
sitting in the sink, drinking
from the faucet, her eyes closed
in ecstasy. When the world ends,
I won’t mourn my fucked-up species.
I’ll regret our cat’s moment of terror
when the water turns to flame.

 

CAT & TRANSIENT

The homeless guy who lowers himself
down beside me on the bench
outside the Co-op? He’s generic,
more dirt than human. As if
my father’s ill spirit possesses me,
I almost snarl “Hey! I’m eating here,”
his stink killing my appetite for the bowl
of organic jackfruit on my lap. I stand,
ashamed, give him a dollar & walk away
after dumping the paper bowl
into a trashcan advertising the pleasures
of our historic shopping district.
I swore I’d stop writing about liberal guilt
& about cats too, but I must confess
last night, I groomed our little black cat
with my tongue & watched her perpetually
startled gold eyes widen as I licked her neck
& then her belly, inhaling her scent.
In Japan, childless couples can rent
a cat by the hour to sniff its belly, which
smells like the crown of a baby’s head.

 

Marriage has always proven fertile ground for writers, especially the Venus vs. Mars angle, creating those sparks we know as conflict and love. “Life Partner,” originally appearing in Rattle, works because it doesn’t forget its sense of humor — by no small coincidence, the secret ingredient to every successful marriage.

 

LIFE PARTNER

For convenience, I & my life partner
(the woman formerly known as my wife)
have numbered our arguments. Number 3,
you’re so negative. Number 8, you’re
naive. Number 11, another beer already?
Number 13, you don’t listen to me.
But I do. I just don’t agree. Now
my life partner’s on the couch, watching
Live P.D. She’s pleased with the police,
so kind to the miscreants & trailer trash
they apprehend. Of course, they’re
kind! They’re on camera! Without
looking at me, she holds up three fingers.
My life partner wants to make a deal:
she’ll stop storing our broken pepper mill
upright in the spice rack, pepper everywhere
like coarse soot, she’ll store the mill
on its side if I stop switching off the light
over the dining-room table whenever
she’s in another room. Why? Why
does she need that light on all day?
She raises both fists & opens each one
twice. Number 20, you don’t love me.

 

Carter, very much in tune with the political turmoil around him, is not afraid of leaving the door open for politics in his poetry, either. Where angels fear to tread, he marches confidently, taking on race. Here, in a poem which had its original moment during another Jefferson’s Administration, is a poem as current now as it was when TJ was singing his way across Hamilton‘s stage. Check out the alliteration and metaphor, all delivered in a neat, 10-line package.

 

MOCKINGBIRD

Our third president owned
a pet mockingbird named Dick.
Let’s not mention what else
he owned. Dick dug Monticello,
that big white layer cake.
He’d click & chatter. He’d mimic
the field slaves’ hosannahs
until he’d almost faint, wobbling
on his perch like a double
handful of dirty cotton.

 

Give Carter his due. He may hate the term “prose poetry” and bemoan the legions trying (and failing) to write poetry nowadays and express absolute confidence about who the good poets are and who the bad ones are, but at least he puts himself out there, too. Out where other people can comment, pro or con.

It’s only fair. And if it isn’t, I’m sure he’ll say as much.

 

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