The Past in Fragments: an Interview with Julie Carr

by Andrew Zawacki

Julie Carr’s unit of composition has tended toward the book, allowing her a wide, elastic format for thinking—and feeling—her way through an array of intertwined issues. Ranging in form from prose poetry to couplets, bi-columnar lyrics to concrete poems, Mead: An Epithalamion (University of Georgia Press, 2004) is divided into sixty-four numbered sections that address marriage, the maternal, and relations between inside and out, even as they tellingly misquote the language of earlier writers such as Arnold, Hopkins, and Spenser. Equivocal (Alice James Books, 2007) is convened in quartets—“Wrought,” “Letter Box,” “Eleven Odes,” and the title section—furthering Carr’s investigation of the signifying potential of a language alternately fractured and recomposed.

That book’s tripartite prose piece “Iliadic Familias (with insertions from Homer)”—with its loaded accusation “We do not want to listen to our children fighting because it will distract us from the war, which is making us cry”—heralds Carr’s follow-up, 100 Notes on Violence (Ahsahta Press, 2009), a book-length meditation on our so-called culture of incarceration and infanticide, Internet stalking and hate speech blogs, guns and rape and behind-the-scenes terror. Its commitment to citation, as a means of deriving consolation or provoking a response, takes the work into the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, the Brady Campaign, the Phobia List, and the writings of Arendt, Sontag, Scarry, and Shakespeare. The urgency, risk, and discomfort of 100 Notes’s topics push the limits of representation, on ethical and phenomenological levels alike, and threaten the borders of “the book” as such.

Carr’s new volume of poetry, Sarah—of Fragments and Lines (Coffee House Press, $16), is almost an aftermath—or afterlife—to these pressing, oppressive encounters. Weaving like wind among echoes and abstracts, monodies and metaphors, becoming a mother again and losing a mom, Sarah— selected by Eileen Myles for the National Poetry Series—manages to sound like a paean of grief, delivered by a singer suspended between two sides. One is the past, with its ghosts and unkept promises, its desires fulfilled or else gone astray; the other is the future’s promise of moving on—and of purifying return.

Andrew Zawacki: “I’m ready to cannibalize my own past,” you write in “Lines for the New Year,” inSarah—Of Fragments and Lines. Is that true in this new book—or is it a resolution of sorts?

Julie Carr: In this book I am interested in writing about a personal story through an overriding metaphor. When we write autobiographically we are, in a sense, cannibalizing ourselves—taking apart our own lives for the sake of this thing that we are making. Especially when one is writing about tragic or difficult events in one’s life, this process can feel like a kind of violence. We take something very sad, very painful, and turn it into this other thing—the poem or the book. This can be, and often is, a powerful and positive transformation, but it can also feel like an invasion of the life.

AZ: Much of Sarah seems poised between, on one hand, “Conception” and “Pregnancy,” the “Birthday,” even “Futurity” itself, as several of your Abstracts and Fragments are titled, and on the other, “Death,” “Exhaustion,” and “Motherless”ness. I’m intrigued by this difference—or continuum?—especially as it’s governed by the idea, “if she’s pregnant the baby will keep her mother alive.” Could you say something about the relationship between birth and death, origin and end, the rapport between “To enter or inter,” throughout the book?

JC: I wrote this book while pregnant with my third child, Lucy. During this time, my mother was moving into the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. So I was losing her, I was creating another; as one part of my psyche and body were directed toward the future, another very enormous part of my emotional life was directed backward toward my mother (and I was physically separated from her too, living for a few months in France). This double movement or split kept me up most nights and kept me writing.

There are a number of poems in the book titled “waiting,” because I was doing these very different kinds of waiting: waiting for my daughter to be born, waiting for my mother to die (though she is still alive now). So I felt myself to be intensely close to the edges of being, felt I was existing right on those edges—or is it one edge? Is there a difference between the unborn and the dead, or do they somehow exist in the same space? In what sense do they exist at all?

In the poem you just quoted, “Inward Abstracts,” I became interested in the fact that the words “enter” and “inter” are etymologically linked to “terra,” or earth. In fact, our word “enter” comes from the Latin for “inter.” So as bodies enter the earth from within the body of the mother, others are interred back into the body of the earth. It’s very simple, this movement of bodies in and out. Where do they go and where do they come from? These are the questions that children ask.

AZ: Following close on the publication of 100 Notes on Violence, this will be your fourth full-length collection. Was it the fourth manuscript you wrote? How do you see Sarah participating in 100 Notes, in terms of their respective—or overlapping—projects?

JC: I wrote Sarah mostly before writing 100 Notes on Violence, though I say “mostly” because the two projects did overlap quite a bit. 100 Notes is an attempt to turn my lens outward, to focus on my larger community rather than so intently on my familial or intimate surroundings. It was not that I wanted to “get away” from the self or from autobiography, for I agree with the truism that “all writing is autobiography.” However, our community, by which we might mean our neighborhood, our city, our country, our planet, is not distinct from our family-life, not divorced from our personal narratives. I wanted to broaden my reach to write from a larger sense of that community. But the two books differ quite a bit formally and tonally. While Sarah is a lyrical book, a sonorous book in many ways, 100 Notesis a bit cooler, is less involved in sound (though every bit as invested in rhythm). I think the sound-play in Sarah is very much rooted in an emotional state, or a series of emotional states. Vowel sounds are driven, I think, by emotion, they have emotional resonance and emotional roots.

AZ: You claim in “Grief Abstracts” that, “The doubled woman is a common thing.” What exactly do you mean by that? I can’t help but notice a whole battery of doublings occurring across the book, whether in explicit statements—“I rise and am two,” “walked one shoe on one shoe off”—or in your formal penchant for staging bifurcated “Fragments.” What is the role of duality in this work?

JC: Very simply I meant that when a woman is pregnant, she is double—she is two people. And as odd as this is, it’s entirely common. However, even the Microsoft Word, with which I am writing, reads the phrase “she is two people” as a grammatical error. As common as it is, we have not fully incorporated this fact into our understanding of subjectivity.

Throughout the book there is a doubling of persons: a sense that one’s singularity is entirely fictional. I am my daughter and she is me. It follows logically, then, that I am my mother and she is me. Once you realize this—I mean viscerally feel it—doubling is no longer an idea, it’s a reality, it’s the reality.

AZ: The poems sometimes investigate the etymologies of words, or else create a sort of sonic declension or conjugation, frequently in triplicate: “Of Bibles . . . and bile and bills,” for example, or “sweet cake, wet ache, weak hate.” What do you think attracts you to these recursions and verbal glissandos?

JC: As I said, I was living in France during much of the writing of this book. I don’t speak French, but was attempting to read in French (mostly magazines). Therefore I was constantly looking up words, reading their etymologies, seeking out the connections between French words and their English equivalents or approximations. This might link back to your question about doubling too—two languages were driving the writing. I became interested in pulling English apart, in seeking etymologies and false etymologies. I am also a reader of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his journals you find him tracing words, or chasing words, looking for roots and homophones, and making up etymologies that are entirely wrong but somehow plausible. Many of his false etymologies are based on sound-associations. I played a similar game in the making of many of these poems. As I said above, vowels are emotional, and babies speak first in vowel sounds. So assonance played an important part in my investigations of my subjects.

Nathaniel Mackey’s essay “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol” has had a powerful effect on how I think about sound in poetry. Mackey explains that for the Kaluli of Papua, New Guinea, poetry and music are associated with birds and with weeping, weeping that arises out of some kind of breach in kinship, a death or a loss. The musical aspect of poetry, writes Mackey, allows us access to that which is beyond the tangible, beyond the empirically experienced. Mackey borrows the following from Octavio Paz: “Thanks to poetry, language reconquers its original state. First, its plastic and sonorous values, generally disdained by thought; next, the affective values; and, finally, the expressive ones.” My hope is that this book explores the plastic and sonorous values of language in order to give access to the affective realm.

AZ: One of the most poignant, painful dynamics recurring in the book, under various guises, is that of enclosure or claustrophobia: the sense of “can’t get out,” of the word “home” as “sickening,” of being, as you put it so economically, “Bound bound.” What might have been driving the writing toward such felt constriction?

JC: That summer my mother was placed in a nursing home. After that, she basically never went outside again, except for a few walks at first. She had long since been unable to go anywhere by herself. She who loved the outdoors, cold air, wind, gardening, boats, was now contained within a few rooms and halls. But we are all bound within our families, which is to say, within the family of the human. The poem you are referring to is “Leapt,” which is a rewriting of Blake’s “Infant Sorrow.” Blake, speaking from the voice of the infant, writes “bound and weary I thought best / to sulk upon my mother’s breast.” I’ve always loved that poem. The newborn is immediately bound, swaddled of course, and bound into the drama of the family, and yet she is also bound in a few other senses: bound as in committed, bound as in ready and intentional, and we also hear bound as a verb—the baby bounds or leaps into the world. Blake’s infant might be the French Revolution, or democracy itself, sulking and weary after The Terror (actually, Blake printed Songs of Experience in 1794, the year of The Terror, so perhaps the poem is prescient). With that “sulking” we get the sense that the infant revolution is simply waiting for its next move, waiting for a more realized freedom. In my poem, constriction might lead to further freedom too. Constrained within language the new person will nonetheless make use of language to find her freedom. I write of the baby “diagnosed by air: out and triggered,” which is to say we are defined by our environment, by the social environment as much as by the air we breathe, but we are also ready to go, ready, maybe, to explode, to find some kind of freedom at any cost. The tragedy for my mother is that she lost language first. And without language she is truly bound, isolated and inactive.

AZ: I’m very interested in how, at some points in the poems, whether eerily or joyously, people are said to pass through one another, like ghosts, and how other moments are “dressed in the silence of being never another,” the speaker claiming of this exclusivity, “I tire of I.” What’s at work in this inquiry into singularity and plurality? Is it a metaphysical concern, a phenomenological gambit, a concern with community maybe?

JC: As I write this I am watching a man holding his newborn. The mother is sitting nearby. Again, a common sight, nothing unusual. But at this point this little family appears as a single body. I’m not sure I’d call this blending of selves “metaphysical.” I think it is entirely physical. We do pass through each other, bodily.

AZ: I wonder about your relationship to citation. Sarah closes with a series of notes, as 100 Notes does, and “(Hölderlin)” appears in one of these recent poems, just as myriad writers showed up parenthetically throughout your previous book. Also, the last words of Sarahcomprise a quotation from the Book of Daniel. Could you speak about your practice of quotation? I suppose I’m asking, in a way, about your reading practices . . .

JC: All writers quote—some acknowledge it, some don’t. Sometimes, or often, we quote without knowing it, or we feel another writer guiding us, but we are not sure how. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge how much my reading informs my writing. Always I read with a pen in my hand and I write with books open. It’s a fluid process of exchange.

100 Notes was very much a research project: I read constantly in order to think about a topic that was otherwise too difficult to face. But when writing Sarah I read only a few very important books. Foremost among them were the works of Paul Auster. I had read Auster before, but being in Paris it seemed to make sense to reread what I’d read and read whatever I hadn’t. I don’t quote from Auster anywhere in the book, but his work is there anyway, especially his first book, The Invention of Solitude, which is about his father, an absent presence. Auster opens that book with a passage about the shocking permeability of “the invisible boundary between life and death.” He ends the section about his father’s death with an image of his infant son, “his sweet and ferocious little body, as he lies upstairs in his crib sleeping.”

AZ: Reading “Death Fragment 1,” in which two “messages” arrive—one (“your mother is dead”) contradicting the other (“your mother is not dead”)—I couldn’t help but be reminded of Robert Duncan’s “Two Presentations,” where his dead mother returns in a dream. Moreover, “It was she, I thought,” Duncan writes, “but the sign / was of another,” and of course he’s speaking of his pair of mothers, since his biological mother died at childbirth and he was raised by another woman. I don’t presume you’re writing ‘after’ Duncan, but whoever Sarah is, she’s certainly a surrogate mother, foremost among “all women who were not my mother but who I imagined as my mother,” and seems to occupy a place somewhere beyond life or death. At the risk of asking you to clarify or explain what, out of mystery, you’ve committed to the alternative logic of poetry: who is Sarah?

JC: Sarah in the Torah is the first matriarch of the Jewish people, the mother of all mothers. I was writing for and about my own mother, but not exactly about her personally, about something more general—her belonging to the family of mothers. So I replaced her name with the name of Sarah. Also, Sarah was the name of her nanny when she was growing up. Her own mother was not very nurturing. Whenever my mother told stories about being loved as a child, the stories were about Sarah. I wanted to honor this woman I’d never meet but who was, in a way, my grandmother. She’s the one who ironed my mother’s dresses, packed her lunches, combed her hair. At least that’s how it was told to me. Anyone can “mother” another person if to mother is to care for and protect, and I wanted to speak to the mothering that is ubiquitous, abstract, and potentially (hopefully) present in anyone’s life.

The Biblical Sarah does exist in a place beyond life and death, or outside of linear time. For the Jews, now-time is the time of fulfillment, the time of God’s promise. The contractual relationship between the person and God is not delayed into a future-time, or existing in some historical past, it is now. Levinas wrote, “When man truly approaches the Other, he is uprooted from history.” As children, we are taught that what happened to the Jews in Egypt happens to us every year. This is an enormous subject, so I’ll leave it there for now.

AZ: How and when did the discrete forms of these poems arrive? At what point did the “Fragments,” the “Abstracts,” and “Lines” declare themselves as the right conduits for what the poems wanted to say? And why did the “Abstracts” not make their way into the book’s title, while the other two structures have?

JC: Everything I’ve written has started from form. I try to do the obvious—whatever seems obvious to me to do next. We talk all the time about “abstraction” in poetry; often it’s considered a “bad” thing. But as much as I agree with Stein that poetry is about the “using, abusing, and desiring” of nouns, and as much as I feel I’ve been raised on “no ideas but in things,” I also know that Stein’s nouns are not just the things they refer to, but themselves as well, words are nouns—and it is for the love of these words that we write. William’s “ideas,” though perhaps grounded in “things”—waterfalls, stones, hospitals, plums—soar far away from those things into a realm of almost pure abstraction (especially in Paterson). It seemed to make sense to attempt to embrace the “abstract” while staying close to something we can call subject-matter. The poems called “fragments” and “lines” were similarly attempts to explore more directly and singularly the component parts of poems. The other form, unnamed, is that of the epistolary poem, the poems addressed to “Sarah.” These were the first poems written for the book, and they grew out of a desire to do something like what Mark McMorris manages in his “Dear Michael” poems, now published in Entrepot. I first heard him read these in 2003 in Berkeley, and they have truly haunted me ever since. I didn’t care who Michael was; it didn’t seem to matter. The address gave the poems urgency and intimacy, and just an edge of narrative. I wanted to create that too.

As for the subtitle, it feels to me that my mother is now a fragment, and I had written “lines” to commemorate her, or address her. I didn’t include “abstracts” in the title only because it seemed to push the book toward something more “formal” than felt. It’s always a struggle to balance the competing pulls of emotion and cognition, form and content, surface and depth. I wanted the title to have all of these qualities, but not to lean too heavily toward one or the other. A name, one could say, is already an abstraction. A rose is a rose is a rose.

Click here to purchase Sarah: Of Fragments and Lines at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase 100 Notes on Violence at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010