All Too Real

Work, for the Night Is Coming

by Jared Carter
Macmillan, 47 pp., $5.95 (paper)

A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981

by Adrienne Rich
Norton, 61 pp., $4.95 (paper)

One for the Rose

by Philip Levine
Atheneum, 80 pp., $5.95 (paper)

American poets have, on the whole, a distrust of fantasy or fictions; they tend to give even invented stories a coat of circumstantial and gritty realism, full of aggressive details—identifiable, limiting, specified items. Jared Carter’s well-written new book Work, for the Night Is Coming specifies down to the fingers the look of men doing make-work in the Depression:

They had their shirts off,
Down on their knees—old scars
Flared in the sunlight, tattoos
Glistened on their arms. Men

With no teeth, with noses
Turned and bent, fingers missing.

Without a break, the poem veers from the shirtless, scarred, tattooed, toothless, gap-fingered men to the equally carefully specified bricks:

The bricks were tan-colored;
Each had a picture on the bottom:

A scene of ships, a name, a date.

The import subliminally conveyed by such fine brushwork is the metaphysical significance of the men (individuated) and the bricks (faithfully rendered, underside and all). Since the poem is about the unimportance, in worldly terms, of the men and the bricks (the anonymous men, out of work, being employed by the government to give each anonymous brick in the street a quarter-turn and replace it), the aesthetic choice of multiple detail implies that poetry exists to rescue the otherwise-forgotten humble and despised things around us. Carter’s is a poetry of a resolute middle distance, firmly of this world: between the dust under the earth and the dust of space there exists the place that the poem can illumine:

What light reveals
Here, in this room, is the grain of the bare oak floor
And the shadows of leaves moving with the grain.

Carter trains a steady gaze on this middle ground of nature and architecture. But he is pulled away from it in two opposite directions—one more “realistic,” the other more “symbolic.” He tries, in some poems, to speak as a historical character, endowing his own present-day voice with “realistic” historical weight by speaking, say, as John Dillinger; in yet other poems, the apparently realistic surface proclaims itself, by open declaration, as in fact the façade of a symbol. The forced quality of Carter’s conscientious “historical” realism is visible in Dillinger’s speech:

I stick in your craw, O Hoosier Commonwealth,
Because I made it look easy.
I cleaned out your tinhorn banks and arsenals,
I bamboozled your redneck sheriffs and jailers—
And yawned.

Precisely why the yawning and bamboozling and sticking in the Hoosier craw seem so unconvincing in the mouth of this “desperado” (as Carter’s headnote calls Dillinger) is a little hard to say. We feel perhaps that Dillinger would not say “O Hoosier Commonwealth” like some latter-day Whitman; the poem consequently becomes an utterance without a credible speaker—like most, if not all, poems written recently in a “historic” voice.

The technique is now a favorite one among poets looking for a topic: you find an old military diary, or the journals of a pioneer, and you write about the Great Fire of …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.