Is it safe to say today's poets are a joyless, cantankerous lot? I think so. However, in a world in which we are consistently bombarded with advertising images promising us enhanced joy, fun, health and money—if only we'd purchase certain products—perhaps adopting a joyless, cantankerous pose is the last rebellious option left to the modern poet.
Of course, the only creatures shielded from this messaging and attitudinal dilemma seem to be animals. Maybe this explains why Tucson poet Jefferson Carter feels an ironic but nonetheless genuine affinity for them.
Carter's eighth collection of poems, My Kind of Animal, published by Tucson's Chax Press, walks a line between melancholy and mirth. He uses verse as a kind of inner bullshit detector to determine whether he's sinking into maudlin self-absorption, or whether he's got something interesting to say. More often than not, he's interesting. But even when he's navel-gazing, he realizes it, ridicules it, and does it so charmingly. Animal makes for compelling reading, especially by today's standards.
The book's title comes from leadoff poem, "Please," in which the speaker awakens to the sight of cat butt. Grossed out, he fails to bond with the feline because of its incessant desire to rub its scent on, well, everything, including its owner, and he instead dreams of ungulates (i.e., hoofed animals). He admires them, because he hears they possess "table manners." Ultimately, his thoughts head in the direction of humanity: "Before / the plague of white-eyes, / each nation called itself / 'the people.' Take / my species. Please." The notion that man isn't worth (or is at best on par with) smelly cat butt is implied, yet resonates powerfully in the final lines, causing me to crack a smile. Mirth and melancholy, indeed.
OK, so you're not laughing out loud. Fart jokes are more your speed? Then you'll adore "Helen," about a 90-year-old yoga student who cuts the cheese during class "like an old Vespa among the scented candles." Rather than be insulted or find humor in senior-citizen tooting, the speaker concentrates and practices
ujaiyi breath, pretending I'm fogging
a mirror, imagining my blurred reflection,
which is almost nothing & preparing
to bow & say the divine in me
bows to the divine in you.
That "Helen" ends with the speaker bowing to the celestial aspect of a gassy old gal strikes this reviewer as pretty funny, wild and poignant. It's a delicate balance, yet Carter makes it look easy.
Another remarkable, if more self-referential, poem is "Why I Drink at Poetry Readings." Here, the speaker attempts to drown out the nonsense of—let's face it—most poetry readings with the help of his own sangria concoction, which he's conveniently poured into a thermos: "cheap merlot, / leftover brandy, chopped-up lemons / & the tip of my right thumb / among the ice cubes, clicking, / a sound no one's noticed." The recipe is almost enough to ride out the wave of metaphor-challenged poems that compare "Marxism to a bicyclist leaning / against a silver fire hydrant, / admiring his day-glo orange shoes." And even as the clichés pile on top of each other, the speaker, drunk but still cognizant of his own relentless hypocrisy, joins in at the conclusion of each poem and, instead of throwing his thermos in the poet's face, claps his hands, to borrow a cliché, "to beat the band." Like an unhappy, enslaved seal.
But Animal's best moments are those that deal directly with animals. "Otis," for instance, is the loveliest of eulogies.
The vet opens our dog's mouth
& shows us the gray mass on his palate,
the tumor that's grown so big
his breath whistles through one nostril.
Our options—$6,000 for radiation
or do nothing, Goddamn anyone
who denies him a soul. My wife
squats beside him on the linoleum floor,
crooning as he whistles into her palm.
If you haven't already, add Carter to the long list of first-rate authors (Lydia Millet, etc.) living in Tucson. And add Tucson-based Chax Press to the list of top-flight poetry publishers.
Like any great beast, Carter's imagination is vivid, visceral and a wonder to behold. My Kind of Animal is every verse-lover's kind of poetry collection.