Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Useless Window

How to—
it must mean remove or open

Extract and yet signify,

Those lines appear in the middle of a poem sequence, “Vermilion,” from a new chapbook by my friend and coworker Carrie Olivia Adams, A Useless Window, and, as much as anything, they encapsulate the essence of her poetry. I imagine an object, held in the hand, its origin and purpose unclear—but the holder’s purpose, the need to understand and assign meaning, insistent and unflagging.

The poems are filled with such objects—the detritus of our lives, but seen from an angle, the light shading around them, adding an air of ineffability and mystery to their everydayness. Gifts are given, maybe received, boxes are wrapped with twine, letters are sent, unsent, go missing. Objects get wedged in couch cushions, roll under bureaus, forgotten, restless and fugitive like understanding itself. Paint chips, boxes, radiators, thread—all have their places, though the why and how of their being will remain forever uncertain, no matter how much we push to make them share our meanings. The best we can hope for, and what A Useless Window frequently, wonderfully provides, is
the brilliance of the moment
in which the invisible gleams
from the edges.

The poem that opens the book, “On Leaving: An Essay”(which is available in its entirety here), begins by attempting the impossible: to order, in outline form, the elements of a leaving. So we get what remains (the dust of the luna moth), what is taken (twine), what cannot be kept despite a desire to do so (an inverted tongue placed between pages of a dictionary, but, unlike a flower, unpreservable); and a complete absence representing that which we have forgotten. Our forgettings in this poem are the only elements that are truly lost, as even excisions and revisions are retained, accorded a page of their own at the closing. It’s a powerful poem, its spareness emphasizing its many strong images and ideas. “Hands ask what eyes can’t. They lead the leaving.”

Throughout the poems, moments of potential tranquility are disrupted by an insistent desire to communicate:
A pause.
I wanted to rise, believing
this was the moment in which you knew.
Instead, I looked up from my waiting,
toward you. Yet there wasn’t.
Not a movement.
Not an angle of light.
I kept pressing the look.

And for all that their imagery is sometimes oblique, not always transparent, these poems implore us to understand, to allow their meaning to bridge the seemingly insurmountable distance between independent beings. And the dangers of failure are clear:

are you hearing this?
The night sky dims:

We will lose our way
in these red chambers.

Our palms with the look of blood already.

That urgency carries through every aspect of the poetry. There is a sense of ground gone over and over, precision hunted relentlessly, lines honed in the knowledge that soon they will have to be turned loose, released like a bird from the hand. Control must be surrendered; the book must be sent out into the world:
If you could look at me
when my words find you;

If you could tell me
that they have arrived.

I think the most appropriate response to A Useless Window would be for me to leave it on the subway, or in a shadowy booth at a restaurant. Or I could pick an address from the phone book and mail it there, using old, forgotten stamps. Perhaps I should leave it anonymously in a rented room,
Tucked somewhere underneath the mattress, tight to the box springs.

I’d thus transform it into a mysterious relic, left for a stranger to find and interpret. The book deserves at least that much. But I am greedy about books, and I like this one a lot and will return to it, so it will stay in my house, among the ordinary things of life. Which Carrie clearly understands, for
The commonplace might be miraculous

and never enough.

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