Patricia Carlin's The Art of the Underneath: Second Nature
(Marsh Hawk Press, 2017)
In the James Kriegsmann, Jr. photograph that adorns the cover of Second Nature, Patricia Carlin’s new collection of poetry, a grafted orange tree laden with fruit rises from a square of dirt among cobblestones. A stubborn cluster of succors and weeds sprouts from its base. Behind the tree, a purple, spray-painted arrow lyrically defaces a peeling white wall. This scene initially resembles some urban haiku, the kind of subtle, humbly engaging image one might half-notice on a daily commute. However, look closer and a story emerges: the tree has been confined to a city-scape otherwise hostile to its continuance; possibly indigenous to the land on which the walls and streets have been built, it now coexists with elements of neglect and decay. The tree will survive in its cultivated form as long as it can—or as long as it is allowed to. But who makes that decision? What will ensure its triumph or undoing? In short, the more one examines the photograph, the more certain assumptions about what is deemed natural or commonplace are dismantled in a haze of doubt and wonder.
Not accidentally, the poems in Patricia Carlin’s third full collection engage readers in similar ways. “What’s underneath is never over,” she declares in “Square of Sense” more than mid-way through the book, as if the realities we try to re-graft into manageable forms are structured by logics not fully engaged or understood. Echoing this revelation, Carlin’s opening lines to “The Story of Quietude” assert that “People do not understand / the river of living /as it narrows and cities fall away / growing lighter, airier, closer to ‘real life.’” Indeed, throughout Second Nature, the poet repeatedly interrogates what we take as knowledge to demonstrate how such habitual forms of seeing limit our abilities to serve and represent the world.
Some of Carlin’s poems confront this theme on an ecological plane. In “This Fall,"
the sky is not falling.
But look, in the corner
Nothing spoiled—nothing running amok—
ust hard to believe
that all that leaking green
could ever be blotted up.
While the pun on “fall” in the opening line establishes the poem’s ironic tone, it also responds to certain ongoing fears about the continued health of the environment, fears not entirely assuaged by the lack of an instant apocalypse. A subtler, perhaps more insidious reality is at work, where all the “leaking green” is “blotted up” by “something unwelcome.” Deliberately euphemistic, these lines suggest more than they reveal, and are all-the-more menacing for it. Carlin’s subtle yet sardonic conception reveals how one’s appropriation of “reasonable” language to stem certain fears can actually expose urgency:
Not to worry. The protocol will save us.
Just wash, wash again, and look out—
a fern over here, a bear there, and leaves
leaving for better things.
They junked all that green,
and you can too.
Clearly, one must worry. As plants and animals “leave” nature, a process which falsely mimics the natural process of autumn leaves abandoning branches, the voice in this poem would have us believe that all the “blotting up” through environmental rape is as sensible and logical as the turn of the season. If we believe that voice, Carlin hints, we too will be forced to leave, and the acquisition of “better things” will not save us.
Another persona-based poem, “After Noon,” examines the existential despair involved in routine, mindless work. As the opening lines reveal,
It was noon by the clock,
but I lacked
ways to alter that. The promised tools
never arrived. And yes, I was afraid
of seeming to care too much, of letting
anything out. But really, I knew
that what I wanted
was already missing. Stolen—
trolls at work—ha ha, no such thing!
Then where did everything go?
The speaker tries to diminish her suffering through cynical humor, but ultimately knows her time is being wasted. “Finishing first, / last somewhere in the middle”, a certain nausea underpins her desire for release. Sadly, this desire is not adequately balanced by a pursuit of material independence:
...Who wants to encounter
deep pools, rockslides, falling through the air,
when you can be a grownup, and get
just where you always hoped you would?
Carlin tempers the speaker’s barely-concealed sarcasm with an earnest refusal to succumb to her predicament:
...Oh sure, you’ll say,
we’re all in the same leaky boat.
Well, I’m not. I remember
greener grasses. Lilies, floating. The cool
delicate feet of a salamander.
Here, as throughout Second Nature, Carlin repurposes tired tropes and clichés to interrogate habitual ways of thinking. The technique yields a variety of effects. In the passage above, “the same leaky boat” is swiftly dismissed in favor of remembering what was lost. Elsewhere, the careful placement of modifiers transforms hackneyed phrases into unexpected truths. “[T]here’s nothing new anyway / under the waning sun” Carlin laconically asserts in “[in the last hours of night]”: a common sentiment colored by the slightest brushstroke of dissonance ushers in new perceptions. In the same poem, the poet observes that animals “own the shining wordless world” while humans, who “look sideways” searching for explanations, must learn that “meaning itself / were slipping slowly / down a whitening slope / toward a long lingering radiant sunset.” The weight of many adjectives heightens the limitations and self-consciousness of representation through language—a problem unique to word-weary humans.
Underneath almost every poem in Second Nature is the famous Rilkean directive “You must change your life.” In a world of “just noise, noise, and whatever’s brewing in the fog light of consciousness” (“[on a day in December]”), Carlin enjoins one to “die to your old life” (“Alternate Universe”). This involves embracing the rigors of self-examination, a process conceived in terms of a near-mythological journey. In “Heading Home” which opens the collection, Carlin pre- pares readers for the arduous undertaking through a stark and powerful repudiation of traditional poetic imagery:
Leaving our cities for unknown ports.
Losing our papers, and paper itself
born of leaves and dirt.
No moon to light the corners.
No music sifting through trees...
The journey, she warns, will force us to question the familiar “words of knowing” that can only “return to the comfort- able darkness.” Encountering “Moods and light / equally unfamiliar” we will ask ourselves “What to call home, the scenery we feed on?” Reiterated through various conceits, Carlin’s theme evokes and deconstructs archetypal moons, trees, clocks, paper, water, and land, all referenced through striking contrasts like morning/night, nothing/something, and remembering/forgetting. Often, contradictions and confusions are resolved through paradox: “You know the sound / his key makes in the lock— / can greet his never-again // arrival / with never again child and wife” (“Exacto Knife”)
Only the bravest, clearest-eyed sojourners need bother working through the poems in Second Nature, for Carlin refuses to impose satisfactory returns where they are not possible. As she reveals in “Child’s Toy,” “‘If’ is not the doorway back. / There is no doorway back.” And yet, such breathtaking beauty is evinced in the book’s most difficult moments. To my way of thinking, “All Reports” is as near perfect as any contemporary poem could be, in part because of its terrible honesty: “You must not forget. // You will not remember.”
One has little chance of forgetting Carlin’s obsessions in Second Nature. So persistently do images and themes call and respond to each other that the collection reads not like a gathering of independent poems but rather a deftly-orchestrated suite of songs. If in “Islands of ” there is a resigned despair because “My pure self...does not love...is not loved”, “City Limits” offers certain consolation: “Once you loved the man /whose touch still satisfies, / and that is enough.” Here as elsewhere in Second Nature, the singing from one poem is harmonized against another so that the overall progression feels circular rather than linear. Complex, precise and never sentimental, Carlin’s poems resist definite closure. Instead, like magic tree sculptures, they branch and leaf towards their instinctive shapes, then continue climbing the air long after their edges have been reached.
TONY LEUZZI's books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with twenty American poets.