Jared Carter has taken his time producing his first full-length collection, and the result is a performance of remarkable maturity. A glance at the acknowledgments shows that most of the poems had their previous publications only a year or two before the book appeared, but that a few go back to 1969. Nevertheless, this book does not contain the experiments, the tried-on voices and forms, that characterize many first books. Carter has decided what he is doing, and he sets about doing it knowledgeably.
Most of the poems have a kind of geographical setting or background in the Middle West; the place is identified in some of the poems as Mississinewa County, which Carter says is “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County.” It is a place where the past is remembered, talked over by men in trucks on their way to construction sites, by loafers on the porches of village stores. The pace of life, and of the poems, is steady and patient; the details of both are seen as something to be treasured.
The first poem in the book, while not explicitly placed in this setting, provides something like an epigraph for the poet’s concerns; it is called “Geodes,” and is ostensibly about the rock-hound’s pleasure in these hollow stones lined with crystals. Without strain or insistence, the end of the poem becomes metaphorical:
I take each one up like a safecracker listening
For the lapse within, the moment crystal turns
On crystal. It is all waiting there in darkness.
I want to know only that things gather themselves
With great patience, that they do this forever.
So it is with the events and people of these poems; one has the feeling that Carter has carried them around in his head for most of his life, not as “ideas for poems,” but as matters that have gathered meaning with the same patience with which the poet seems to have developed his craft.
For this reason, many of these poems, agreeable as they are on first reading, often require an immediate second reading, because Carter has a pronounced tendency not to force a meaning upon an event. Many of these poems are brief narratives of past events, but they end almost abruptly, without proffering the kind of self-conscious “closure” that might have given the reader too easily a sense that he had come to what the whole poem was driving at. “Turning the Brick,” for example, is a short poem about the Depression years, when men were given work which had to be invented; on their hands and knees, they came up the brick-paved street, giving each brick a quarter-turn. The bricks themselves are decorated on the bottom, with emblems or a date; one is held out for the children to look at, and then replaced, and the man goes on with his job. It is a fully realized moment, like an unusually informative old photograph; no single detail in the poem has been put there to advertise what is “poetic” about this scene, or to insist on a “meaning.” Yet at the end of the poem, one thinks, “Yes, that is how it was; I should know, because I have just been there.”
Occasionally, Carter will create more conclusive effects at the end of a poem. “The Undertaker” is a carefully detailed narrative of the trials of one Sefe Graybill, the only bidder on the task of moving three hundred graves from a cemetery about to be flooded by a new reservoir. Because no one in the immediate area will work for him, Graybill drives northward to small crossroads cafes, finding aging men who need the money he will pay, by the grave, for this task. Two stanzas describe the men’s slow discovery of continuity, of the fact that they are older than the men who once dug these graves and are now dead; and of various artifacts buried with a few of the older citizens. The end of the poem, then, uses the word “last” in a way that has earned a rich burden:
Fell overcome with heat, one did, the first day;
Another struck by the sun; two more threw down their tools...
(The entire section is 1658 words.)