Marsh Hawk Press; 2003; 77 pages; $12.95
ISBN 0-9724785-0-7, paper
Reviewed by Carl Rosenstock
The Liar's Paradox was invented by the 4th century B.C. philosopher Eubulides, the successor to Euclid. In its simplest form, it is the proposition "This statement is false" or (more to the point) "I am lying." A perfect, and perfectly vicious, circle. If true, it is false; and if false, it is true. A homely little puzzle, it has been used for millennia to exemplify the limits of logic. However, it is worth pointing out that this homely little paradox is the cornerstone of one of the major innovations of 20th century mathematics — Gödel's Theorem of Incompleteness.
I thought of the Liar's Paradox when I read "The Box Turtle," the first poem of Patricia Carlin's new volume Original Green.
The Box Turtle
can live for up to a hundred years.
Unless the water dries up or the land is cleared
he will spend that hundred years
in the same square-mile patch of woodland.
The voice of the turtle is never heard.
There's no sound to cloud his slow lurching waddle
inch by rickety inch over the yellowing leaves
as he searches for water.
Plated, boxed: splayed legs; sharp tail;
head red-eyed and beaked on a thick short neck.
It's hard not think of him as inside his shell,
although in fact he is his shell as much as he's not.
He can never see his own design.
Intricate tessellated bone-house spotted with profligate red,
and the soft self, thrusting out and withdrawing.
And there's no metaphor in this. No poetry.
The first poem in a collection often sets the tone for what follows, and no more so here. Lyric poetry by its very nature is intimate — a single voice speaking directly to the reader. Critical to that exchange, that intercourse, is that you, the reader, recognize that voice and trust it, as it leads you along the lines moving down the page. With that first poem, however, Carlin has deliberately subverted that expectation. Put more bluntly, in that first poem, she is lying (and I mean that in the best sense of the word).
The poem begins with that hoary convention — the title as first line. On first reading, it seems to move with the deliberate, and lyric, precision of Gilbert White, the 18th century naturalist, as he described the turtle he dubbed Timothy. Each detail seemingly adds to the portrait. And then you stumble over those last lines. What to make of them? Why "… no metaphor in this. No poetry"? If true, then what? If false, why say it? This is the sort of vicious circle only a paradox creates. Wrestle with it, you'll first find yourself in a slight patch of irritation ("too clever by half"). Should you find yourself playing editor and delete that final line, you discover the poem seems somehow inert, lifeless. So you look again at the lines leading to that last stumble. Other details now emerge, demand attention. "The voice of the turtle is never heard" seems somehow familiar. Dig a little (through all its various incarnations in pop culture), you find the line is a slight twist on "…the voice of the turtle is heard in our land…" from The Song of Songs (though there the "turtle" is actually a turtledove). "Intricate tessellated bone-house" — you remember now that "bone-house" is the Anglo-Saxon word for "body." This poem is no longer the simple description it first appeared to be. Rather, it is a careful construction, an artifice, rather like one of those strange "portraits" by Arcimboldi, or (perhaps more appropriately) like Magritte's famous painting La Trahison des images ("the treason of images"), the picture of a pipe under which is written "This is not a pipe." Like the Liar's Paradox and the use to which it has been put in modern times, and like Magritte's painting, Carlin, by deliberately undermining certain widely accepted expectations of lyric poetry, has gained an interesting new freedom.
The treason of images — an apt phrase as you explore the poems in this volume. In those years/ he raised/ enormous armies./ He left his silken tents, the cover/ of his cities/ to become the great god of change. So begins "Lives of the Conquerors." Inevitably, The armies//of oblivion disarmed/ the warriors. They changed/ places with the dead … But then the poet then notes, Duplicity // is a shining city/ on a hill … and concludes We the people will change/ our course, uncover/ our lost cities,/ lose them again … // … Disarmed, nerveless, we steal/ through history. Again notice how, at first, the language, the lines, the images, seem all of a piece, all of a place and time — a millennium and a civilization away. Then, as you glance back at certain phrases ("a shining city on a hill" and "We the people …") you notice that they don't quite fit. The resonances they set off jangle against the moment, the music, and the movement, of the poem, to produce a more remarkably richer texture.
"Tracking the Long River" begins abruptly with The Thirtieth day. Pain/ the only constant. The air pours water,/ Flesh rots and cracks, wounds // drain but never close… Like the other poems, there's something disconcertingly familiar. You've heard the voice before, but can't quite place it. Nothing in the poem offers a clue as to the identity of the speaker — other than in the negative. We only know, or at least suppose, that the speaker is not the poet. More (and this is the true measure of what Carlin is doing), if you cannot be sure who is speaking in one poem, you will no longer be certain to whom she is speaking in another. Pronouns will become dislocated from their generally accepted referents. Without such identification, it becomes more difficult to put historical distance between you as a reader and the experience. Now, paradoxically, while the experience of the poem is brought nearer, the most mundane of details feels almost foreign — Migraine slices my vision./ Odd, how the missing crescent// repeats the blank on the map. … As a result, the last lines of the poem take on a more powerful immediacy — …a scythe-billed crane // stabs through the surface. Impaled,/ jerking, an orange frog / flickers, tongue-like, lucent. // The crane shimmers./ Sometimes I think what lives,/ lives to give pain.
All of the above is not to suggest that the poems in Original Green are about clever strategies. Rather that, apart from what the individual poems are about, there is something deeper in how these poems go about their business. The title of the book is taken from "On Other Grounds" and that poem comes closest to articulating the driving force behind much of the work. It begins, with almost Biblical sonorities,…Out of nothing, of red/ earth he made/ him, then her, the nameless one,/ out of common ground … At the heart of the poem, she writes They hadn't read – / how could they? it was still unwritten — the one/ story they needed to know. Then words made // their first appearance. And almost at once unmade/ the delicious garden and all content./ Now how to name even one/ leaf, fruit, flower. Those who live in cities/ have only read/ of them, although the ground // of paradise is their true flesh. … At the end of the poem, he is building the red cities and she … sowing discontent, spreads groundless rumors/ of a lost original green that no one made. Without trying to be too specific — and so doing an injustice to the poem — this seems to come as close as possible to the purpose behind her evasions and dislocations, her sly subversions of expectation. (Just in passing, and quite beside the point, notice how — between the title and excerpted lines — she plays with the word "ground.")
If the measure of the lyric is much of what is published in various high gloss journals, there would seem to be certain templates to which many, wittingly or unwittingly, conform. What passes for poetic discourse — modest, not unseemly, and seemingly "honest" — seems like Muzak in the background of our culture. Even at its most provocative, such poetry permits its readers a certain confident, and comfortable, distance. At first glance, the poems in Original Green seem deceptively simple (and that is perhaps Carlin's most successful deception). Each word carefully chosen and precisely placed, each line leading logically to the next, you would think the effect (as I've tried to describe it), would be, at the least, overly intellectual, at worst deracinating. But these poems don't strive to replicate (or re-enact) small catharses. They aim for that chill of recognition that runs one's spine, and so undermines the safety within which we read too much contemporary poetry.
Carl Rosenstock was born in Albany, New York, and grew up on a farm near there. He received a BA in Asian History from Union College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College. His work has appeared in various magazines, and anthologies. He lives and works on the westernmost end of Long Island, in Brooklyn, New York, where he curated the Night-&-Day Reading Series.