Distant Blue University of Evansville Press, $15
2004, 80 pp.
Distant Blue, winner of the 2003 Richard Wilbur Award, and published
by the University of Evansville Press, is Thomas Carper’s third collection
-- hard to believe considering how many individual poems he’s published over
a career of more than forty years.
There are six sections, Scannings, a selection of short narratives; Corot,
a series of ekphrastic poems built from paintings by Corot; Sight Lines,
more short narratives and translations from DuBellay, Labé, and Ronsard
; Anna Akhamatova’s Requiem, translated by Carper; Apotheosis,a sequence
after Couperin’s trio sonata Apothéose de Corelli;
and In Sri Lanka, six sonnets.
From the start, one is back in Carper country, landscape and interiors beautifully
detailed within refined poetic craft, so well represented in his first two
books Fiddle Lane and From Nature (Johns Hopkins University
…Beds we’d assembled with meticulous care
With hand-embroidered sheets, look freshly made,
While curled up on a rug beside a chair
As if when told to “stay” he had obeyed,
The porcelain dog seems eager now to play
With children who have never moved away. from “The Doll House”
by Thomas Carper
It’s vivid, clear, as bright (and touched by subsequent experience) as an
old memory, or a painting from a time that has clearly gone by.
Though plain, it is exquisitely rendered, the meter varied just enough, yet
always clearly present, the rhymes precise. On the latter, the
almost canonic “English is a rhyme-poor language” is only enforceable if a
poet’s uncomplicated rhymes are trite, almost never the case with Carper,
who rarely strays from near or perfect rhyme.
He watched his adult landscape turning gray
And felt the winds of further storms to come.
He inventoried what to put away
At last, to end his private martyrdom…. from “Mantras”
by Thomas Carper
Carper doesn’t try to dazzle you; he just steps up and tells it with gorgeous
craft, as in this poem about a man whose suffering is tinged a little with
irony. Listen to the phrasing, the wonderful fit of sounds. As
an aside, an editor once told the reviewer that “whenever he sends poems,
I want to accept them all.” Though one might not think so, this was
hardly the obsequious praise so often heard among editors and poets.
As an editor myself who has received submissions from Carper, I know it’s
true. Every word falls into place; the phrasing is elegant, the meter
wonderfully varied and sound, the rhymes uncomplicated but beautiful, the
imagery clear, what Edward Zuk in a recent essay in EP&M Online
described as “easy poetry,” not easy to write, not with easy subject matter,
but a beautiful, almost a serene, experience to read and enjoy.
When he turns toward tougher subject matter, as in “Murders, Mythic and
Modern,” an easy expectation would be that such tools might fall short, might
even trivialize the material.
…Cries the night sky hears are dispersed by breezes;
Sounds as blows fall, breaking the skull, are muffled
By the now-drawn curtains that look out whitely
Into the darkness.
Then in hushed tones, seeing the death is over,
They can say just what will complete their evening.
Knives from dark drawers stain as the men begin the
Tjhey will laugh loud laughs when they see their girlfriends,
Wink, and tell strange jokes about sauce and noodles –
“Looks like brains just smashed” – while the women wonder
What has possessed them….. from “Murders, Mythic and Modern”
by Thomas Carper
This contrasting of the myth of the murder of Atreus with a contemporary
murder in a small town is absolutely horrifying, yet it lacks in every Gothic
effect. Should this be a surprise? Is a poet obligated to
costume the villain and the setting in dramatic conventions? Murders
take place on pleasant evenings as well as on stormy nights. If you’re
a hundred feet away during the crime, you won’t see much but “now-drawn curtains
that look out whitely.” The significance of the moment is not felt in
the whistling of the wind , the crack of thunder, or the howl of a wolf.
It occurs in the acts of ordinary human beings.
There are other treasures in this section, including the wicked “Resident
Poet” and the odd but apt “Laser Checkout,” which suggests that a dumb machine
can see more clearly than a smart writer.
Corot is a series of poems that either reflect on a given painting or on
Corot himself. Ekphrastic work most often fails with carelessly literal
descriptions of a work of art. Carper instead gives his impression.
The difference is as between a literal and a poet’s translation.
The light has poured into the painting. Here
It breaks out on the shadowy branches. There
It floods a crevice in the stonework near
The edge of placid waters. Everywhere,
All that we see is light in hiding; light
Given a glaze of grass, a tinge of tree,
A skim of blue that shimmers where the slight
Hints of leaves thin to infinity…. “Drawing In the Net”
by Thomas Carper
It would be tempting to continue through all of the sections, quoting liberally,
but that’s neither fair to a reader, nor in the spirit or the letter of copyright
law, tempting as it is to quote from Thomas Carper. The rest of
the review will concentrate on Carper’s contribution to English translations
of Anna Akhmatova.
If the only contents of this book had been the author’s translation of Requiem
by Anna Akhmatova, it would be sufficient reason to find a copy for yourself.
Akhmatova, revered in Russia not only as a great lyric poet, but for her poetic
witness to the desolate horror of Stalin’s tyranny, has often been translated.
Her complete poems, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, were published
by Zephyr in 1992 in one of the most successful U.S. poetry releases in decades,
with sales of over 20,000 copies. Carper essays to add to this with
those poetic virtues already examined above, virtues well-suited to translations
Anna Akhmatova, whose poetry was officially banned by Stalin from 1924 to
1940, wrote most of Requiem in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
Though published, it was withdrawn within a month and didn’t appear again
until a new and revised edition was published in 1957, three years after the
death of Stalin and eleven years after she’d been expelled from the now defunct
Soviet Writers Congress (described by Andrey Zhadanov as a “half whore/half
nun” who had done “nothing positive to improve our youth.” It
was no surprise that she could barely publish public versions of her own work
under Stalin, who had already had her close friend Mandelstam executed.
Her poetry had grown out of the Acme-ist movement (founded in 1910 by her
husband, and including Boris Pasternak among many other notable Russian authors
and artists), which had turned agaubst Symbolism and its cloudy mysticism
and ideology, offering instead art that celebrated clarity and directness(1).
If there is a special marker of Carper’s own poetry, it is found in clarity
and directness, and an eschewing of the convoluted, and often incoherent,
metaphorical flights that typify far too many Modernist and post-Modernist
poets. In this, if not in any like life experience, they are kindred
spirits, well-met in translation. Carper is also a poet undeniably
influenced by painters; many of his sonnets have the vivid clarity of a canvas
by Poussin or Corot. And, as one can see in this book, he has
written many poems about specific paintings. Akhmatova, during her
honeymoon in Paris, met Modigliani; both had a lasting influence on each
other. (2) It was not in subject matter but clarity, one
Before such grief the mountains bend,
Great rivers do not flow.
The bolts are rigid where condemned
Men wait in cells, knowing no end
Is sure. They do not know
The fresh winds that for others breathe,
The sunsets that for others glow…
We were as they, hearing the keys
Grind in locks, the soldiers’ heavy tread. from Requem, Dedication
tr. Thomas Carper
What comes to this reviewer’s mind is not Modigliani, however, but Kathe
Kollwitz’s Prisoners (3)(1908). There is no ambiguity,
only revelation of the real. In a regime notorious for its perpetual
lying, naked truth is revelation. Carper’s rendition of this in
English is simple and elegant, with none of the stiffness one associates with
translations that just miss. Pick from anywhere in this work….
Now let the naughty tease be shown –
The darling of her friends,
The mocking sinner in the imperial town –
How her story ends:
The Prison of the Corsses. here you stand
Three hundredth in a line
Shadowed by walls, a parcel in your hand,
Wile your hot tears stream down
To burn through New Year’s ice.
The poplar tree within the prison sways.
A muffled ending for so many lives… from Requem, 4
tr. Thomas Carper
Whatever we do, you come. So why not now?
I’m waiting. Life is hard. I do not care.
The lights are off, the door is open. How
You come is up to you. Come up the stair
And burst in as a bomb, as poisoned gas,
Or like a burglar, lead pipe in your hand,
Or slyly, like a typhus vapor, pass
Into the room, or, as we understand
In nauseous detail, come with your lies,
Your blue-cap State Police insignia, while
The doorman blanches, terror in his eyes. from Requiem, 8 To Death
tr. Thomas Carper
Look at the face of the woman in Kollwitz’s The Call of Death (1934).(4)
For the reviewer, the poem has almost the same effect, if not stronger.
Akhmatova, who understood suffering firsthand, not as a political conjecture
by a creative writing specialist, was also able to stand off and look at such
experiences with a clear, lyric eye. In this, her work is well-served
by Carper. These are memorizable versions; they should be.
There are many more fine poems in Thomas Carper’s Distant Blue.
A poet of rare craft, a superlative ear, and an obvious commitment to giving
his art to his reader rather than concealing it behind the hifalutin and the
irrational, Carper is a poet to enjoy, not theorize about. Distant
Blue is highly recommended.