Distant Blue


Thomas Carper

by Arthur Mortensen

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 Press).  

…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 of Akhmatova.  

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 imagines.

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
    Anna Akhmatova
    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
    Anna Akhmatova
    tr. Thomas Carper

or another…

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
    Anna Akhmatova
    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.   

                                                                                        Arthur Mortensen

(1)   Akhmatova: Biographical/Historical Overview by Jill T. Dybka ,

(2)  Anna & Amedeo: an unforgettable spring
with translations of Akhmatova's poetry
by John Woodsworth
University of Ottawa

(3) To see the Kollwitz, or at least a small Web version, go to

(4) http://www.mystudios.com/women/klmno/kollwitz_death.html