Denial is political

A review of Julie Carr's 'Rag'



Julie Carr

Omnidawn Publishing 2014, 126 pages, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-890650-93-3

I doubt “to be on the rag” existed as an expression or possibility before Eve and her husband trudged out of paradise into a world where the sky was lowered like a boom and the suburbs sodden with guilt and lust. The American King James Version lends God an especially cruel voice: “To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you.”[1] And along with that, I imagine, came menstrual cramps. The primary human matter was unclean at its source. But where Milton wanted to justify God’s ways to man, Carr is interested in the daily fallout, especially for the fairer sex, who got the brunt of divine wrath and masculine blame. Rag, Carr’s fifth book of poetry, functions as a single long poem that begins and ends with a river red. The poem is nourished, and ultimately hemmed in, by these waters.

— from out of the wretched tide through the heat mothers pass — (9)

Motherhood here is inconceivable outside the archaic mechanism of human sacrifice. A vision of murder or suicide marks the passage of Rag, and the fact that we’re not sure if it’s the one or the other makes sense when both count as the price to pay for some essential fault.

The purple hem of her skirt — wind bends an alder to the ground (clouds doing nothing)

A body falls from a bridge, falls or is pushed, pushed or is leaping; the river
                          takes her, neon, neon in the river o red (56)

“If denial is a river it runs through doomed societies” (57). The characters in Rag acquiesce by silence, by a denial so permanent that they don’t perceive it, even as it steals their potential to act coherently, that is, to act through a coherence of language, reason, and instinct. I don’t mean to give the impression that this denial is related to God, or that Rag is a reappraisal of Genesis. God has been replaced by government, daily-ness, history, and routine. These forces demand a steady flow of blood. But for all that, they are only present as a shadow, which is to say as both a pressure and an absence. This seems right. The most effective border is the one inaccessible to words and inchoate to logic.

A technician provides a service while the law prescribes a border, a border around the language to frighten you. In this way we conserve an originary attitude, a set of dearly helds

More dear than the tawdry websites of the summoned, than the sportshops of the free, the gilded triggers of the expelled is our speech embalmed

Now like crows against snow, our eyes alone will decide
who has something to teach and who has something to learn (45)

This is a society that’s lost the freshness of intelligent exchange. A ‘rag’ is also a tabloid, a garbage newspaper, a platform for hacks and hawks. It’s a bundle of paper whose purpose is to suffocate any discussion that might advance the status quo. In biblical terms, it’s eternal old skin for new wine. It makes a society ripe for charlatans, snake charmers, and zealous ignorance. Businessmen sell soot. A father cuts off his daughter’s hands to appease the devil. A country fights perpetually, somewhere else. Not incidentally, the devil himself might make an appearance, pursuing his charming solipsism in front of an audience.

Neither transmitting nor receiving, but with a wire looped over his car
            a man attempts to define the borders of the living

In russet suit — drinks from his red cup. Turns his face to the crowd
             This is where it begins, he says, the center of the woman’s body its horizon (58)

Carr is very good at superimposing the local on the national, and vice versa. A woman thinks over her adultery while her husband plays the crossword. “These vague hours will deliver us eventually to the speech about the war” (40). Mothers and fathers sit in a school meeting and do nothing of value “while the debt ceiling rises,” and the oldest brother, uncultivated, settles into his “precise and foundational lust” (80). Pity (or fear) the land where the next generation has had its inheritance filched by magical thinking. On that note, I would like to quote one of the darkest and most shimmering moments of the river Rag:

In the tale the oldest brother’s pockets are empty, his sack is empty, his feet go round and round. […] What is happening? asks the nine-year-old. Dancers in black reveal a narrative of war. The city’s roof gardens go green. Actors in tights smoke in doorways. Frowning girls read on trains. Says the man, I cannot overemphasize how much I am against this. The women uncross and re-cross their legs. Lights blaze into the night with the attitude of horses, the attitude of fruit trees by highways. My hands circle the ribs of the sleeper and lift her from the couch while he codes a plan for a city made entirely of water, city of canals and rivers, upsurge and fall. Why can’t we add another day to April? asks the younger girl with the calendar before her. Because, says the mother, that’s not how calendars work. A long time ago, she says, you were a kid, and now you are not and I am a kid for a long time. How does that work? The wind like an anticipated asset arrives and is quickly subsumed into itself. Says the mother, pushing the stroller, that’s time, time does that. The government avoids a shutdown by “abdicating responsibility” “beyond” “bad at it.” And all sides claim victory as the laws are soaked and someone adds a six-pack of Red Bull to the bill. (79)

So what’s the problem? The problem is that every status quo — or everything for which we deny — has to be enforced, finally. Rag is set on articulating (obliquely, with mind clenched) the rapport between violence and possession. Women here are empty locations of desire, a truism that might constitute the law of advertisement: sex sells, meaning that it can be bought directly or vicariously. Rag is populated by film starlets reduced to a ghost of light, to an absence that can be filled or refilled with another person’s exercise of want. This is the real meaning of human possession. The heroine watches as the war hero departs on his train. “There were gaps between her teeth and she grinned ghoulishly at her own reflection in the moving train window … Consider my identity, she might say, failing to force her reflection to still” (39). The voice of Rag asks to be looked at “like a hole in the road, the garden or the sky” (39). The logic of possession, of being possessed, is insane. The possessed is obliged at the same moment to be and not to be.

“Like an oxen yoked” the daughter must please the king, please or be killed. For the king said, “come to me not clothed, not naked, not riding, not walking, not in the road, and not off the road, and if you can do that I will marry you” (42)

What the king really wants is neither possible nor impossible. The girl solves the riddle and is wed.

“But what is it you like about me?” she asked him a month later. “Your hands,” he said, “when they serve me the sweets.” And so the sister cut off her hands, just as St. Lucy gouged out her eyes, offering them on a cake plate (43)

I don’t know if the reader should look for solutions. Rag is too sumptuous a work of pessimism to give them. That’s a compliment, both on aesthetic and even political grounds. Rag’s pessimism ends by celebrating, in its way, what can’t ever be possessed and denied: death, aging, sustenance, birth, naivety, expression. They can be distorted or used, but not for long. Eventually, the river sweeps away the shore.

The dying are interviewed on the radio. The shadow of a thorny branch across a furrow in the rising light’s a hook like a child’s call. You in your yellow shirt, a language clipped into monosyllables, a maroon carpet beneath you. Even as tree buds, a stone in the mouth of the toad, even as blood gathers in the pregnant woman’s widening veins. You place your wine under your chair. Just as animals work themselves into one another, so do languages. (68)

1. American King James Version, Genesis 3.16.