A review of Julie Carr's 'Someone Shot My Book'
When viewed as acts of intimacy, reading and writing put “one on the edge of an outside of whatever one figures oneself already to be” — a claim that prompts the poet-scholar Julie Carr to conclude, in the final line of Someone Shot My Book (2018), that “all writing is epistolary.” All poems, then, are as if written in the manner of Emily Dickinson, “on the paper she used to wrap flowers in, or sent in letters.” All poems are addressed to a dear. Indeed, for Carr, “writing is almost always grounded in intimacy, and when it’s not, it begins to lose energy.”
In the hybrid critical essays that make up her contribution to the long-running Poets on Poetry series from the University of Michigan Press, Julie Carr theorizes a general poetics of intimacy that also values specific, tangible, subjective particulars. The effect is to powerfully transform reading and writing into affective, intersubjective experiences so that literature, and specifically poetry, becomes a means to imagine new forms of relation.
The intimate, interrelational affections of the poem reach well beyond the limits of a private, one-on-one relationship, infusing the public commons and the poll booth too. In Someone Shot My Book, Julie Carr develops an experimental activist poetics and wields it as a spade-tool for tending the grounds for utopia. Pulling on theorists of gender, affect, and civil life like Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and Julia Kristeva, Carr situates feminist writers at the cutting edge of what I might describe as a new sentimentalism, valorizing emotion, vulnerability, and intersubjectivity in poetry and politics as the means to achieve social justice and activate resistance in both public and literary spheres.
Apart from contemporary theory, Carr also arrives at some of these claims by citing ideas from the post-Enlightenment nineteenth century, making reference to Emily Dickinson, Anna Jameson, Mary Howitt, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Morris, John Ruskin, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Brothers Grimm, among others. But, despite this wealth of historical source material, to anchor Carr in the past might sound strange at first, a kind of misappropriation, given how self-consciously rooted in the “now” her prose and poetry tend to be. For example, there is an anecdote in this collection of essays on “feminism and emotion” (178) where Carr “wander[s] down to the caged and lit White House to join up with everyone, to vigil (stay awake) for our right to speak,” but soon finds herself “folding into another group marching and chanting for immigrant rights.” Redirected by this new wave, she may be carrying the wrong sign, but she loses no time getting “right in step” and, taken up by the strength of the protest and the chants, she begins to weep (51–52). Being careful in her essay to emphasize the emotional dimensions of this moment, Carr manages to compress some of the main themes of the book as a whole, which meditates on political justice, empathy, and the means of achieving these through forms of social improvisation. Social and political improvisation are closely twined to Carr’s poetics of intimacy: after examining Maria Damon’s needlepoint poetry as part of an essay on the legacy of Lorine Niedecker, Carr asserts that “poetry matters in the face of war,” not because “it will save lives (though it can in other ways), but because it is a labor of love, a labor for love — and as such, it stands against war and all the institutions that support war.” “Almost always an intimate gesture,” poetry participates in a social-political battlefield to the extent that “it effects change at the level of the individual” (137).
Intimacy can be measured in part by proximity, in part by immediacy. What is intimate is here and now: two spatiotemporal grid points that mark out, for Carr, a hotly contested political ground as much as a margin of imaginative civic possibility. With the poet Lisa Robertson, Carr figures the “Now” as both a gendered and a utopian dimension: “Utopia could be considered … in phenomenological terms as a sensed present” (100). “A utopian poetics, a utopian practice, grounded in the specific pleasures of present-time sensation seeks only and outrageously ‘the promiscuous feeling of being alive’” (108). This sensed present is historically the province of women writers, who have, throughout the course of literary history, been “shamed out of writing the ‘personal,’ or shamed for writing about ‘domestic’ issues” (171). On this point, Carr cites Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which was fielded as an attack “on the way women’s writing has been mocked for being too involved in intimate matters.” Grappling against an aesthetics of abstraction and idealism with origins in a male-dominated intellectual tradition, against “anti-authentic, anti-subjective, anti-corporeal poetry” (72), Carr defends “the validity of lived experience” (68) and of the private, individual sensorium as a public-facing apparatus, articulating in the process an activated, “embodied poetics” (71).
Countering all those who agitate “against expression,” or against subjective and corporeal “models of identity,” Carr’s poetics is motivated by the political work of emotion whose motor apparatus is the poem, a “generator of empathy” (12–13). Indeed, “this is why emotion in poetry matters,” she writes, “not because it’s mine but because it’s ours.” Carr develops this manifesto for the re-sentimentalization of poetry in the book’s provocative and titular first essay. In “Someone Shot My Book,” which sketches a “poetics of concealed carry,” poems are held up next to guns, both being implements that “awaken us into hyper-awareness” of the present moment, “hurt[ing]” and “thrill[ing]” us into “greater proximity with life.” Eventually and carefully disentangling the two, Carr is able to negotiate the intricacies of a conceit that could otherwise be construed as glib or even wounding in itself. Though both gun carrier and poet desire “to be awakened into increased aliveness and charged affective attachment to others,” what a poem does that a gun doesn’t is trouble, in language, the “destructive and potentially violent ideologies of subjectivity” (11, 13). The poem speaks beyond the coherent subject, beyond the “thetic” mode, and beyond the political thought of sovereignty, while confessing also of its failure to embody a real “experience.” As it approximates and approaches, moving out from a space of “unsatisfiable desire” that Carr compares to grief, to an intimacy with the violence of death, the poem “pays tribute to the ways in which I am not and never was self-possessed … forever disarmed” (6). In this manner, the poem reverses and succeeds the gun as an alternative mechanism for achieving the same affective ends, staking out a more secure, more decentralized, and more peaceful agora — a political utopia, vibrantly proximate to death.
The utopia made possible by poetry arrives only after the poem’s failure to make anything at all: “the poem doesn’t make a world, it makes a non-world” that ultimately routes the reader and writer back into the world, back into the present, out of which utopia is fashioned (18). Carr finds resemblance between this function and “the woman in the act of birthing,” since she also stands “at the border between being and nonbeing” (17). As she theorizes the poetics of motherhood, Carr synthesizes her experiences of being a mother and daughter with critical, scholarly insights. An essay on the work of Anne Carson, for example, is largely spent meditating on Carr’s own mother, as well as on her personal experience of first reading Carson’s work. This autobiographical technique is consistent with Carr’s vision for the “poet-scholar” — she who “makes her materials, her sources, evident in her poems” and “in her scholarship, announces her pleasures (pleasures in language) out loud” (49). Both as poet and scholar, and one who “entered the Academy pregnant” (50), Carr hybridizes the generic forms traditional to each discipline, a “mixing of genres” that she views as “an opportunity for the blending or mixing of genders,” or for opening the critical text to nonnormative, nonpatriarchal possibilities (86).
At first glance these essays and interviews might seem loosely anthologized, pulled from other books and from disparate occasions, but Carr’s robust and radical poetic vision is immanent throughout. She voices a powerful apology for songs of experience, insisting on the details of life in poetry, anchoring the natural province of such work in women’s writing. Her feminist poetics provides tools for assaying out of the dust of daily particulars the latent glimmers of utopia — that is, glimmers of care, pleasure, intimacy, loving and so bringing into being, creating networks of kinship intended to eradicate, by acknowledging it first, “the core of violence that both sustains and damns the fecundity we enjoy” (162). Rightly recognizing the political possibilities on offer by such work, Carr argues, along with the poet Nathaniel Mackey, that “poetry’s political force emerges from its ability to confront, to sing about, absence, loss, or breaches in kinship” (116). So even as it inaugurates a breach of its own — a failure to realize in words the object of its truest desire — the poem is “the moving element” needed to make our way across the rupture it creates between “inner and outer” where “the body becomes flesh,” and where all at once we realize again “that the collective that is our dream-nation is already broken, already torn by its own brutality, both historic and present” (157). And it is there, transformed by this knowledge, that the reader of poetry can begin to help build new networks, new economies, new modes of relating and seeing one another, each of us a subject in process, on the “watery, uncertain line between self and other” that goes by the name of desire (181).