Jared Carter's Darkened Rooms of Summer
a book review by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts
The photo of Jared Carter above was taken by Richard Pflum
Jared Carter is an American poet. His first collection of poems, Work, for the Night Is Coming,
won the Walt Whitman Award for 1980. His second poetry collection, After the Rain, received
the Poets’ Prize for 1995. His third collection, Les Barricades Mystérieuses,
was published in 1999. His fourth collection
Darkened Rooms of Summer
was published in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press, with an intro by Ted
Jared Carter’s Darkened Rooms of Summer
reviewed by Michael R. Burch
The other day I was reading the poem “Body and Soul” by B. H. Fairchild and
it made me think of Jared Carter’s poetry, for reasons I will explain as I go.
The poem’s setting is a sandlot baseball game in Commerce, Oklahoma “decades
ago.” Two teams of grizzled veterans are a man short, so a fifteen-year-old boy
is enlisted to play. The baby-faced lad has a “clump of angelic blonde hair” but
at least knows how to wear a glove, so “let’s play ball.”
The vets squirt “arcs of tobacco juice” and crack jokes about the catcher’s
love life being so bad that the previous night he’d humped his own wife. The
angelic-looking lad is obviously out place among such a rough lot. But when he
comes to bat the first time, he smacks a towering home run far beyond the
abandoned tractor marking the left field boundary. “Holy shit!” His second time
up, the kid hits another towering homer, once again far beyond the rusting
tractor. The left fielder “just stands there frozen.” His third time up, the kid
bats left-handed and the disgruntled pitcher throws a spitball “out of the green
hell of forbidden fastballs” that “leaps viciously” toward the kid’s elbow. But
the ball again lands in the distant sagebrush. To make a long story short, the
young ringer comes up five times and hits five mammoth home runs. The other team
has been hoodwinked. The grizzled vets have never seen anything like it, but
they will again, soon, on TV when they watch the Yankees win World Series after
World Series. The kid is the Commerce Comet, Mickey effin’ Mantle. The poem’s
theme is the vast gulf between ordinary talent and genius.
I saw something similar in the flesh once—twice, actually—during my
I was talented enough to beat 99% of the players in my Nashville stomping
grounds, and I won my share of money hustling pool from people who thought they
could play, but couldn’t. Still, I knew better than to play the real pros, the
“road players,” so when they showed up, I would sit, watch and marvel.
In the late 70s the best Nashville-area player was an elderly black gentleman
named Gentry. Gentry had a wonderfully fluid stroke—a thing of real beauty—and
he was a master of every money game: nine ball, eight ball, six ball, one
pocket, straight pool, rotation, golf on a snooker table. But his best game was
bank. Gentry could match up with anyone at bank, or so we thought.
Then one day Buddy Hall, the best nine ball player on the planet, showed up
with his backers, looking for action. He was a big, hulking mountain of a man,
but surprisingly soft-spoken when he bothered to speak, which wasn’t often. He
did his talking on the pool table, where it was unusual for him to miss a
makeable shot or get out of line. If the balls broke halfway decent, the
Rifleman would get out. The only way to beat him was to run table after table
and keep him sitting down, but how many players can do that, really?
Gentry knew better than to play the Rifleman even at nine ball. So he
negotiated to play a session of nine ball if Hall would play a session of bank.
It made sense: Hall would have the advantage at nine ball, but Gentry would have
the advantage at bank. The backers and other bettors plunked down hundreds of
dollars and the much-anticipated games commenced.
But, alas, it was like Mickey Mantle against the sandlot players. Gentry not
only had no chance at nine ball, but Hall beat him easily at his best game. It
was apparent that Hall didn’t like playing bank, probably because bank is a
slower, more defensive game, and he wanted to win money quickly and move on to
the next heist. In any case, Hall disdained playing defense and tried to run the
table at bank the way he ran racks of nine ball. And he was so good, even
playing a game he clearly didn’t care for, that it was almost as if Gentry
wasn’t there. That, too, was genius versus talent.
Not long thereafter, I and a friend went to the U.S. Open Nine Ball
Championship when it was hosted by Mike “Tennessee Tarzan” Massey in nearby
Chattanooga. That was 1981 and Buddy Hall was still the best nine ball player on
the planet. He was everyone’s favorite to win the tournament. But then a younger
player who looked like Elvis (and was said to be able to sing like him too)
caught fire. His name was Louis Roberts but everyone called him “St. Louie
Louie.” I won’t try to describe the incredible shots he made while drubbing Hall
that magical night. You really had to be there. Suffice it to say that Hall was
shaking his head the way Gentry had been shaking his when Hall trounced him so
Louie was a very charismatic player, a real crowd-pleaser, and when he was
“on” it was like a portal had opened to an entirely different dimension of pool.
Louie had serious problems with drinking and drugs and ended up getting shot to
death or committing suicide, depending on whether one believes his friends or
the police report. But when Louie got hot, no one could beat him. Not even the
Rifleman. Louie was the Wayne Gretzky of billiards, a real pool genius. And it
wasn’t fair that he looked like Elvis and could sing like him too! And all the
girls were making ga-ga eyes at him. Sheesh, just like the Mick!
So what does all this have to do with Jared Carter? Obviously, it’s much
harder to judge poetry than baseball games and pool matches. No one watching
Mickey Mantle could have doubted that he was by far the best player in that
game. No one watching Louie Roberts defeat the world’s best nine ball player, so
that he stood scratching and shaking his head, could have doubted that Louie was
a pool god. But poetry is a different beast and more difficult to measure. So
rather than saying what I think, I will present three poems by Jared Carter and
ask what you think: talent, or genius?
The Pool at Noon
She is the secretary. She wears a bathing cap
of white rubber, to enclose her brittle hair,
and an elasticized suit of shirred green fabric.
She does not dive into the water, but descends,
backwards, down the shaky tubular ladder,
into the shallows, where the water is calm
and strangely luminous, and smells always
the echoes, among high girders
and skylights long ago painted over, of water
lapping in the scum-gutter, of dishes clinking,
far away, in the kitchen—
across the glazed bottom and sides of the pool,
the shifting reflections and bands of soft light
in endless permutations—
she settles down
amid the water, spreads her arms, launches
herself, with her head back, into the stillness,
and begins her slow, symmetric sweeping.
We are in the YMCA of an ancient city
of abandoned mills and red-brick factories
that stretch along the river. This is the pool
built years ago, for the youth of the town,
when there was still some money. These days
the walls are pocked with broken tiles, pipes
conveying the water are discolored with rust,
but still the elementary children of the town
are bussed here, and taught how to swim
by teen-aged instructors not much older
The children are brown
and black and pale white, they are separated
by gender, they swim naked, according to
an old custom, in this high-ceilinged pool
that booms with their squeals, their voices—
although now it is noon, they are dressed,
and made to line up. Toting their backpacks,
herded outside, they form circles on the lawn,
and eat their lunch from plastic containers.
Here, in the pool’s silence, and the constant
flickering of reflections, is the secretary,
who weekdays at this hour will backstroke
across the still water—
at the other end,
the deep end, is the pool maintenance man,
retired and in his seventies, with flaccid skin
and patches of grizzled hair on his arms
and legs and chest, who receives no pay,
and volunteers his services—
in order that
day after day, in his faded, baggy trunks
and his plastic nose-clip, he can climb up
and walk to the end of the 3-meter board,
and stand for a moment, and then step off
into the sheen of ever-shifting reflections
lining the pool’s floor—
he becomes the point
of a needle slipped into impermanence,
he is that which almost touches something
balancing in the depths—
he bobs up again,
returns once more to the world of gaskets
and broken tiles and murmuring children.
Re-emerging, he floats improbably, since
he lacks bulk, and is nothing more than
a scarecrow, with white hair rayed out
around his head—but he has learned
how to hang motionless, arms extended,
only his face showing—
thus the rituals
of these two, who are old acquaintances,
but who do not speak—him suspended,
she progressing slowly across the shallows
with her eyes closed—
one moving, the other
drifting, and all around them the silence,
the placid water, the pale tremors of light
endlessly searching and shimmering.
At the Art Institute
Once when I was in Chicago
up on the second floor
of the Art Institute, looking
at all the Impressionists
and Fauves and Cubists,
there was this man pushing
his mother in a wheel-chair.
Now and then under his breath
he called her “Mother.”
He pushed her right up
to every painting in the room,
and read from the placard
as though announcing
departures and arrivals
in some busy air terminal—
the title of this particular work,
the years during which
the artist lived, the painting’s
place in the history of art,
and so on.
from one painting to the next,
he guided the ancient machine,
placing her squarely in front
of each canvas, then beginning
to read aloud in a nasal whine.
Other visitors in the room
stared and shook their heads.
Within those huge frames
the world of La Belle Époque
blazed with sudden color
and patches of dappled light,
while the names themselves
came back like a lost litany—
Renoir and Manet, Pissarro,
Sisley, Monet, and Degas—
all mispronounced, all
by his harsh calling out.
The woman in the wheel-chair
ignored the other patrons.
Her eyes were hooded, her body
gnarled and shrunken—
the tubular metal arm-rests
and peered up at the paintings
while her son recited the names
and reeled off the explanations.
So on they labored, backwards
through the nineteenth century,
finally entering the dread precincts
of the salon painters, the creators
of les grandes machines, of early
Puvis de Chavannes and late
Bougereau— vast historical
and mythological compositions
that filled entire walls— the light
in those frames becoming more dim
and muddy with each step he took,
each turn of the creaking wheels
on the contraption in which
he pushed her along—
to bark out the words, but neither
of them really seeing the paintings
any longer, both of them caught up
in something they insisted on
accomplishing, some witnessing
that overwhelmed them now,
some courage or indomitability
or reprise of moment long ago—
and in this manner they passed
from view, down the hallways
and through the long corridors
until I could hear them no more.
After the Rain
After the rain, it’s time to walk the field
again, near where the river bends. Each year
I come to look for what this place will yield—
lost things still rising here.
The farmer’s plow turns over, without fail,
a crop of arrowheads, but where or why
they fall is hard to say. They seem, like hail,
dropped from an empty sky,
yet for an hour or two, after the rain
has washed away the dusty afterbirth
of their return, a few will show up plain
on the reopened earth.
Still, even these are hard to see—
at first they look like any other stone.
The trick to finding them is not to be
too sure about what’s known;
conviction’s liable to say straight off
this one’s a leaf, or that one’s merely clay,
and miss the point: after the rain, soft
furrows show one way
across the field, but what is hidden here
requires a different view—the glance of one
not looking straight ahead, who in the clear
light of the morning sun
simply keeps wandering across the rows,
letting his own perspective change.
After the rain, perhaps, something will show,
glittering and strange.
From After the Rain. First published in The Formalist.
Copyright © 1990, 1993 by Jared Carter.1
I believe the poems above speak for themselves, and declare Jared Carter a
poet to be reckoned with, and applauded. How he will be ranked when all is said
and done, I cannot pretend to know, but for me these three poems are like Mickey
Mantle crushing home runs into the Oklahoma sagebrush, or like Louie Roberts
running the table while the audience watched in awe.
More about Jared Carter
Carter was a recipient of the Indiana Governor’s Arts
Award for 1985. His fellowships include grants from the National Endowment for
the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Other honors
have included the New Letters Literary Award for Poetry in 1992, judged
by Philip Levine, and the 2002 Rainmaker Award for Poetry from Zone 3
magazine, judged by Marilyn Chin. He was invited to read his work at the Library
of Congress on December 9, 2004.
A Midwesterner from Indiana, he studied at Yale and at Goddard, and worked briefly as a newspaper
reporter. After military service and travel abroad, he made his home in Indianapolis, where he found employment
in textbook publishing. He continues to serve as a consultant in that field.
In his main body of work, Carter offers “a local
habitation and a name,” and invites the reader to explore a place called
Mississinewa County, a world of small towns and family farms and hard-working
people who live close to the land.
The many characters in Carter’s poems—soldiers, Shakers, farmers, ex-football
players, berry pickers, derelicts—strive to maintain their dignity and to
uphold their traditions. It is the striving that connects them with the universal, and it is the author’s
craftsmanship—a style one critic, H. L. Hix, has described as “diamond-hard
clarity”—that makes them memorable.
Mississinewa County first sprang to life in Carter’s initial book, Work,
for the Night Is Coming. Critical response was immediate. “From
beginning to end,” Dana Gioia wrote in his review of the book in Poetry,
“this volume has the quiet passion of conviction, the voice of a poet who
knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” In McGill’s
Literary Annual, Henry Taylor described Work, for the Night Is Coming
as “one of the clearest and strongest first books to have appeared in recent
decades.” Writing for Library Journal, Margaret Gibson called it “a
true winner. It is simply splendid.”
Carter’s second collection, After the Rain, attracted similar notice. “Extraordinary,” Gioia reported in the Washington Post Book World,
“a dark, haunting book in the tradition of Frost.” In New Letters Book Reviewer, Ted Kooser found After the Rain
to be “a moving and masterful book, charming in the best sense of that
word.” It offered “proof,” Robert Phillips wrote in the Houston Post, “that the art of poetry is
alive and well in America.” Perhaps Robert McPhillips, writing in the Dictionary
of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1994, best summed up the critical reaction to Carter’s second book: “Well crafted,
philosophically profound, and eminently readable . . . the finest, most varied, and most rewarding volume of poetry published in 1993.”
Carter’s third collection, Les Barricades Mystérieuses, published by Cleveland
State in 1999, takes the reader even farther into
Mississinewa territory. At the same time it pays homage to one of
Carter’s particular interests, the heritage of French exploration and
discovery in the American heartland. Always
an upholder of traditionalism in prosody and poetic practice, Carter turns, in
this third book, to the extremely repetitive and very French poetic form of the
villanelle. David Lee Garrison, writing in The Southern Indiana Review,
found these villanelles to be “as simple and subtle as the change in light and
shadow against a wall created by the shift of a log in the fire, the sound of a
door swinging open in the wind, or peonies that reveal an old pathway through an
“Carter’s is a poetry of a resolute middle distance, firmly of this world:
between the dust under the earth and the dust of space there exists the place
that the poem can illumine.”—Helen Vendler, New York Review of Books
Please click here to read Jared
Carter's interview with Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts.
You can check out Jared Carter's literary blog by clicking
here. His books are available on-line at the links below:
Darkened Rooms of Summer
Work, for the Night Is Coming
After the Rain
Les Barricades Mystérieuses
Darkened Rooms of Summer
and at amazon.com
More Poems by Jared Carter
It is not out of sleep that I
You were so lovely once, or why,
I know a light has vanished from
these wintry days.
Lately my quest has found no one
who still might praise
What we two shared. Forgetting, though,
is far more kind,
And leaves no pattern in the snow
that falls behind.
In that same moment, something stirred,
as though the place,
The time, the feelings long deferred
had been erased,
Leaving two opposites to draw
The demonstration of a law
whose numbers spike
Into infinity, yet show
a simple proof—
Something beyond what we can know
arrives at truth.
He could not read; had never learned.
Few books were found
In that bleak place where coal still burned
But we two met, and for a while
worked side by side
Stacking raw boards in endless piles
until they dried.
The world he saw, with those clear eyes,
was not benign;
It simply was, without disguise,
Pfc Harris, who became
a ghost immured
In hospitals with sylvan names.
His kin deferred
To specialists, who all agreed
Would benefit him most. That deed
Lived on another twenty years.
His muttering replaced the tears
he could not shed.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
across the keys like travelers in snow:
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
You’ll find no staff to lean on, none to play
among the drifts the wind has left in rows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
beyond the path. Give up the need to say
which way is right, or what the dark stones show;
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
And what the stillness keeps, do not betray;
the one who listens is the one who knows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray;
out over emptiness is where things weigh
the least. Go there, believe a current flows
each time you start: expect to lose your way
Risk is the pilgrimage that cannot stay;
the keys grow silent in their smooth repose.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray.
Each time you start, expect to lose your way.
From Les Barricades Mystérieuses. First published in Poetry.
Copyright © 1987, 1999 by the Modern Poetry Association.
You’re sickly pale—a crooked root.
But one last remedy remains:
Before the dawn we’ll go on foot
Through grass sleeked down by heavy rains
To the sexton’s house. Already he
Takes down his spade, and goes
To walk among the whitened rows.
His wife awaits with lengths of string
Necessary for measuring.
She has no fire alight, nor words
To spare, but bolts the wooden door
And helps you out of clothes that fall
Soundlessly to the floor. Naked,
You mount the table and recline;
She comes, her eight stiff fingers
Trailing bright bits of twine. First,
Crown to nose, then mouth to chin,
Pressing against each crevice, in
And down the length of your cold frame—
Whispering unintelligible names.
The feet are last to stretch: from heel
To toe each one must be times seven
The other piece. She nods, and knots
The two together, breathes her spell,
Then turns to go. I leave a pair
Of silver dollars there, and take
The string to tie where it will rot
The winter long: on hinge of gate,
Wheelbarrow shaft, or eaves-trough’s fall.
Behind us, where the darkness drains,
A blackbird settles on the roof
And calls back to another that rain
Is coming like an awful proof.
The two denounce the scratching sound
The sexton’s spade makes on the ground—
Measuring off the careful square
Of someone else expected there.
From Work, for the Night Is Coming. First published in Sou’wester.
Copyright © 1979, 1981, 1995 by Jared Carter.
Here is the spring I promised we would find
if we came back this way—a hollow space
beneath the hillside, waiting all this time
for us to angle through the leaves, and climb
down to the ledge, to where it slows its pace.
Here is the spring I promised we would find,
with elderberry blossoming, and thyme
and saxifrage along the limestone face.
Beneath the hillside, waiting all this time,
the falls, in overflowing steps, combine
to form an unexpected stopping-place.
Here is the spring I promised we would find:
across the pool, the accidental lines
and endless circles merge—a constant grace,
beneath the hillside, waiting. All this time
has brought us here—to listen to the pines,
to drink, to watch the water striders race.
Here is the spring I promised we would find
beneath the hillside, waiting all this time.
From Les Barricades Mystérieuses.
First published in Free Lunch.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Jared Carter.
These are the old dreads whispering to me
Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
through the slant light of the meetinghall
this wintry afternoon. Mother Ann Lee
is here, raising a splintery hand to call
for lines to form between the facing walls
and dance the figures that can bring to pass
a momentary clearing of the darkened glass.
A blaze of dying sun brings out the grain
across the wooden floor. Outside this space
their bodies could not touch, nor long remain
together, else some elder’s wrinkled face
shone down, from its high watching place,
and shamed them. Here, desire slipped its rein,
the better to be harnessed on a higher plane.
To save by giving what one cannot keep—
mortal to dance, and by such whirling come
into immortal worlds—while others sleep,
to waken from the body’s dark mysterium—
these were the steps she taught. And once begun,
there was no turning back, no way to slake
this thirst for otherness except to shake.
And as a tree in winter fills with crows
convened out of some harsh necessity
till every branch is bent and overflows
into a mirroring of what one sees
in summer—creatures become leaves,
all turning, turning, in a dark repose—
so did they circle here, and come in close
until they flowered, and it was summer now,
by Shawnee Run, near the stone landing,
where fireflies had filled a sycamore
with single light, and all who say, standing
along the shore, knew a sure commanding
in that pulse, and walked there, bright
and dark by turns, in the summer night.
None of that charmed singing in the air
above their heads has lasted. Nothing remains
of what it meant to dance the hollow square,
to walk the narrow path, the endless chain.
Not even the sun’s slow march explains—
here they kept time simply by the swing
of a lead bullet fastened to a string.
The guided tour moves on. I cross the floor
through triangles of light and shade, done
with imagining, yet pausing at the door
to look back on this room, and how the sun
reveals, for just a moment, what will come
when we are finally shaken, and by grace,
no longer darkly see, but face to face.
From After the Rain. First published in Cumberland Poetry Review.
Copyright © 1985, 1993 by Jared Carter.
At every hand there are moments we
cannot quite grasp or understand. Free
to decide, to interpret, we watch rain
streaking down the window, the drain
emptying, leaves blown by a cold wind.
At least we sense a continuity in
such falling away. But not with snow.
It is forgetfulness, what does not know,
has nothing to remember in the first place.
Its purpose is to cover, to leave no trace
of anything. Whatever was there before—
the worn broom leaned against the door
and almost buried now, the pile of brick,
the bushel basket filling up with thick,
gathering whiteness, half sunk in a drift—
all these things are lost in the slow sift
of the snow’s falling. Now someone asks
if you can remember—such a simple task—
the time before you were born. Of course
you cannot, nor can I. Snow is the horse
that would never dream of running away,
that plods on, pulling the empty sleigh
while the tracks behind it fill, and soon
everything is smooth again. No moon,
no stars, to guide your way. No light.
Climb up, get in. Be drawn into the night.
First published in Poetry. Copyright © 1999 by the Modern Poetry Association.