“A Thought in Which I Do Not Have a Face”: Julie Carr’s Rag

John Pursley III

Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2014. 126 pages, $17.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

A rag is last year’s dishtowel, the cloth diapers and stained washcloths, the T-shirt that didn’t make it to consignment. A rag is something redefined, repurposed for tasks other than its intended—a remnant, a remainder of what once was. Julie Carr’s fifth poetry collection, Rag, is a powerful examination of the complexities and incongruities of being a citizen of the twenty-first century that utilizes this central motif, of a thing so worn by use its identity has been reduced to mere function. Conjoined with this idea are the many additional uses of the term which Carr explores—everything from the rag as a syncopated rhythm to yellow journalism to a slang term for the female menstrual cycle.

The obvious impediment of taking this metaphor at face value is that, because this book is so heavily invested in the female experience, it presupposes a nineteenth-century conceit of biological imperative. That when people, male or female, are stripped to their most essential nature their function is revealed to be inherently gendered and thus procreative. However, in this complex and masterful book, Carr creates such a multiplicity of functions for the various identities she winnows away at in her stark poetic, no one metonymic symbol can be forced to stand for the whole. Instead Carr embraces the complexity of identity, exploring the discrepancies of being part of a much larger picture—be that of the family, the community or the civic state.

Rag focuses specifically on the problems of identity: how myriad social contexts define and obscure our understanding of self. Carr addresses this notion of subjectivity early in the collection, stating, “When will I learn to be the author of my own invention?” A suggestion she quickly counters with “I was written in,” and later recontextualizes for her readers with the phrase, “as horrified you see yourself invented.” The challenges of identity are revisited again and again throughout the collection, especially as they pertain to the individual female experience embedded within the cultural milieu that figures all females as wives, daughters, lovers, or mothers. Carr makes no bones about who her target audience is, acknowledging “this book is for” no less than forty women, many of whom are well-known within the world of poetry. Anne Carson, Lyn Hejinian, Claudia Rankine, and Rachel Zucker are among the many writers mentioned, but others listed are equally well-established in other creative disciplines. In so doing, Carr situates her work in a community of artists who can speak to the voicelessness that follows when gender identity has been so thoroughly articulated in the larger culture and its discourse, there’s little room for discussion of the diversity of individual experience. What strikes me about Rag, however, is that the book focuses primarily on a semi-private, personal experience of womanhood as seen through the lens of daughterhood and motherhood, both in subject and form, while the poems simultaneously open themselves to a conversation that extends beyond the particular to embrace human experience in a more general sense.

It’s a complex conversation, but the speaker in these poems tends to see her place within it as a subjective voice. Like the rag in her title, her identity is defined not by an established framework that locks her into her defined societal role, but rather she is mutably defined by her function in a given situation. “I am only reflexive,” Carr says, and later “my presence, most of all, a discharge,” while “at the same time a conduit,” “a constant pulse.” The poems themselves work in a similar manner. Carr establishes a pattern of single or multiple short phrases bookended by long dashes that are often given whole pages to themselves. This yields to the more expected standardized poetic lines and then, in turn, to large prose blocks that can run for several pages. None of the poems are titled. The formal concerns seem to highlight the fact that even when Carr repeats a line, a phrase or idea, as she does throughout the collection, in each new context the phrase is altered by both the specific shift in subject matter as well as by its form on the page. For instance, the first utterance of the book is “—out of the wretched tide through the heat mothers pass—.” As the only line on the page, the statement takes on an observational grandiosity, almost Dante-esque in its scope. Nearly one hundred pages later, the phrase is repeated in a new context, shifting the focus from an atmospheric maxim to something borne of personal experience, almost casual in its presentation:

        More than anything, I was aware of my arms. And my head, not a
                problem.
        Not yet. From out of a wretched tide through the heat, mothers
                pass.

Woman on film bends over, the lead positions himself behind her. This is how it works, he tells her. I want you and so I know you want me, even if you do not know it. She thinks about that for a while.

        What spectacle licks our faces in theater dark?
        A pink—from a trench—tryst of breath and sweat.

In prose I explain to my daughter the reasons to avoid the passive voice. But why is it worse, she asks, reasonably.

The poems pose these questions, the very questions we sadly grow not to ask as we learn to accept socially-constructed values. Carr speaks poignantly on this topic, suggesting not only a need for change in our way of thinking, but a civic responsibility to challenge social structures that condition us to accept the status quo, to accept the very idea that a status quo should exist:

I’ve grown to love the rough skin. The tail of the mouse. Wrecked dollhouse. Is the cause of children a cause? What is the relationship between the brick wall, the outdoor light blinking off, and the wintering tree? Between my mother’s unbreakable silence, her husband’s loom, and the frozen lake we skate? Is grieving a politics? In some states it’s illegal to teach the young to care more for their race than their individualism. To imagine the shape of the country differently . . .

Carr points out in one poem, “nine percent of films directed by women means 91 percent directed by men,” a ratio that recalls Jane Austen hiding her pages under blotting paper, but surely not one of the leading communication mediums of the current moment. In an interview with Rusty Morrison, Carr says, “Rag is my commitment to writing into difficulty. I want work to challenge me on all levels—not just technically, but also intellectually and emotionally. I gravitate toward writing that confronts, that tries to grapple with crisis and suffering.” And it is work that challenges on so many levels that stands the best chance of telling the story as it is lived in the present moment, rather than as it is refashioned for the purposes of storytelling. If nothing else—and there are many elses—Rag is a book that tells from the moment rather than repackaging the moment in terms of what will sell, what will provoke, what will amend. Its provocation comes from precisely this trait. This is a book that understands that the story will never be fully told because it changes even as it occurs and that this paradox is part of the nature of the art. As Carr herself says, “if poetry’s sick it’s because it’s never enough to lie back in the snow, to let the snow fall into your mouth and eyes.”

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