Reviewed by Sean Arthur Joyce
Loose Ends by Ann Carson (Aeolus House, 2022)
Poet Ann Elizabeth Carson has released a book any poet would be proud of, at any age. That she has done it in her 90s only proves that creativity is the ever-living flame that can animate all of us, whatever the state of our bodies. Poetry is a lifelong craft, like any art one is truly serious about practicing, and Carson has proven the adage that the more you practice something the better you become at it.
Loose Ends is actually an unfair title for this collection. It is anything but a random collection, the kind of afterthought the title implies. In fact, Carson has woven together a focused, highly accomplished collection with many wonderful lines that leap out at the reader. This is precisely the test of an accomplished poet, the “Oh!” one experiences at the unexpected, the original. For example:
The breeze picks up,
crosshatches the water as the day decides what to be.
(“First Poem of Summer”)
what a bee hears
when the wind blows?”
for a breeze to help them to the ground.
Birds in flight swerve in obeisance
to the huge hovering presence seeping into all life.
And indeed, life is Carson’s subject, examined not merely in retrospective but with the poet’s capacity for defying time through imagining herself into multiple vantage points. Carson uses her empathy and imagination to dissolve the barriers civilization has erected between ourselves and Nature in poems such as “Talking with Willows,” “Gravity Insists,” and “Shadows,” where she realizes we are not and never have been separate from Nature:
The air that lifts my scarf is not below,
above or even around me, I am enfolded
in air, in clouds, in sky not dislocated or
distant, but connected, like
my outstretched sidewalk shadow,
within earth’s thin protective skin of air.
Childhood memories are another way Carson explores connection with the natural world, in the poem “Snow,” where an aunt’s paper cutout snowflakes mimic the uniqueness of the real thing, “each one a new winter flower, evanescent as it settles on / the pane.”
At Carson’s age it’s only natural to look back over a long life, not as a mere exercise in nostalgia, but to examine the nature of memory itself, as in the lead poem to this collection, “The Risks of Remembrance.” Memory is paradoxical; one of the great tragedies of dementia is that, by losing one’s memories, one’s personality often seems to go with them. Even scientists cannot agree on exactly how memory works, or perhaps one should say, why it works at all given our constantly shifting biochemical nature. Yet memories are not only critical to the capacity to learn but also to our individual sense of identity. Why, Carson seems to be asking, do such random objects as “A bone, a paper scrap crumbling / in the light, / chipped arrowheads, dented coins…” bear remembrance at all? (“Looking Back”) As the poet asks: “Whose memories do these remnants hold? / How to understand / these unaccompanied remains, / a lost language beseeching?”
Thus it’s appropriate for Carson to include a section of poems that tell the stories of her life—a life that bore witness to the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. Carson has chosen an appropriate poetic diction for this sequence, where her usual tightly controlled lines suddenly splay across the page, like a distracted newspaper reader picking up disparate bits of information from the war front. News blurbs from the war are interspersed with family memories, painting a broad canvas—from the universal to the personal.
In “Fractured Dreams: The Crash of ’29 and The Depression,” she recounts the irony of her birth that year being overshadowed by the economic collapse that destroyed millions of families’ hopes and futures, including her own father’s, who “was never the same. / “You never knew the man I married,” my mother said, years later…” In our world of 200 varieties of everything lining supermarket shelves, it’s hard to accept that during the 1930s, families were lucky to be able to give their children a single orange at Christmas.
Carson covers the polio epidemic and of course the outbreak of World War II. Her generation has had to endure an incredible amount of hardship on the way to affluence, and after two or three generations of comfort, it appears new generations may have to face similar hardships. However, her comparison of the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and being refused entry at ports around the world with “the thousands of women and children—and orphaned children (no men?) / fleeing Russian genocide in Ukraine in ’22” may not stand up to close scrutiny. The comparison between Churchill and Ukrainian President Zelensky is similarly premature at this stage of history given what we already know about war propaganda. It remains a perennial truth that “the first casualty of war is truth.”
As I’ve written many times, political poetry is by far the most difficult to successfully pull off; even the great Pablo Neruda—no stranger to politics in poetry—sometimes stumbled, as in the shrill-voiced Songs of Protest. Poetic polemics either become dated too quickly as new historical evidence comes to light or simply come off sounding like a rant. I’ve slammed into this rhetorical wall a few times myself. Or, as all too often happens these days, it has the scent of the poet ‘virtue signaling’ to position themselves on the correct side of the PC line. One of the best examples by far of a political poem that succeeds on every level is Gary Geddes’ poem on the Kent State shootings, “Sandra Lee Scheuer.” Geddes simply describes the character of one of the shooting victims, the quietly eloquent tragedy that her aspirations to become a speech therapist will never be realized. That’s not to say that more direct, forceful language can’t also succeed in a polemical poem provided it’s done skillfully enough. (See footnote).1 Fortunately Carson manages to walk the fine polemical line with grace and skill in her lyrical poems, while occasionally stumbling in the looser verses of the “It’s All There” section. This reinforces how important controlled structure in poetry can be, forcing the poet to rein in their sometimes over- zealous impulses.
1 Who burned the houses
but left the clothes hanging
on the line?
Who dropped the bombs?
Who unleashed the missiles?
Who murdered the villagers
as they crossed the bridge to market?
Who looted? Who beheaded his neighbour
and left him there to gawk
beside the city gate?
I and my comrades did this.
I, your good neighbour
who went to mass
who prostrated in the mosque
who donned his skull cap
who genuflected, who prayed.
It was I, I who used the correct word
—excerpt from “I Did This” by Ernest Hekkanen, Straying from Luminosity, New Orphic Publishers, 1999.
Notice that the poet doesn’t project guilt outward but accepts his own responsibility as being as innately capable of genocide as the next person, given the wrong circumstances.
Carson, who had a career as a psychotherapist, threads her observations of how trauma affects people throughout this section, as when a family friend and veteran of Dunkirk comes to dinner: “Like most survivors, he fends off war talk.” Studies in epigenetics reveal that often it takes until the third generation (the grandchildren) after trauma for family members to feel safe talking about it. And quite contrary to the media-propagated ideal of WWII veterans or their families swooning in nostalgic fits to the sounds of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” for Carson the song is “sickening saccharine propaganda / sung to hide raw terror and fear / as casualties mount. Nausea rises / even now when I hear that music.”
In the “Closer to the Bone: Covid and Climate Change” section, Carson feels the incarceration of those in extended care homes more than most of us would. Even before Covid, reports revealed that these institutions were failing our seniors catastrophically, with, as Carson writes, “crowded rooms, neglect and abuse,” but instead of meaningful action, “they will write a report,” while during pandemic lockdowns families are cruelly forced apart, “mothers fathers grandmothers/ grandfathers brothers sisters husbands wives friends they / can touch only through windows, hands and mouths leaving / smudged traces on the glass.” Later, in “Elder Care,” her skepticism of these supposed ‘protective’ measures bleeds through: “Loved ones, paralyzed spectators behind supposed / doors of safety, screen-watch, desperate / to touch/comfort you…” The poet intuits that indeed, the social engineering is designed to reduce us to fearful spectators, “screen-watchers” rather than active participants in life willing to take risks in order to thrive. (No risks, no rewards.) Or worse, lab rats in “a lab experiment / whose outcomes will be read / by an incredulous future, or hidden away / until the next crisis.”
Just as I did in Diary of a Pandemic Year, Carson uses poetry as witness to record her impressions of “a full year of Covid-19, masks and double-masks, social distancing in-home and outdoors, of hand-washing and hand-wringing, and a vaccine I may or may not be able to take…” It’s ample and eloquent witness to the dominion of fear created by lockdowns and the deliberately exaggerated threat of coronavirus. Carson as poet looks to the forthcoming emergence of spring, with its attendant rise of new saplings as well as hope in the human heart, “the invisible chrysalis of possibilities, imagining a / wordless longing to connect with the calls to mind and heart at / the start of spring.”
Carson deftly captures the eerie sense of emptiness during lockdowns, when city spaces like New York’s Times Square or similar beehives of human and commercial activity were devoid of people, like a dead civilization. In “Celebrating Victoria,” Carson sketches the scene with visceral details: “No fireworks split the sky. / An empty streetcar grumbles by… the city squares / of London, Canberra, Nassau and beyond, empty / of any vestige of delight…”2
A collection of poems by a nonagenarian writer wouldn’t be complete with some reflections on aging, that process we are all confronted with sooner or later. As I see my mid-60s on the near horizon I cannot for the life of me see aging as anything other than a tragedy— Nature’s slow, inevitable desecration of the beauty and energy of youth. In “SIX feEt APART BuT NOT UNDER,” Carson relates a typical daily conversation that seniors must endure simply by virtue of their age; even between peers of an age group it can sometimes be condescending or infantilizing. In “Late Day Reflections,” part 2, Carson captures this in just a few deft words:
“She is strong, yes!
Strong and engaged as ever.
given what she has lived.”
One more thing, just
one more and I fray,
falling around myself.
“See how she smiles, glad
of the company.”
(“One thing after…”)
2 Or as I wrote in Diary of a Pandemic Year in “The Next World”:
airports, concert halls, cafés are now empty,
but the residue of our touch
makes them ache for our presence.
And in “Life During Pandemic”:
“Streets heavy as decades-old / silence, a soundless string about / to snap.”
Once again, the role of memory becomes more—not less—critical as we age. Stumbling across an old blue dress in her wardrobe, Carson is catapulted back in time, an epiphany resulting in the insight that, “In the end we all become stories / begun in dreams / unscrolling on a player piano, / no foot on the moving pedal.” The creeping, mostly suppressed terror of mortality is suddenly foregrounded by a heart attack. In the “Heart Matters” suite, the poet pleads, as we all do, for just another day, a week, a month, a year—ten years, even:
pause, please stay
here throbs in muscles, bones
There’s one thing to be said for such shocks to our awareness of mortality—often they wake us up to the preciousness of life. Clichéd as that may sound, it remains a truism:
I am the smell of coffee, the savour
of buttered toast
with maybe jam, the scratch of a pen
on rustling paper. I am alive
And ultimately, given the unpredictability of life, isn’t today all any of us can count on?
Loose Ends by Ann Carson (Aeolus House, 2022)
Sean Arthur Joyce is the author of 11 books and numerous limited editions, featuring Western Canadian history, poetry, a novel and his latest, Words from the Dead: Relevant Readings in the Covid Age, a collection of essays. Joyce’s poems and essays have appeared in Canadian, American and British literary journals and anthologies. He has been a freelance journalist since 1990 and blogs regularly at Substack. Joyce has also produced poetry videos, including “The Day After Covid,” based on the author’s latest poetry collection, Diary of a Pandemic Year. They can be viewed on the author’s website. His newest collection of poems, Blue Communion (Ekstasis Editions), is due out by Christmas 2022. “Joyce has distinguished himself as a poet of great range, brilliant technique and musical qualities,” writes Roger Lewis, Professor Emeritus of English Literature (Acadia University).
Ann Elizabeth Carson poet, author, artist, feminist, honoured at the 2008 Luminato Festival for her contribution to the arts, reads and sculpts in Toronto and on Manitoulin island in solo and collaborative events. Previously at York University and a psychotherapist in private practice, Ann’s career has focused on understanding the silenced voices in our society and attempting to give them space in her writing. Her work has appeared in many journals magazines and anthologies and in seven published books: Shadows Light, poetry and sculpture, The Risks of Remembrance, collected poems, My Grandmother’s Hair, how family stories shape our lives, We All Become Stories, challenging stereotypes of memory and aging, Laundry Lines, a poetic memoir, Filling the Ark, stories and poems and Loose Ends, reflections. Ann is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, The Ontario Poetry Society, The Manitoulin Writers Circle and The Heliconian Club for women in the arts.