Edit’d with a preface by Edmund Berrigan and select’d for printing by Anselm Berrigan, The Selected Poems of Steve Carey (Subpress, 2009) arrives with its lineage unconceal’d, flaunt’d, rather, heart-on-its-sleeve-style, with pieces for the likes of Philip Whalen, Alice Notley (who publish’d a ferociously moving memoir of Carey—call’d “Steve”—in the 2005 Coming After: Essays on Poetry), Bill Berkson, and Ted Berrigan. Carey died in 1989, aged 43, of a heart attack: in roughly two decades, he publish’d seven books, Smith Going Backward (Cranium Press, 1968), through Gentle Subsidy (Big Sky, 1975) and The California Papers (United Artists, 1981) to 20 Poems (Unimproved Editions, 1987), Alice Notley’s seemingly completely fugitive press-of-the-moment. Edmund Berrigan, in the preface: “Finding a copy of any of Steve Carey’s seven books these days amounts to finding and ransacking the book collection of one of his friends.” With Keith Abbott, Carey edit’d the magazine Blue Suede Shoes.
Alice Notley’s remarks about Steve Carey—anecdotal, defiantly “unliterary” (she recalls Ted Berrigan chiding Carey’s “esthetic purity” a little with the line “Absolute quality tells absolutely nothing”) and unabashedly partial (she notes how she and Carey “quickly consented to sibling rivalry being born a month apart in the same year 1945”) and partisan—arrive by degrees at a terrifyingly forthright crescendo and cri de cœur damning life in the impeccably-policed confines of Poetryville, U.S.A. Pertinent, unremediably pertinent. Notley:
I write, in this essay, of the relation of poetry and life, the poet’s life: they go together and echo each other, sometimes one has depth when the other hasn’t (and vice versa). Steve (to continue in the present tense) lays his life on the line for and in his poetry, in order to write it properly. You have to give it something, everything actually, and I don’t know what the it is in that clause, which it is, poetry or life. Poetry isn’t a career, it’s much more exacting than that part of it. Poets are routinely and shamefully used by their society to get a culture, to have a culture at all; Steve is clearly a culture-maker and the product of society’s use of him. Abuse of his sensitivity. He has been hurt in his youth and the result is rampant poetry and also fear and instability; the more hurt you are, the more poetic you are, the less likely you’ll be conformist enough, or have enough professional stamina, to get the circumscribed recognition a “famous” poet gets. That’s the cliché, the cliché is true. If poetry isn’t, as the theory people say, or shouldn’t be about manufacturing a product, then poets such as Steve are the ones who should be given more attention. They aren’t, and not by the theorists. You can’t study him if you can’t easily get his books (products); if he doesn’t hang with a crowd of self-advertisers (theorists) telling you what his works mean and that he’s the only one; if his life is embarrassing or something, if it works according to its own (painful) rules. If you can’t separate the product from the producer, the poet from the life. I love Steve so I’m not impartial or detached or whatever that word; I don’t want to be that word; I don’t want to be a scientist about poetry—and I’m not just talking about my friend. I’m talking about poetry. It isn’t detachable. It’s mixed in with everything, even when it isn’t obviously being written; it’s consuming and if you’re a poet and you aren’t somewhat ravaged from that, there’s probably something wrong with your poetry.A white-hot flame capable of obliterating anybody’s self-satisfy’d constructivist moment, that machine’d erector set model.
Carey’s pieces in the Selected Poems seem of two (or three) identifiable sorts. There’s a number of bravura pieces that single-mindedly “do up” a (likely) pre-conceived (and extreme) idea—the name-calling of “The Complaint: What Are You, Some Kind Of” (“Acturial plight Nostradamus Devil Bat / Overzealous mighty-winged flabbergast / Wholesale heathen plot worry wort / Sci-fi lexicon formenter hassle-free / Quipster of the ring . . . / Bahama-bound, neo-passé poontang, / Lunge-monger, thrust-hustler, quasi-objectionable / Quasi-aged quasi-rookie, one of the boys and girls . . .”); the humorous unending toodaloos of “Goodbye Forever” (“Shit, I’m busting out of this mill! / Yes, I am! Getting out of this burg! / Leaving! Quitting the place! Splitting! / Making my beat! Making tracks! Hauling out! . . . Prominent loss! / Mr. Tootle-oo! Go-go bozo! I’ll be shoving off!” &c.)—through a couple of rollicking pages; the collect’d late-night movie (Carey the son of Harry Carey, Jr.) lingo of “Calling S. J. Perelman” (“Begging your pardon, ma’am, and meaning no harm by it I’m sure / But have you with all respect lost your mind? / No! No police! You promised! Speak up when you talk to me boy . . . / Nothing to be afraid of here. I see it, / But I don’t believe it! Your honor, I object, counsel / for the defense is attempting to turn this courtroom / into a three-ring circus. I own everything in this town / worth owning but the post office and the phone company / and I’m working on that. . .”) The majority of the pieces, though—including the hedg’d “(or three)”—those being a couple of (only partially reprint’d here) longer poems that work to record the skitterish quotidiana in (mostly) extreme open field, pieces like “AP” (Notley recalls how Carey’d “constantly inform” Ted Berrigan how, although “AP is ‘like’ [Berrigan’s] Tambourine Life and written after Tambourine Life, [it] was composed without his knowing about Tambourine Life.”), “The California Papers,” and “Rarity Planes”—the majority of Carey’s pieces audaciously explore the lyric, with sometimes mouth-droppingly terrific result. Here’s a piece I find astonishing—one of the final poems in the book (I would’ve liked to see dates of composition and / or publication append’d or noted—it’s difficult (impossible) to determine any sense of Carey’s trajectory—if such exists). Carey:
PoemThe simple effortless beauty of “From a walk to a halt to a walk— / What it amounts to” (a poetic of sorts)—thrills me. As does the seemingly lackadaisical sound underpinnings of “And hence, as I dreamed it, a sense of people / Having died in the name of the sentiment / They contained. We have forfeit / The requirement of our consent.” All that quasi-clipped ent-ing and eit-ing coming off the looser hence and sense: a kind of British stiff-upper-lipping at those deaths (all death). (Carey’s book is nigh-brimming with death: or is that the “effect” of knowing a writer to’ve gone off too soon? There’s (in “Staggerlee”): “Death, for instance, in its various proof, / surprised home at the theory, although / ‘the rest departed’ was how it went / in some perimeters.” There’s (in “The Old Enthusiast”) the shuddery-lovely line by its lonesome, “The constantly new darks”—hard on the heels of “possibly summoned by surprise in a similar dying / sometime that day” and (some ways along) “You are the journal of yourself—dying—.” There’s (in another movie mélange call’d “Black and White”): “Where is he? Last we heard one of the girls here got / a postcard from Singapore. It would / be just like that guy to die at a time like / this.”
She holds the bird a minute to her lips
Before returning it, weary, home:
Something signal and fine
With more than a bit of the randier ads
And hence, as I dreamed it, a sense of people
Having died in the name of the sentiment
They contained. We have forfeit
The requirement of our consent.
We begin to hear more than we’d wished.
Now, again, she is damned and appropriate.
“Bitchin’ kamikazee ingenue” is right
(singing, “Do wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do”)
Like the guys who followed the birds south
Laying down a railroad along their path—
Stunts recalling amphetamines’ exacting perfidy
(Now grown sweet) or even, more recently,
Engaged in locating subatomic deities,
Perhaps merely standing, greatly, by.
From a walk to a halt to a walk—
What it amounts to. And so
Back out into the customary air
Turning her face to her sources.
My prefer’d Carey pieces (like “Poem”) seem oddly inexplicable, self-contain’d, absolutely inimitable (though I think of Hart Crane, some of whose short lyrics instill the same sense of casual ineffability in me). Say, (perhaps), “merely standing, greatly, by.” They (the pieces) often appear to stutter a little, comma-rid (à la Olson), not exactly worrisomely start-and-stop, just (self-collect’dly) pausing. See, say, (perhaps), something like (in “Drysdale and Mantle, Whitey Ford and To You”): “That man’s joy, that woman’s joy / comes to us / not so much in similar words / —quote or coincidence— / but I think in lethal duet / vowel train, crossword puzzle whim / —a flick of the scat-capable wig // The man I am thinking of / is—good God—hereabouts // and this is the Last Call he heard / from the day he was born—O Ted!” So that one “arrives” with that final lyrical outburst containing all the unjettison’d joy, humor, and loss and bereavement, a simultaneity. One more:
Thin AirThat “all movement / Must have noise” and acceptance of how “A splendid confusion pre-empts / All I make” works to “make sense” (if need’d) of “verbing” “the modern stop”: it somehow reminds me of O’Hara’s something or other, “Poem (Khrushchev is coming on the right day!)” (maybe), with its scheherazade of motility, its dervish swirl of activity, just keeping going, “I am foolish enough always to find it in wind.”
Convinced, I verb the modern stop,
I relinquish heritage tidal signs
For those more complete at command
A splendid confusion pre-empts
All I make:
The will and the wish—I don’t know!
I am so happy neglecting
The station to decide!
Outside the heat conspires to reside,
And by that alone all movement
Must have noise. My voice
In bickering incidents—
All contrary to direction, all
Some other rote.
Motion in heat, on a grass now lawn
And dying, could well be
Impossible from here. . . .
I am in spite of my life.
I sort and die. I die talking.
The Selected Poems of Steve Carey
(Artwork by Jonathan Allen)
(Artwork by Jonathan Allen)