Review: Rag by Julie Carr

16 Feb


Julie Carr’s fifth book, Rag, is a book characterized more by the way that it looks than what it looks at. Rag is more about the process of contextualization itself than staging a context for the meditations or anecdotes of a cohesive “I” “behind” or “outside of” the text. Carr wants a poetry that is atmospheric—not the dictation of an imaginary I, but rather a glimpse of the network of exchanges that I participates in. As Carr writes in the opening poem, “One’s body is in response” (11). Rag is a book of self-abandon, but not in the terms we usually think. Carr forfeits a cohesive self to see the larger strictures—such as gender, race, narrative, and memory—inside which a self is structured.

In Rag, this self-abandon as abandoning the self is a desire to diffuse back into the larger law from which the self first demarcated. For a speaker to exist, she must be defined as “other than.” This difference is what makes her subject to the law (which guarantees intersubjectivity) but simultaneously makes her blind to it (since “she” is a product of—not a participant in—these exchanges). In Rag, the speaker becomes negative space, a kind of absence the text can fill. Car writes:

 To my own face with its endless changes endless sameness its eyes

I said no. I wanted to be a hole. In the road, the garden

Dust across my keys, sugar in my teeth, to the jaw of the bus driver as I boarded the bus

I said no. Today I will not remove the isolated hair from my basin. Not figure

Some cleaner end (83)

By relinquishing subjective cohesion, the speaker in Rag becomes extra-narrative. Causality becomes less clear as everything moves from order to contiguity. The poems themselves are mimetic of this entropy as well. Rag moves between pages of fragments, frequently bookended by dashes, to long blocks of prose broken only by the margins.

And so Rag is a book of continual disruptions. A “thing” represents a closure as its “use” becomes solidified in the symbolic order. A new thing only becomes possible at sites of disjunction. Carr is not interested in “product” in the form of narrative, anecdote, ect… Rather, Carr wants the static of thought before it reaches a symbolic channel. Carr writes:

And we with eye averted sat by the crying woman. Resting elbows on our knees in a posture of care/disregard. Just as on a plane a woman three rows back, seated between two suited men, suddenly began to sob—loud and unabashed, not othering to wipe her tears, not covering her face, just sitting staring forward, wailing like a baby. No one said anything. Not the men—one gazed out the window, the other continued to read his screen as if nothing—not the attendants, who did not come. Now in heavy spring snow, a tree loses a limb. And we are glad—an opening where was a thing. Then she stops crying and her face clears to resemble the sidewalk beside the DMV. Without anything to create shade, anything at all, the people come and go— (18)

For Carr, the page is a pane of glass. She writes: “Between the law and the living being—the unnamable being with no nation—/ is a point of imbalance, steadied by no home/ Hanging from clouds, intricate environments I will come to miss/ You cannot stop time. Seeking paradise, invent glass” (46). The poems in Rag are a way into, gestures of looking and not things made.

The paradoxical goal of the self-abandon Carr’s speaker performs is that by removing herself from the symbolic equation and instead providing us with the hidden productive forces of individual conscious, she regains some measure of ownership of herself. Or, as Car more succinctly writes, “Whose theatre is it now?” (34). Car’s speaker exists in a kind of conscious-unconscious, an inverse of unconscious-conscious of an unexamined “I.” Unfortunately, the forfeit in both cases is a humanist version of a self-determined “I.” Car writes:

In the passivity of belonging to an order

she was the first disappearing term

The more others are heard the more she is lost

And drivers consider their destinations

consider their destination to be worthy (115)

The speaker of these poems exists in suspension, moving without destination between the ego and the larger symbolic network that both allows for and forecloses the possibility of its existence.

While all this may make the text seem laborious, Rag isn’t forced. Car keeps her philosophical investments while still creating moments of real lyric beauty. There’s something about Rag that feels as if the whole text is something overhead. Rag manages to be haunted by itself. Reading it feels like listening to it on a tape recorder, locked in room with no key.

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