Issue 12


Summer 2014

 

James Caruth, The Death of Narrative, Smith/Doorstop,30pp, £5

Jim Caruth's is a refined and musical voice. He knows his subjects, he knows his tone, and he delivers the bottom line for poetry: he makes the reader feel. His effects are delicate, reflective, in keeping with his themes which, if perhaps narrow and overlapping, are nevertheless some of the most powerful and constant in lyricism - the look backwards, the gap between now and then, figured in regret, in nostalgia, in a sense of loss, that sense of ending, as we watch what matters to us, pass. With the consequent suspicion that perhaps very little matters at all:

     in that instant we will simply cease to be, as if someone

     had carelessly switched off a light.

     ['The Final Journey from Material Structure to Pure Energy']

Many of these poems pivot on a single idea or moment. Often this involves memory: remembering is the subject of 'Warm Evenings in March', 'On Reading Paul Muldoon', 'Lethe', 'This is not a Photograph' and 'New Year in Arras.' Or it is absence or loss (in 'Eclogue', 'On a History of Houses', 'Dinner with Sharon Olds') 'whose absence darkens this room' ['These are Things I Know']. Or it's the associated feeling of regret:

     I close my eyes, wish that we could have lived

     under faultless New England skies.

     ['Verandas in Vermont']

Perhaps there's isolation or even loneliness implicit in some of this, but only made explicit, I think, in 'A Definition of Home'. In fact, this poem represents a rather more subtle loss, the loss of meaning. Caruth continually reminds us that we're on our own, that our place in the world is fragile, and that every connection we might think we form - through love, through language, through the place we seem to belong in - collapses.

     In that moment he lost

     every word he had for home.

     ['A Definition of Home']

We are unable to speak to be heard, or to hear what others mean. Even love is presented as the acceptance of non-communication:

     Another Sunday by the Loughside

     and nothing to be said as we walk

     the length of Main Street

     ['Eclogue']

The title ‘Eclogue’ is perhaps significant, as it calls up the idiom of pastoral, with its yearning for the rural golden age now lost in urban depredation. It's a mood prevalent in the Edgelands of Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, the rus in urbe landscape (having failed Latin O level, I can never refrain from pretending I know such things) which Caruth also traverses. So, abandoned pigeon-lofts on a hill have the romance of decay, hints of a lost world, silence where once were loving voices:

      No one hears the flap-flap of wings,

      or someone calling a lost one home.

      ['Pigeon Lofts, Penistone Road']

Our separation makes it difficult to hear, and difficult to speak: 'how hard it seems to speak of love on a phone.' ['New Year in Arras']

There are upbeat moments in this collection, but they larger occur in the past. The exuberance of 'Belfast Karaoke' for example, 'in an instant was gone.' The poet, in the tongue-in-cheek 'Six Degrees' wrote an award-winning sequence, titled ‘Six Degrees of Desperation’. Not only is this pun amusing, desperation stands-in for separation. We're not merely disconnected, we despair about it.

I may have given the impression that this is a depressing collection. It's not. It perhaps would be if Caruth were not subtle in his themes, or gentle and compassionate in in his handling of them. His  disappointed world frames itself in beautiful poetry. Because they're derived from true feeling, and attached to a tangible world, they touch us again and again with the accuracy of their reflections. Caruth desires the golden age he knows never existed, so his poetry itself enacts the possibility of such a world, by offering its own beauties, a glimpse of Plato's perfect fire in the shadows of the cave.

     Today, the Atlantic throws down its grey coat.

     Gallarus is deserted, the corbelled stones

     cold refuge where a tongue was knapped

     to an edge as dawn poured through

     the east gable, the old dark illuminated.

     ['Gallarus']

 

NW