blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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Review | Carnations, by Anthony Carelli
                Princeton University Press, 2011

spacer Carnations

A public park in Chile. A Brooklyn pie shop. The Piggly Wiggly fish counter. In such places Anthony Carelli manifests faith and grace in Carnations, his debut collection of poetry. Despite the Christian overtones in titles such as “The Prophets,” “The Apostles,” and “Original Sin” and the prodigious use of church Latin, traditional religious emblems like churches and biblical figures are conspicuously absent, a pattern brought directly to the attention of the poet’s persona when Mrs. Otto, an older woman at that fish counter, confronts the speaker:

With her hand still held
in mine, she delivered
this sentence: “I can’t
help but notice, Mr. Carelli—
the Lord has never appeared
in any of your poems.”

Viewed through the lens of this character, Carnations seems a calculated response to the woman’s accusation. Though the poem’s Mr. Carelli is struck speechless at the moment, this collection answers Mrs. Otto in many voices.

Consider its cover, a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Christ Carrying the Cross, a panoramic painting that contains Bruegel’s usual cast of thousands, people riding horses, carrying packs, and milling around. Just finding Jesus takes a fair amount of concentration. He’s there, though, in the center of all the chaos, struggling under the burden of the cross. And even though he occupies a relatively small amount of real estate on the canvas, without Christ this would be merely a landscape devoid of revelers and thieves, devoid of Mary, pale and mourning in the foreground. This unassuming faith—subtly embedded in the quotidian moments of life, but inevitably at the center of things—inhabits Carelli’s Carnations.

Animals frequently suggest divinity. A dog’s wet, soulful eyes, a tortoise’s slow but dignified progress, even, or perhaps especially, a salmon “bludgeoned, flayed, / quartered, boarded, wrapped, and frozen, / then laid before us inside-out” so easily stand in for a greater theological understanding that eludes humankind. In Carelli’s poems, animals show up in the most unlikely and, at times, inopportune occasions. They interrupt moments of reverie as often as they invoke them. The collection’s first poem, “The Sabbath,” begins with a couple at odds with each other but playing Frisbee in the cold as a respite from their arguing:

“Wow:” you said, “horses,” but I missed them at first.
I was chasing down the disk that overshot, banked
above and hissed in the sky, a flattened apple.
I had had it. “Baby,” I almost said, “I’m trying
to make a catch here.” But I was stopped.

Stunned, the speaker moves into a description of the horses:

                   the second horse did whatever I say
the first horse did, which is walk, and smoke breath,
glimmer and gloom. They both shouldered through
the intermittent aeons of twilight as mitigated
by black tree shafts.

It seems, in the midst of this reverie, as if everything will work out for these people; “but that’s not what happened, Honey. This / is our life: we fought until dark, we mastered / our timing, you made that magnificent cartwheel toss.” Are the horses poised as resolution or distraction? The reader leaves this poem with complicated feelings and a weather eye out for the roles of other animals.

Birds figure prominently in this collection as well, simultaneously purposeful and ephemeral. They may lure the speaker into confrontation or occlude him. In “Agnus Dei”—Latin for “lamb of God”—a flock of starlings draws the narrator’s attention to a young Mexican boy, tied up and hung from a bridge: “I return to the starlings, return to the starlings, because // the marvel of their never-tangled arcs, at first, misguided us / to skygaze. We stopped on the bridge, good god!” In “The Apostles,” however, on a day “destined to be / the anniversary of nothing,” with the speaker consumed by personal troubles and his friend and fellow hiker wrapped up in the failures of his own poetry, a lark erupts to save the pair from themselves as they hike along the hills surrounding a bay:

                                                          I holler
and look for a nod, but you haven’t received
a word, for a bird, a lark, is borne between us,
utter inertia, close as a housefly or the lowest
of the apples, wind-pinned in place.

Suddenly, the lark’s presence captivates these men, who cheer it on as it battles the wind. They finally and thankfully lose sight of themselves and are able to take in the mountains around them, the waterfront and city below them, “the silver ghettos” of clouds disintegrating above them.

We see similar gestures throughout Carnations—instances of cliff-teetering and line-straddling that give the reader pause and opportunity for deliberation. The tenets of control and passivity contend with each other in these poems. “If I were called in to construct a religion / I would make use of lumber,” Carelli writes in “The Builder.” He goes on:

                 If I’m building to accommodate the gods,
I figure the platform should be nice
and sturdy; the gods might be really heavy.
Besides, all kinds of people are sure to come
and climb all over it, wear the thing out.

The confidence and pragmatism of this speaker astound, as does the suggestion that you can assemble religion from wood as one would a staircase or doorway.  “Discernment” evokes a kindred attitude, beginning with the assertion, “I’m no ladies’ man, but somehow I took her.” The masculine bravado quickly fades, though, as the action of the poem unfolds. The speaker wakes from a nap. A local Chilean woman approaches and, after confirming his American-ness, descends upon him:

“Wait. No,” I started, but she squatted atop me
thumbing her underwear aside beneath her dress.
“What about those kids over there?” I pleaded
but she wouldn’t heed.

Just who is taking whom here? An irresistible force, in the form of this woman, overpowers and subdues the speaker, and yet he cognitively reframes the situation so that he is the virile foreign conqueror in his own mind.

The temptation, as a reason-seeking individual, is to weigh these dueling natures against one another and select the better, or to reconcile the two into some greater belief. Certainly, when many people consider religion, they look for such absolutes. Carelli’s poetry, however, defies simplistic, either-or notions. “Let there be no doubt,” he writes in “The Hours,” “Sunrise is salvation / on certain streets of Brooklyn, if only / you can manage to ignore it.” This outlook surfaces periodically and meaningfully. In “No, Euripides”:

When the gods are called, and they come
and prance around like the bodies of men,
they’re ruined for me.

Let them be wonderful,
not pigeons in sunlight,
nor the dumb sea confusing Ithacan sailors.

Stop pestering those strange creatures.
We may find someday
we need them.

In these poems, the speaker takes a sideways and stumbling approach to seeking out the divine. More so, though, this strategy seems the only way to go about faith—a strange combination of astute recognition and willful ignorance.

Carelli’s poetry balances intellectual engagement with an aesthetic elegance that gives body and flow to Carnations. Images and descriptions abate and rematerialize over the course of the collection, beyond the effect of simple repetition or reinforcement. “I’m a guest in a hostel on a hill / named Happy,” the speaker reveals midway through “The Collar,” providing a physical hub for the poem’s diametrically opposed ideas of physical labor and a South American vacation. The poem that immediately follows opens with the same hill, causing the reader to rock gently back before moving onward again. “Lectio Divina” features the contemplative clerk of a savory pie shop:

               The door blows open; a beauty appears
—a silver-haired girl has entered the shop.

She’s looking for help, but needing some time.
“Gimme a sec to see what you got . . . Yeah,

can I get a couple of whatever’s most popular?”
And so I return to the arithmetic of pie plus pie

and what’s her change. What is love if not
the aptitude for refreshment?

In “The Hours,” which follows, we see the same speaker preparing the pie shop for its busiest day, cleaning windows and display cases and stacking bags of coffee into aesthetically pleasing pyramids:

I glance at my grandfather’s watch: quarter
past seven. And the first of the commuters,
a silver-haired girl—the first, I pray,
of thousands—appears at the door.

The layering of silver-haired girl upon silver-haired girl created by the juxtaposition of these poems compels the reader to move in two temporal directions at once. These surreptitious repetitions have the effect of a hymn’s refrain, rhythmically inspiring the reader to consider a figure or theme from multiple times, from differing angles.

One can’t help but wonder how Mrs. Otto from the Piggly Wiggly fish counter might react to these poems. Instead of a boldface, capital-G God, Carelli gives us larks and shepherd’s pie, hills named Happy and silver-haired girls—much to the willing reader’s benefit—something of the sacred imbued in them all.  end

Anthony Carelli is the author of one collection of poetry, Carnations (Princeton University Press, 2011), which was a finalist for the 2012 Levis Reading Prize. He received an MFA in poetry at New York University.

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