I was instantly seduced after hearing Julie Carr read at an off-site AWP event last winter. Winner of the 2009 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, Julie Carr’s third book, 100 Notes on Violence, is a collection of confessions, but not Carr’s… or maybe Carr’s. Heavy with end rhyme: “feet like little suns// My brother drew a muscle then he drew a gun/ my envy turned me wild and my wild made me run,” the act of telling on ourselves, unburdening ourselves from the sins we carry, brings little relief in this poetic landscape. The music of this book is heavy, “I’ve loved your English so solo so done,” and parallels the weight of admission. We hardly feel that weight lifted. We hardly feel peace at all. So why read something so dark, so disturbing? It is beautiful… delicate… even graceful. Her language, the craft, and the way this work asks us to hold up a mirror as we read, is a journey of self-discovery worth taking. This book documents alcoholics, sexual predators, murderers, school shooters, unfit parents, and self-effacers. Carr gives them voice. In the first person, she speaks through them in interesting and dynamic ways. It is shockingly easy to get through 100 notes. To look into what’s secret. To uncover the taboo.
In the very first poem a man confesses: “I’m attracted to children,” and later “an infant mouth on mine.” This is unacceptable. Disturbing. Something that we shouldn’t say, especially not in a poem, but what I find most interesting is how Carr handles the perpetrators of violence. She seems fairly indifferent, or maybe she withholds disclosure of her judgements as not to imprint them onto us. Regardless, the intensity of the material itself is extremely effective without overtly projected emotions. I suppose that because these are other people’s confessions, the author is granted a necessary distance from the material. In poem 2 she writes: “and did to them what I cannot write, not in this, my—” This is the first place of intimacy that we are both invited to enter into and also shutout from. Carr chooses not to name (give power to) the truth of the tragedy.
I think I’ve been conditioned to see the inability to name, the avoidance of painful realities, to be a sign of weakness. I believe this “looking away” is how the cycle of violence is perpetuated. Carr’s poems look away, look at, look through, look towards, and then call attention to each of these actions. There are so many layers of morality, of courageousness, that I feel unqualified to make any judgements. When life is too painful (some acts too violent), we often dismiss them in lieu of confrontation. We balk at calling atrocities out and naming their perpetrators. It is so difficult for us to truly hold people responsible. These poems seem to be about our ability to process violence. Carr writes: “I’ve been thinking about what I can’t look at” and later “to stuff into the space from where the voice would emerge that says:// Nothing in this// world is going to adhere to me, not one thing will make one bit of / difference/ I am a free and unencumbered/ hand.” In this particular moment, she brings light to another issue: our perceived (real or imagined) incompetence and inability to do anything about the violence we hear about or witness. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to address violence in the first place. We are helpless. What do you do when you have no recourse?
Carr explores the idea of motive or having “no motive.” She reveals the nature of hate and hate crimes, ponders guns and what it means to “carry” a gun, or use it, and she references prison and our broken justice system. We are asked to consider what it means to show our own faces and the importance of recognizing the faceless. Carr asks us to wonder what we are up against. Is it the sun, each other, darkness?
In 100 Notes on Violence, life, sickness, and illness are also violence against us. Some poems are letters from people about people that show us how violence is like a drop in a pond: the ripples and the repercussions touch us all. I am perhaps most interested in how violence seems so normal, how perpetrators are so similar to us. There are no clear lines of division or separation. It’s quite terrifying in that way, to think, what makes me less of a monster? In poem 28,“Bomb Archive,” we see how everything from “Alcohol, Anarchy, Bad Ideas” to “Phones, Revenge Pranks, Rushes” is linked and connected to violence, or creating it, or planting the seed for it. In poem 35 “Consider This,” we are literally asked, “what is violence?”
At the very least this book leaves us with a lack of safety and the question of what it means to be a survivor. Carr lists our fears in 87 (“Metrophobia (poetry).) and complications to violent acts in poem 90 (“the children of suicides (no matter the motive) do not feel loved.”). This book from beginning to end is layered with statistics, narratives, and seemingly no acceptable resolution. Carr takes words and strips them of their meaning, makes them unrecognizable. In poem 100 she writes: “steady is twined mutual is mutual mutual is mutual from mutual as deceptions from mutual is deception delusion beguilement or cunning is cunning cute like knowledge is sharp is sharp…” Her own mutilation of meaning is another violence. She leaves us with these words: “to sound like a bell is sound to speak to sing to utter to cry is this to cry is this is this.” A final lamentation or declaration to remind us that we know so very little about ourselves and each other.
Go experience this daring and striking book!