Set in Stone: poems
(CavanKerry Press, 2020)
Kevin Carey again flies ahead of the pack for a breakaway with a new collection of poems which are shot through with storytelling verve and vulnerability. This basketball metaphor is one of several from the book, this one pulled from “The Charleston Boys Club Tournament—1970”:
how much I love basketball,
playing in dark little gyms
that smell like dust and chlorine
flying ahead of the pack for a breakaway,
watching a long-range jump shot
hang in the air for hours.
Carey renders poetic moments of breakaway energy in a tight game of memory, reflection, loss, and regret. He feeds the ball again and again to what hurts him.
Carey eschews the technical for poems that ground the reader in a vivid place and tell as clear a story as possible. Several of the poems are dedicated, and the poem for Philip Levine “The Morning After the New York City Young Filmmakers Festival—2018” stands out in ways, given its material of a crowded New York City, its subtly charged rhythms and sound, its tenor of a love letter, all with a structural shape that feels unique among the others as a long poem of couplets and a final rhyming stanza—while also what is especially interesting is the mention of Levine. In an earlier interview here in the Brooklyn Rail, Carey mentioned Levine: “It always starts with Phil Levine. He’s the reason I got into writing poetry…” Though one doesn’t need this mention to feel the Philip Levine in Carey’s work; Levine has been a clear influence. Throughout these poems, it is evident that Levine’s way of work, and of love, whispers in Carey’s ear.
Carey’s poetry, like Levine’s, is easy to read and follow, almost always with a simple way in. Levine’s poem “A Story” begins: “Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.” And Levine’s poem “What Work Is” begins, “We stand in the rain in a long line / waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.” It’s the point guard’s vision: grasping the breadth of the court and players in their positions, having the rare sense of how to set up the play, passing, receiving, driving in. Carey’s poem “The Curse” begins “Okay here’s the thing: / I’ve got a list of regrets / dating back a thousand years” and the poem “Hovering” begins “There’s my father walking from the blue / line station down the colosseum steps / of City Hall Plaza.” It’s important to this poet that the reader experience a simple, clear narrative that runs deep. It is a rare poem, if at all, that yearns to further the form. Rather, Carey in his poetry offers a story peopled by vulnerable human beings not unlike ourselves, after all, and he lets readers feel the way to their own reflections.
Carey’s poem “Concord” has a breadth and range of fatherhood movements that tug familiar chords; touching in their loss, tender in their grieving. In the poem, the narrator buys a book of poems by Gerald Stern, and he writes, “The poems make me think of high school.” There is a kind of subtle admission here of what the poet hopes others to find in his own work: memories that run deep. The poet then slips into a brief dream narrative, as he occasions throughout his poetry—and then returns to the moment with a lovely lyrical sentiment, as he’s driving nearer to a prison where he’s to give a reading:
…the closer I get
the more the pretty visions of my childhood
seem to slip through my fingers like the slimy
green frogs of summer and I’m left with
my own haunted fears…
—here connecting at a slant to today’s ugly and harsh realities—where have the pretty and slimy green frogs of summer gone?
In this book, which has a dedication to his father, Carey reflects openly and candidly on being both son and father; the father whose son has grown up is a central motif. The book symmetrically attunes story and memory to the poetry quite literally: the first poem is “Story” and the next one is “Memory.” He writes in the titular poem, “I’m trapped between the memory / and the moment”. Indeed, the intention of the arrangement of the book seems to reflect this very line. There are two collected parts that are first largely turned to the poet’s past, and then in the second more to the present. Outside of these two parts, there is first the opening poem “Story,” which is a kind of preface which seems a disclaiming statement, made ominously and moodily about the self, again with Carey’s edge of regret (“I am obsolete”)—this poem seems a plea to consider that the poet is not as simple as he seems. And there is a thin Part II in the middle of the book, consisting of a short narrative and a poem—these two are thematically vertebral though too loose in form. The short narrative essay feels out of place yet of a piece. Moreover, the book’s arrangement resonates with the inner mechanics of the poet’s grief over separation from his son. In the titular poem: “I love him so much my chest hurts.”
This poem calls to another poem, “The Curse,” at the middle:
I love him so much my chest hurts,
thinking of him riding off into his own life,
me the weeping shadow left behind (for now),
I know I’ll see him again but it’s ceremony
we’re talking about after all—
one growing up and one growing older
both wild curses.
The poem “The Curse” addresses the who-am-I question—a father’s impatient and bitter self-assessment “when I’m driving home alone”—and turns this to a suggestion of what the rest of life will be like. He will always be bitter: “It all comes down to this … I regret everything I’ve done.” And he requires daily pain, “necessary pain,” to “suffer just a little more than yesterday.”
On occasion the poet also grapples, though loosely, with social issues, acknowledging that he is part and parcel of the world around him, and having made mistakes. Broadly these moments feel, rather than inserts of persuasive writing, more invested in the discourse on the poet’s plight as aging father, as they should be. From the middle of “On the Eve of My Son’s Graduation—May 2016”:
This is what it’s come to—
fiction as truth, angry mobs
(righteous and otherwise),
And the media sprinkling flakes
Into the tank.
Here my son: Happy Graduation.
The book’s final few poems engage the reader emotionally, while at times offered with moments of subtle humor. “Another Ending,” the volume’s final poem, is playfully titled given its place in the collection, while, in contrast, its content is of the darkest sort: a son’s death. This poem feels of a piece among the dreams in the book: In this case, it is a father’s worst nightmare. Each of the final poems carry a bittersweet tone with a strong undercurrent of dread for the future ahead. Another coming near the end, the poem “House Call” stands out. Dedicated to Julius Erving, it is a thrilling poem, full of verve: “I was standing under that hoop watching you, / while you stayed in the air for a week / before touching down. … We all knew you were … a solo flight in the empty sky.” It’s a sentiment that a son who has grown up and left home just might express, one day, across a span of generational differences, to the father he left behind. To the wild curse he sees within himself.