Saturday, April 6, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 6 with Carrie Jerrell

Collaboration in poetry has always been in the background for how a poem is written because poets learn from other poets. In their epigraphs, poets have often quoted their revered poets prominently. Epigraphs are those quotes that preface, maybe inspired, and certainly inform a new poem. What Carrie Jerrell does in “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer,” one of three poems published in volume 40 of the Birmingham Poetry Review, opens collaboration generously to her contemporaries. This nod to relatively unknowns provides new exposure. The Steiny Road Poet is not saying this kind of reaching out to other literary sources is new, but it offers a new kind of challenge in appreciating contemporary poems.

Jerrell’s poem is prefaced by this attribution: “after lines by Cecily Parks and Sarah Manguso—January 29, 2007.” While the names sounded vaguely familiar to the Steiny Poet, she did not know or recall the work of either Parks or Manguso. More on this soon. In truth and actual practice, the Steiny Poet breezed by these names and read the poem a couple of times before resorting to Google. More important was to establish the identity of Barbaro.

Barbara was a racehorse who won the 2006 Kentucky Derby but shattered his leg two weeks later at the Preakness. While the Steiny Poet spends time with friends who ride horses and spent time with now deceased family members who often bet on the horses running at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race track, she knows only a feed bucket full of things about horses. For the Steiny Poet, the rule of thumb that sticks out is that if a horse breaks a leg, he is put down—they-shoot-horses-don’t-they put-him-out-of-his-misery kind of thing. Apparently horse medicine has advanced and Barbaro was so valued by his owner that the horse was operated on not once but a half dozen times before he was euthanized.

Carrie Jerrell lives in Kentucky and, from what the Steiny Poet gathers from her snooping around on the Internet, Jerrell also owns or owned horses. So in the eyes of the Steiny Poet that makes Jerrell more reliable than the average poet to enter the mind of a horse. And no, Jerrell does not address how many horses are immediately put down if they break a leg, but she does illuminate the scene of the horse breaking pastern bones and the horse going under the knife and waking up in sling.

Then, a slip. A skitter start.
A snap. My pastern bones
a constellation. A knife. A hoof
half missing when I woke
and you heavy with sorrow.
Brief green. White sky. A mass.
Four points of pain. A sling
to keep me hovering…

While this free verse poem is written in unstructured stanzas of varying line counts, there is a lot of satisfying rhyme, mostly internal and often slant. The Steiny Poet particularly liked the slant rhymes bit, sweat, dirt and sweat-breath. These words in combination made the horse visceral to the mind.

like they were air. Blinder, bit,
and hair—each image grew
then fell to sweat and breath,
a mouth of iron, hooves on dirt

In the last stanza, Jerrell quotes/paraphrases lines from “I lost My Horse” by Cecily Parks. The poem by Parks involves a dead man the narrator hates.  Parks wrote, “Like a horse, I shied from the dead” and “I looked for the horse because she looked/ safe enough to love.” Here are Jerrell’s lines:

Did I always look safe enough to love?
Like a horse, you have always shied
from the dead. Like the dead, I am
about to run far beyond the dark prairie.

In the opening stanza, the Steiny Road conjectures that Jerrell takes inspiration from Sarah Manguso’s poem “Love Letter (Clouds).” The poem by Manguso concerns a lover who committed suicide. Here are opening lines from Manguso’s poem:

I didn’t fall in love. I fell through it:

Came out the other side moments later, hands full of matter, waking up from the
.... dream of a bullet tearing through the middle of my body.

I no longer understand anything for longer than a long moment, or the time it takes receive the shot.

Here are the opening lines from Jerrell’s poem:

I did not need to feel the whip
for I knew you’d made me to rule
the world I moved through,
so I moved through others like me
like they were air. …

Possibly the question that comes to mind is how much time is any reader going to give to a single poem before moving on to another that doesn’t stop the reader with unfamiliar information? In passing, the Steiny Poet will pull back her research curtain a little and say that she had immediate luck in finding the Parks and Manguso poems. Probably the better question is how many layers of understanding would the reader like to be offered? One can read Carrie Jerrell’s “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer” without knowing who Cecily Parks and Sarah Manguso are or what they wrote. One can understand the poem is about a beloved horse. One can enjoy the poetic craft sculpted into the poem. In the days before the Internet and its search engines, a collaborative poem like this one would not meet muster, but this is a new world and maybe the poem is better off for now on the printed page of the BPR instead of being on a webpage begging for hyperlinks. As Al Filreis teaches in his Modern Poetry MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), contemporary poetry requires full participation by the reader.

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