Sunday, June 6, 2010

THE MEMORY OF GILLS by Catherine Carter - Reviewed by Gary Carden

The Memory of Gills by Catherine Carter
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press
$16.95 - 59 pages

...while the original element
pours past and the words -
like minnows, like tiny siblings
from a forgotten ontogeny,
like the memory of gills -
stare and start away.
“The Room Where the Words Are.”

Recently, when Catherine Carter was asked for a bit of biographical information that could be used to publicize her appearance as a participant in the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series at the Jackson County Library, Carter gave her impressive credentials and added that she was “raised by wolves and vultures.” This response should not be dismissed as merely a bit of imaginative whimsy since it provides a key to a dominant theme that runs through the poet’s collection, The Memory of Gills.

Frequently, Carter’s empathy with the natural world (and her yearning to be absorbed by it) strikes a familiar chord. Robinson Jeffers, the poet who spent much of his life along the (then) isolated coastline of Big Sur, California so that he might observe the “red with tooth and claw” existence of wolves and vultures, shared the same attitude. In his need to feel and see the world as animals do, he sometimes expressed a yearning to be literally consumed by them. So, too, Catherine Carter in “Evidence of Angels”

teases the buzzards - lying very still
to make them circle and look;

Carter’s fanciful comparison of a buzzard’s descent to an angelic/divine visitation becomes a recurring theme in her other poems. For example in “The Stingray,” she notes that the gods “have a certain passion for feathers and hair” and tend to visit/ravish selected females in the guise of bulls and swans. Carter wonders why the divine never arrives from the depths of the ocean where the “brown silken wings and the diaphanous mouth” of the stingray are well-suited for a rapturous union with earthly flesh.

As the title of this collection suggest, Carter perceives the ocean as her “original element.” In the poem, “In the Mountains an Occasional,” describes an encounter with a wayward osprey. The presence of this sea bird in a land of rocks, suggests that the bird and the poet are both a long way from home. The bird’s cry is a summons:

it may say though you stab
down roots like claws
into these long levels
and planes of granite, remember
the cormorants fishing, the realm
of water.

To Carter, it is a call to come home. And again, in “The Other Story,” Carter uses the ancient myth of the silkie (“the seal wife) as a fulfillment of the yearning to return to our natural home.

The folding web below,
my thumb is growing. Other
skin slackens and creases,
bristles spring from my chin.

The fisherman’s wife (the silkie) is preparing to go home!

However, “In the Room Where the Words Are,”when the poet makes a fanciful descent into the ocean, searching the sandy floor for a memory of home, she finds only a sense of irrevocable loss.

In “Raised by Wolves,” Carter fantasizes about living in both worlds:

When I visit the den,
we nuzzle and scratch each other
(that opposable thumb so handy),
Ask why humans live in pieces,
Why they use air machines
on such cool nights; if we are the last
wolves since the new strip mall,
we’ve seen no more.

But Carter’s yearning to belong to another (or perhaps all) species is different from Jeffers; not only does Carter’s quest embody everything from microbes to the stars (and the world of Cthulhu), it mingles fantasy and humor. In “A History of a Lost Colony,” a microscopic culture that lives in the recesses of a refrigerator, dares to launch a mission to a sister colony living in “the outer grill,” only to suffer devastation and ruin (wiped out by ammonia cleansing!). Carter records their tragedy as though it were the collapse of a “Star Wars” colony in a distant galaxy... and, indeed, it is!

Carter perceives a link between herself and all things but it is often expressed as an imprint or a refrain so faint, it resembles a palimpsest - a message that has faded or eroded. Running through many of these poems, there is the unspoken regret that humanity has lost a vital link with the natural world. In “Hearing Things” Carter observes the world around her, and senses a silent, blind striving that finally takes the form of faint voices that ask - not just to live, but to be allowed to fulfill their preordained destiny: garbage (“Don’t embalm us in the landfill”), vegetation (“Keep the backhoe from the land” and stray dogs at the shelter (“Leave the gate unlatched”).

Not all of the poems in A Memory of Gills deal with a desire to renew an ancient tie with the natural world. Indeed, there are a number of poignant poems about love and love’s loss - and a wonder poem about a brassiere! However, the primary themes in this marvelous collection evolve around our loss of touch with the natural world.

A native of the tidewater of Maryland, Catherine Carter now lives in Cullowhee where she is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University.