100 Notes on Violence by Julie Carr
(Ahsata Press, Boise, Idaho, 2010)
The dark meditations of 100 Notes on Violence depend on instantiations and acculturation of recollected and performative violence, offering a vision of the abyss, which is to say, us in our contemporary world. This numbered sequence of poetic notes offers visceral, philosophical portraits of small town murder, international terrorism, eros and thanatos, physical force and its reverberations, bleeding and/or murdered bodies, the nature and denaturing of suffering, and the historical wounds running concentrically through the discourse and memory of humankind’s inhumanity to itself. Littered with quotations by Whitman, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Blanchot, and Kathy Acker, among many others, the book also freely encapsulates news reports, statistics, lists, scrawls, narratives, ditties, and feverish fragments. The poems themselves become seismic graphs of pain and their formal varieties are as multiple as the acts of violence to which they respond or relate.
Carr’s inquiry into the origins, nature, reproduction, and extenuation of violence and its pathology recalls British playwright’s Sarah Kane’s dramatic investigation into the cruelty through which most acts of violence take root. Neither artist goes for the gratuitous gesture or shrill statement; their concerns with expressing, exposing, the various displays and determinants of violent actions serve as ethical procedurals rather than desensitizing or aestheticizing fripperies. As such, Carr’s poetics-as-forensics becomes purveyor of pattern recognition, delivering a potent, always off-putting because so disturbing, rumination on the nature of modernity, all too casual in its cruelty and too saturated with the stain of such sacrilege to see the redness in it.
In her “Author’s Statement,” Carr remarks: “This is, for me, not a book about other people’s violence. Rather, it is an investigation into the violent experiences and tendencies we all harbor.” This modest and rather generalized statement does paltry justice to the power of her probing. Because so connected and reflective to the world which she allows to indict itself through illuminating its terrible tendencies, Carr’s poems are troublingly phenomenological. In his important essay, “Language, Suffering, and Silence,” poet Geoffrey Hill makes the argument that such a practice can take on theological shadowings:
I would seriously propose a theology of language…This would
comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming
(a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock
of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one
of its minor, but far from trivial types; (b) that the art and literature
of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing
of the dead… (1)
Recuperation, then, of some modicum of grace as the inverse of this grisly inquiry might then be a resourceful way of fashioning some end-goal for Carr’s project here. This richly rendered, sadly anthropological universe built out of a poly-verse of traumatic suffering and unstinting barbarity must become 100 notes for their remembrance and mitigation. The array of anecdotes and scenarios provides a dual function: they become both the material and metaphor of violence. The layering effect caused by their production and representation both emphasize the engulfment of violent propensity and, as a putative index, demonstrate that its commission to textuality can render it an encapsulated history through which the series of memorializing, memorizing the dead, the living, and the violently compromised, leads out of the book and into a less corrupted possibility.
In Note 59, Carr writes:
The book about violence must be a book of quotations.
For everyone speaks about violence.
Is a book of memories, for everyone’s life is riddled.
Here is an Edmond Jabes of the slaughterhouse, one whose spatial reality surrounds us and duplicates itself ferociously. To think of these poems or notes or quotations as distillations of catharsis and containment would be to belittle the shock of semantic and ethical recognition to which Hill gestures and that this work expresses. However, the poems in 100 Notes on Violence exude in their compositional and de-composing characterizations a fealty to confronting contemporary human reality and allowing it to articulate its vehement drive toward destruction.
We are implicated and damaged, and we are not conscious of the snares in which we are caught “…for everyone’s life is riddled.” These Notes do result in a stunning and remarkable “book of memories,” reminding us that an alternative existence can be imagined. As Fanny Howe puts it, substituting war for violence: “After all, the point of art—like war—is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.”(2)
1. In Collected Critical Writings. Ed. Kenneth Haynes. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 405.
2. Fanny Howe. The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Art and Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003) p. 23.
Jon Curley's first collection, New Shadows, was released last year by Dos Madres Press. His critical study, Poets and Partitions: Confronting Communal Identities in Northern Ireland, will be published next year. He lives in New Jersey, where he teaches in the Humanities Department of New Jersey Insitute of Technology.