A General Un-Understanding: On Carl Adamshick’s Curses and Wishes
Curses and Wishes
Louisiana State University Press, 2011.
Reviewed by Kara Candito
“May the defilement of hope be a coronation,” writes Carl Adamshick in “Even Though,” the opening poem in his debut collection. Spare, image-driven, and constantly negotiating between the poles of celebration and lamentation; solitude and communal allegiance; and memory and oblivion, Curses and Wishes is a lyric exploration of the contradictions and the ephemeral connections that shape human experience. Often, it is a singular speaker’s prayer to a cruel and plural world and the insignificant significance of his own role in it: “A general un-understanding has left me / both open and closed, overwhelmed / by the magnitude of the world’s choices, / but also, at ease, / floating on the light wave of its being.”
Filled with anaphora and oppositional statements (“Even though you loved him, you didn’t love him”), this opening poem serves as a primer for the rest of the collection. It lets the reader adapt to the rhythms of a mind taken with contradiction and the intersections between the personal, social and historical valences of joy and suffering. Within Adamshick’s unlikely poetic tapestry, an apricot longs for a “a few secular days / of perfection”; a mother stares “at her arms / astonished at how / loss can have the same weight as an infant”; a caption mistakes Adolf Hitler for Jerzy Lem; and a husband and a wife “yearn for friction” while trying in vain to understand one another’s silences.
As a kind of emotional chiaroscuro, the poems’ pattern of light and dark imagery, initiated in “Even Though,” focuses on finding solace in dark places and states of mind: “May you have night / with its dark branches, every night.” In “Sleep,” night tucks the speaker in and reads to him like a nurturing mother, then “…closes [him] gently, / leans against the train window / begins to speak of its motherland.” In “The book of Nelly Sachs,” suffering is attached to collective historical memory, and the speaker becomes more urgent, addressing the reader directly: “You may not know this, / but when you talk about the night / and its stars // you talk about her // sacrifice at the wall of alphabets…” This poet’s work is to bring the darkness of multiple pasts into the light of poetic language. Adamshick’s poems often begin with a kernel of seemingly autobiographical narrative, but the economy of their lyricism and the expansiveness and coherence of their vision function via image and implication, rather than storytelling.
“Harvard, IL,” which happens to be Adamshick’s hometown, begins on a darkly humorous note: “When someone moved to town, / we went mad wondering what caused it.” Were this a traditional narrative poem, the speaker might knock on the door, speak to the new family and launch into an examination of their actual lives that enables a deeper understanding of his own. Yet, Adamshick isn’t this kind of poet. Curiosity and self-regulated solitude are the driving forces here—Curses and Wishes is first and foremost a lyric collection. The poems start with internalized perception and then turn outward toward the world, locating the dark unifying undercurrents between past and present, and self and other.
The subsequent poem, “Junkyard,” might be viewed as an ars poetica. Its primary occasion is the speaker’s impulse to revisit and thus revise the past. It begins with a bald statement: “I never visit my younger self,” and then continues to figure this act as “a shifting from memory to dream.” Like the buried, distant country of childhood, the past is a romanticized wasteland: “Snow falling in a barrel of rusted / engine parts becoming a day / of lightning and old fallen oak: / one life or another, mine or yours.” Here, memory, like loss (“…the only profound thing we share.”), becomes shared and universal, as the speaker proceeds to break his own rules and achieve an almost religious awareness of the void between past and present, in a move that seems inspired by the latter poetics of Tomas Tranströmer:
This is the last outpost before
things become what they are.
I was eleven when my older self,
the lord of my childhood, appeared
above the chair in my room
splendid and silent like a planet
rotating, spinning in its ellipses,
but, also, unmoving by the headboard
and the one pillow full of feathers.
There’s an appealing authority and a singularity to the voice that proclaims: “This is the last outpost before / things become what they are.” This tension between a speaker who asserts the arbitrariness of personal memory while seducing the reader with his own vision sustains the collection.
In “Out Past the Dead End Sign,” the most sprawling and ambitious poem in the collection, the speaker’s established authority implodes on itself. Written as a thirteen page dialogue between a husband and a wife dealing with the dissolution of their marriage, the individually spoken sections are joined together by the word and, which echoes the and of the book’s title and suggests the multiplicity of perception and emotion. In this case, no single view, positive or negative, husband’s or wife’s, is accurate or authentic. Rather, the poem privileges the subjectivity of memory and fantasy’s role in the construction of identity. In the penultimate section, the husband, whose voice is markedly similar to that of the speaker’s, which we’ve encountered throughout the collection, urges his wife to abandon the realm of fantasy and stop fixating on the betrayals of the past:
…if you want to live blaming
if you want to merely dream about floating
in the Aegean at dusk, do it without me.
Here. Here is where we begin again,
change, find ourselves chest-deep kissing
in the wet moon. Here, now, we need
to silence all this waiting.
As the final, radical voice in Curses and Wishes, the wife’s charged, anaphoric response calls into question the stability of the husband’s voice and the authenticity of his claims to authority and wisdom:
I know exactly where we live.
I know what I take.
I take you always, shaky
and uncertain, remembering
things too fondly through
nostalgia’s veil. And your
dreams are of the same tulle.
I don’t think about the Aegean
or new beginnings.
That’s you, living
between your two veils.
There is no end,
except the end.
While both speakers in “Out Past the Dead End Sign” are more invested in narrative than the other voices in the collection, it is the voice that Adamshick assigns to the wife that lends a kind of unsentimental realism to memory and to the simultaneous celebration and mourning of a failed relationship. By fully imagining and inhabiting two oppositional voices and then permitting moments of bittersweet connection, Adamshick reifies the complex vision he has established in Curses and Wishes. Moments of revision and contradiction, such as I’m not the dreamy one, in which poets test their own aesthetics and plunge head-on into something complex and plural are all too rare. This final nakedness and vulnerability is what makes Curses and Wishes a truly exceptional debut collection by a poet who sings to us in a bruised, beautiful, utterly original language.
Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Her work has been published in such journals and anthologies as Blackbird, AGNI, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Best New Poets 2007, The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology, and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (University of Akron Press, 2012). A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Santa Fe Arts Institute, Candito is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville.