Review of Careen , Journal of Canadian Poetry – The Poetry Review: Volume Thirty-One For the Year 2015

Careen by Carolyn Smart

VERONICE GAYLIE, Sword Dance. A Woman’s Story, A Celtic Poem. Holstein, Ontario: Exile Editions, 2015. Pp. 151. $17.95.

NAOMI GUTTMAN, The Banquet of Donny & Ari. Scenes from the Opera. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2015. Pp. 91. $20.00.

CAROLYN SMART, Careen. London, Ontario: Brick Books, 2015. Pp. 97. $20.00.

The three very long poems, or better “poetic sequences,” presented by each of these volumes might be described generally as “family sagas.” though Veronica Gaylie further ventures the ascription of “memoir-style poem” and Naomi Guttman a “novella-in-verse,” all three writers lean heavily upon a kind of free-verse lyricism that is carefully structured either by poem-title (usually one poem per page), or by chapter-title, and in the case of Guttman, with both. But I begin with Carolyn Smart only because her compelling family saga offers a more convenient thematic purchase on the other two.

As we might come to expect from an editor for the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series at McGill-Queen’s University Press and the author of six previous collections of poetry (including The Way to Come Home [1993] and Hooked: Seven Poems [2009]), with Careen, Smart offers a saga-sequence of unusually high achievement. Essentially, it recounts the brief lives and tragic times mostly through the Dirty thirties of that infamously notorious gangster duo, Bonnie and Clyde—lives now almost mythically iconographic thanks to the biographical and autobiographical works of Jeff Guinn (Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde [2010]), W. D. Jones (“riding with Bonnie & Clyde” featured in Playboy Magazine [1968]), and Blanche Caldwell Barrow (My Life with Bonnie and Clyde [2005]), all cited in Smart’s concluding Acknowledgements. Curiously, this helpful endnote makes no mention of American director Arthur Penn’s award-winning Hollywood epic Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 which is likely how many readers may come to remember this infamous pair.

Growing up in the early hardscrabble years of the Depression, and being extraordinarily attractive and talented to boot—in answer to the book’s promotional leaflet asking “Why tell their story again?,” Smart twice underscores Bonnie Parker’s noteworthy talent as an aspiring poet—the couple’s chief motivation is to rise above material destitution and psychic desolation as brutally recounted early on, for instance, in “hardscrabble sweet-mouthed girl”:

I was the most beautiful of babies: eyes blue as Texas sky
and a mind could glean anythin . . .

all I wanted was fame, to get away from the dreariness . . .
We lived in hell or Cement City and school was all I had:

won every prize for writin and for my speech and spellin,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I wanted love, I wanted things like in the talkies, yearned
for big excitement, not much else to do . . .

The yearning here for the “big excitement” portrayed in talking pictures should remind readers of another of Smart’s influences throughout this saga, namely film noir, as also remarked in her Acknowledgements: “the 1948 film They Lived by Night (directed by Nicholas Ray), based on the Edward Anderson novel Thieves Like Us,” among other noir narratives by Anderson.

Peter William Evans in an illuminating essay on the “noir” genre observes that its “many heroes and heroines” direct their criminal behaviour in the first instance at “law-abiding father figures” who represent “the apparent embodiment of all the social norms from which the hero [and heroine] have been in flight . . . at the very center of a patriarchal system” (in The Book of Film Noir, ed. Ian Cameron [1992]). The “Cement City” alluded to previously thus serves as an apt metaphor for the stultifying conformity to patriarchal culture in prospect of which the Bonnie-and-Clyde saga careens out of or beyond  control (to go with the Smart’s resonant title), and accordingly, darkens considerably, as in the poem appropriately titled “end of day / texas wind”: “I drive into the pinewoods, settle in the shade, shadows flow across my back like waves upon the Galveston sand . . . we lean agin the boards & eat our meager meal then settle in for all the needs of darkness . . . I feel the shadows coil right round me, press my dog-tired head agin the ground.” And this kind of ideological noirceur continues throughout the volume: “Sometimes in the dark my fears rise up and chase me” (“prayer [Bonnie]”); or, “to wake and feel myself pried from the car / onto the legs of strangers, then into the dark again // and drivin through the night . . .” (“proud flesh”); or again, “Bonnie in her nightgown draggin through the woods, Blanche screamin far behind us as the bullets kept on comin, dogs barkin like mad, the darkness.” (“WD: Dexfield Park”). “[e]ven the day- light lost its color” is thus the text that artfully closes out this darkening pattern on the saga’s penultimate page.

In the end, what Smart’s noir narrative gives voice to is that special place beyond patriarchal control and authoritarian containment, what the concluding lines to “I love the car” foregrounds as that “space where we felt safe enough to sleep,” and that “made us look like winners in this life.” Much later, Blanche Barrow, the wife to Clyde’s brother and partner-in-crime Buck, likewise alludes to that “safe place far away from all / we’d known before, [where] we would be fine and free, we said so / all [those] nights in tourist camps lyin awake” (“Blanche remembers the long ride”). Ironically, the very automobile that proffers our benighted duo the slightest glimmer of safety and freedom—“into the long white ribbon of road the future careens away,” as the volume’s opening “Texas, 1930” proclaims—sadly motors them to their ultimate demise in a horrific and bloody sequence of twenty-four brief heart-stopping lyrics that Smart locates close to the end.

With “death car,” then, the yearned for space, hauntingly evoked by the photography of Roger Palmer in the book’s stunning cover-art, is all but swallowed up within another homely ideological containment as its owner “comes to drive it home, / then rents it out to Charles W. Stanley who loads it / on a flatbed truck and tours it around the land for free, / though a dime per person donation would help towards expenses.” Still, as “camera eye” proclaims, “there are more lives than this plain desperation . . . eager and avid for break out,” so that even “indoors,” as Blanche Barrow once again would have it, “dreams, dreams [do] go on.”

University of Ottawa

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