Wednesday, May 23, 2007



Original Green by Patricia Carlin
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2003)

Patricia Carlin’s book of poetry, Original Green, is an impressive collection. Her confident voice delivers poems rich with wisdom, insight, cleverness, tenacity, beauty, and strength. Her subjects range from the everyday, as in “My Mother in Winter” and “Long Marriage” to the mythological, as in “Orpheus Scattered” and “Persephone Returning” to the philosophical, as in “The Book of Nature” and “Ontology.” Whatever she writes about, it is clear that she has studied it thoroughly, knows it well.

Carlin’s ability to describe subjects in clear, nearly stark detail, combined with her enjambed lines (in many of her poems), create an effect of falling through the poem, a rush of naked, vivid images, as in this passage from “Tracking the Long River”:

. . . Half in the current,
a scythe-billed crane

stabs through the surface. Impaled,
jerking, an orange frog
flickers, tongue-like, lucent.

The crane shimmers.
Sometimes I think what lives,
lives to give pain.

Though a more lyrical poem, and one from the perspective of a mythological character, the same effect takes place in “Persephone Returning.” Here is one brief passage to illustrate:

I’m a girl
again. Grass brushes my bare legs
when he takes me down,
breath hot
as the vent he comes out of.

In intense, sensual poems like these, the reader cannot pause or look away. It is like witnessing a suspenseful scene in a movie, eyes glued to the screen.

Some of her poems function in almost opposite fashion. They move more slowly and methodically, with less intense language, and longer lines, and the power of the poem seems to come from the accumulation of images and insightful reflections, which, in all their wisdom, teach us something important. However, like in all good poetry, one can’t necessarily articulate what has been taught. One has time to pause and reflect throughout such a piece. A good example is “On Looking at a River in Ulster County, N.Y.” Each short stanza describes one aspect of the river from a different perspective. For example:

It is not
the same river
Heraclitus could not step in twice.

Clattering over rapids it reflects nothing.

In winter sharp ice broke off at the rapids.
The glint of sun on ice stabbed through closed

How exact the river is.
To describe it,
even the smallest piece of it,
would require a different page minute by minute.

The river remembers nothing,
not the ice, or the summer sunlight.

The experience of this poem is a Zen one, as if the reader had just savored a poem from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

Carlin’s opening poem, "The Box Turtle” is told in a similar fashion, though the poem’s ending seems to “turn the poem on its head,” using a kind of psychology on the reader, entreating us to consider the nature of the turtle’s existence, of our own existence, and of poetry. One must then continue to reread the poem in order to further extract its kernel of meaning.

It is difficult to describe the way in which Carlin’s poems force us to contemplate. Perhaps Phillis Levin comes close, when she says of her work, “”Doors keep opening, even in the most unlikely spaces, and the rooms they lead to alter our entire perception of the place we thought we had entered.”

In several of her poems, Carlin asks us to consider conceptions of reality, and to contemplate our relationship to nature. Her poem “The Book of Nature” somewhat humorously offers both “Old World Strategies” and “New World Strategies” with which to consider nature.

Here are her “Old World Strategies:”

Plato goes spelunking. Bishop Berkeley
follows him. Plato turns to Berkeley with a cool,
superior smile,
gesturing toward the shadows. The Bishop kicks a

In "Ontology," she begins by telling us, “Things are what they are,” and ends with “The world is a mouth opening into silence.”

These poems ask us to pry the doors of our realities open, to consider the mysteries there.

It is not just the individual poems, but also the collection itself that continues to surprise. Carlin utilizes a wide variety of poetic techniques, styles, and forms, (including the Ghazal) to keep the reader intrigued and guessing as we journey through the pages. In this respect, she is playful, and breaks new territory, for example, in her poem “Revision,” in which the first six lines are literally crossed out.

Throughout the collection, her ability to shift from narrative to lyrical, literal to abstract, continues to impress. Consider the different experience of these two poems, passages below:

The Box Turtle
can live for up to a hundred years.
Unless the water dries up or the land is cleared
he will spend that hundred years
In the same square-mile patch of woodland.
-from “The Box Turtle”

All around
a river of noise is flowing through silence.
The grass
is dripping with wild white
trumpet-shaped flowers.
Lie down.
Be a body in the body of grass.
-from “The Body of Grass Doesn’t Speak, Doesn’t Listen

And throughout these varied pieces, Carlin often paints with light, stunning the reader with depictions of sunrise, in this case:

Pale lemon and rose thicken,
arrows of light shoot upward.
The days are like water,
visible only by what moves through them

lemon-colored, blazing,
light of the sun rising
over rings of water . . .
-from "Aubade"

Or of sunset, in this case:

“ . . . Clouds, pushing down on the sky,
catch and intensify the last light, focus it like a
magnifying glass
so the yellow and copper leaves burst into fire.”
-from "Landscape with One Bridge"

And many of Carlin’s poems are treatises on the female experience. We experience the world through the eyes of characters such as Persephone, Circe, Madama Butterfly, and the narrator herself. As a woman, I found her poem, “In the Shadow of the Parthenon” which uses repetition effectively to highlight the emptiness of girlhood/womanhood, quite moving. Its emotional impact is that of the song “Lonely Girls” by Lucinda Williams. Here is an excerpt:

. . . A girl can be a wave,
a white
wave breaking
on a distant shore. A girl
can be nothing.

Nothing returns as itself.
leave their white

They are broken into mothers,
mothers are broken into nothing,
into wave after wave
of white
girls . . .

“Original Green’s” introductory quote by Heraclitus, “If they are gods, why do you grieve? If you grieve, no longer think them gods.” is an ideal framework within which to consider, and reconsider the many themes and the accumulated wisdom that governs this masterful book.


Celia Homesley has lived most of her life in Northern California. She earned her MFA at San Francisco State University, and she has taught English/Creative Writing at a myriad of colleges, most recently Humboldt State University. She is the author of Body of Crimson Leaves through Backwaters Press, and she lives in Arcata, CA with her husband and son.


Post a Comment

<< Home