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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 4, December 2013

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Ruth Holzer
Herndon, Virginia, USA


On Steven Carter’s Paper Doors

Paper Doors by Steven Carter. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2013. Paperback, 4 1/4" x 6 1/2", 210 pp., $12 USD. ISBN: 978-1-936848-29-4.

A hefty book, in scope as well as length, Paper Doors is an attractively produced collection of haibun in a variety of styles. “Rummaging through memory,” as Carter describes the process in one poem (8/66), the poet revisits experience, explores fantasies and shares his appreciation of the natural world.

The volume is divided into six “books:” “Twist of Lemon, “Violet Star,” “Islands,” “Winter Passacaglia,” “Death in Summer” and “Paper Doors,” although there does not appear to be a particular theme differentiating them. The last section provides the source of the title, a haiku by M. Ichimura (“Sendai mortuary/between mother and child/paper doors”). Throughout the entire collection, numerous haibun deal with the fragile divide between life and death, self and other, choices made and options rejected.

Paper Doors has something for everyone. There are narrative-like haibun, offhand and anecdotal, and others, especially those about Carter’s childhood (The source of the chill in my bones; Letter to my mother; Letter to my father), that make for sorrowful reading. There are brief glimpses of people who could be characters from a Raymond Carver story (I too am in Arcadia; Crane Mountain). There are musings on lost loves, new discoveries in physics, lyrical descriptions of California, Montana and Arizona landscapes. There are “found haibun”—excerpts from texts by Malcolm Lowry, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anne Frank, interspersed with or concluded by Carter’s original haiku. And a few pages that recall Bierce’s The Devils Dictionary:

Fantasy: In America, all things not on TV.
Fatalism: Last refuge of a believer.
Forgiveness: Subtlest form of revenge.
Forever: Never.

Such variety, however, may be construed as being detrimental to the book as a whole: there is little build-up or movement to speak of; the poet’s voice is the only common thread. Erudite and engaging, the voice is at times also chatty, as for example, in the opening paragraphs of 1966, a recollection of young romance:

Never mind holding up the mirror to nature—go on Facebook and check out, as I just did, the current photo of someone you knew forty-six years ago. A lead-pipe cinch to ruin your morning.

—Maybe not. The same sweet smile is there, the same dark hair (I felt sure even then that she’d never dye it), peppered with gray, even as my hair, what’s left of it, is turning bone-white.

A river runs through it, or them—memories, I mean, of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, where Mary and I had our first date. A guy had already beaten me to the punch, though, and—

and so on, yet ending in the lovely

Bridal Veil Falls
     dashed on the rocks
          two rafters

Some of the haibun are more compelling than others, as may be expected in a book of this length. Rather than “poetic,” the prose is in Carter’s characteristic colloquial and discursive style. The haiku always add a pleasing touch, as in Another Budweiser, please, about the death of parents:

Mt. Tam in the window
     . . . soundless
          invisible waves

and

partial eclipse
     how we know
          dark is dark

from True east, which recounts a tragic life possibly redeemed by poetry.

The more successful haibun are those in which Carter allows himself a bit of humor and objectivity: among these are McGraw’s Tucson Cantina, a slice of life done just right and topped with the memorable

nobody looking—
     the good old boy
          drops his cowboy swagger

and Appointment in San Bruno (the Women’s County Jail), a skillful blend of self-consciousness and empathy, concluding

late summer afternoon
     from the south unit
          killer views of the bay

Paper Doors, with its risk-taking and surprises, deserves a wide audience. One of my favorites, The sadness in Sam Cooke’s voice, alone is worth the price of admission:

You send me
     back and back again
          to my second foster home

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