Te Atatu South, Auckland, New Zealand
On Steven Carter’s American Gothic
American Gothic by Steven Carter. Uxbridge, UK: Alba Publishing, 2015. Paperback, 48 pp., $10 US, £7 UK. ISBN: 978-1-910185-20-9.
Steven Carter is the author of over forty books. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards and prizes. His haiku and tanka collection The Distances of Sleep was shortlisted for the Haiku Foundation Touchstone Distinguished Book Award 2013. The opening haibun in American Gothic, “North by Northwest,” was awarded First Prize in the 2012 British Haiku Society International Competition.
The title of this collection of haibun, American Gothic, may be based on the famous painting of that name by Grant Wood, of a farmer and his wife outside their house. The cover of Carter’s book features a wedding photograph of his in-laws, Robert and Jean. The inside photographs are of Robert and Jean in 1970 and again on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1992.
The contents of the collection are divided into four sections: One, Intermission, Two and Miscellaneous. One contains the prize-winning haibun, “North by Northwest.” There’s no question that Carter was a worthy winner; the haibun maintains pace and style throughout its three pages of text. Carter’s story-telling is top-notch too. He tells the real-life events of Sunny, whose “first daughter was born with cerebral palsy and died before her third birthday. After that, friends stopped calling her Sunny.” Then, against a backdrop of sadness, depression and otherworldliness, we see Sunny flipping through the family album, befriending a heifer and finally her death, where “The hearse was a pickup truck loaned to the small funeral home by the country coroner.”
The way Carter weaves his characters through a tapestry of reality and poetry enables him to portray a vibrant society while touching on elements such as the flagman in "Saw-tooth Range" watching a young Jesus lookalike shouldering a large wooden cross with a wheel attached. In “Autumn Equinox,” we see that his “father-in-law’s favourite pastime was tinkering in the shop—re-welding a hitch on the “piggy-back” tractor, for instance, or sharpening files on the whetstone.” “On the Bench” is balanced by complex narrative and multiple voices against the landscape of Teton County. Carter’s haibun is hot, crowded, charged with a drunken character and reliant on his humour as his father-in-law pulls the miscreant from his burning Plymouth:
My father-in-law reached in and tried to pull Tommy out of the car. Pipe still clenched between his teeth and paralyzed by fear, he had a death-grip on the steering wheel. Only when he reached down for the vodka bottle was my father-in-law able to yank him out of the car and to safety. In a few minutes, the volunteer fire department doused the almost unrecognizable car with foam.
In “Errand,” Carter’s father-in-law asks him if he wants to come along with him to drown a litter of kittens. Carter isn’t overjoyed at the prospect, but goes along anyway. He puts the kittens in a burlap sack “trying not to hurt them” as he asks himself:
Was my father-in-law testing me in some strange, minor way. Initiating me. I watched the bubbles from the sack diminish and finally cease. Then I turned.
While Carter’s haibun are mostly narrative, there are beautiful lyric passages contained in the stories he tells about his characters. These aren’t stories we’ll find in history books, but the stories that are from Carter’s wry and idiosyncratic take on power, violence and absurdities. There is a disturbing strangeness about some of the haibun but at the same time there is the familiarity of everyday experience. For example, “Epiphany” opens with the simple sentence: “One morning on the ranch, my wife and father-in-law walk past me as I weed the veggie garden.” But in this moment the poet recognises the bond of love between the two and “A third presence” which walks beside them, giving the poem a sense of other-worldliness.
“Intermission” focuses on his father-in-law’s favourite slang, such as these two:
The love truck (an old pink Studebaker pickup my mother-in-law painted with hippie-like slogans).
Have to get up before breakfast (be somewhere early).
Two begins with “Pit Stop”—“the kind of Montana story” his father-in-law loved. The story features a bar: “Katie’s Wildlife Sanctuary, pretty rugged even by Montana standards (shooting was rare but they occurred).” In “Nursing Home” we witness Bob’s last year:
Bob had settled into the Teton Nursing Home and seemed content enough; he lived there five years, the longest span on record, until he died, age 95. “Ninety-five and still alive,” he once grinned, quoting Tommy Larson, my late grandfather-in-law.
Carter suspects his father-in-law felt as he does about nursing homes and on his 50th birthday he writes to himself of how he wants the “gifts of an anti-Santa Claus I want to believe in with the innocence of a child.”
Whether he is using narrative or haiku, Carter stays rooted in this pragmatism, and in the haibun “Old Timer’s” he demonstrates his loyalty to his father-in-law and to Peter, the husband of Beth, Carter’s wife Janice’s oldest friend, who also has the illness he refers to as “Old Timer’s.” This is what gives the poem its authority. When Carter shifts from prose to haiku the fusion becomes more tender, more musical, and more elegiac:
Up on blocks
A faded gray pickup.
And when Carter returns to his prose, the elegiac tone remains, not only for a friend’s illness, but for Bob and his brothers, as we see in the haibun “Wesley.” For Carter, the significance of these relationships is the act of remembering that keeps the places, and the people, alive. When Bob’s wife Jean finds him crying (only for the fourth time in his adult life), he remains silent for another minute, then says: "I guess I have the right." The haibun concludes with the following haiku:
What is most striking about Carter’s haibun is its sheer generosity: poems dedicated not just for people, but also for places, times and relationships past. In every case, there is a tenderness and reverence for this place, its people, and their ways that are passing into obscurity.
The final section, “Miscellaneous”, contains anecdotes recalling Bob’s humour. Here we find Bob after he has been living in a nursing home for a year:
“You know,” Bob says to Janice. “I heard as recently as yesterday that this place has been designated as a nursing home.”
“Well, that’s because they have nurses here. That’s OK isn’t it?”
“I guess so,” Bob shrugs. “If you need that sort of thing.”
Carter strikes a wonderful balance between the celebratory and the elegiac, suggesting a belief that the act of remembering is the only kind of immortality.
Perhaps the most affecting and effective haibun in the collection are those that reveal the dignity of people who appear in the poems: the flagman of “Saw-tooth Range,” Tommy with his love affair with the bottle in “On the Beach,” the sofa salesman in “The Task” and Katie, the tough old bird in “Pit Stop.” Carter’s haibun about these people and his in-laws are funny, but he isn’t making fun of them. He celebrates these people and our shared humanity. His affection for them and the other characters that populate American Gothic is genuine and infectious.