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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 12, Number 1, March 2018

Patricia Prime
Auckland, New Zealand

A Review of Steven Carter's The Kraken Latitudes.

Review of Steven Carter, The Kraken Latitudes, Red Moon Press, Winchester, USA. (2017). Pb. $15. ISBN 978-1-94727-04-3.

The Kraken Latitudes by Steven Carter is a dear-diary of reminiscences of life, love, place, landscape and death. The first haibun [Early onset Alzheimer’s] is in two parts. Part 1 proceeds in a reflective tone as he chases after a girl he had a date with as a young man. The poem ends:

My partial recall is cleansed of affect, even as Greek tragedy and comedy
cleanse the eyes not of tears but something purer, clearer
and in my case mnemonic.

In Part 2, the experienced man looks back on an event that took place in childhood:

Did we embrace? Did she turn and wave looking back?
Without looking back? – Not at all? You see the child’s
tricks partial-amnesia plays. (8)

These haibun are painterly, rendered like fine miniatures. Take the ending of the haibun which begins with the haiku:

Across the Ukrainian border        burning stubble grass

So: another discovery. That wintry afternoon in eastern
Poland it’s brought home to me with full force that
nothing distances us from the animals – not reason,
not laughter – more than the mysterious universal
instinct to smother our tears. (15)

We can almost feel the snow whirling about, the tears falling and the cool undertones of sadness. Short poems also lend still-life detail to domestic scenes, as in Part 2 of [Taps for Reveille]:

Her father George and I greeted each other at the
bottom of their stairs with clumsy punches thrown and
missed. The we grappled, waltzing round and round
like Russian bears before toppling into the geranium
garden. (18)

The human is always set in proportion to the landscape – a small segment of life in relation to a vanishing point. Loss brings this perspective into stark relief, as we see in the ending of the haibun [Berkley nighttown 1961]:

Day of the Dead, 1991: bundled up Poles visit
the graveyard in Lublin on a freezing night with a
kaleidoscope of candles, so many flickering that the
shadows of statuary perform a merry danse macabre
on their own graves. (21)

Ghosts haunt this collection as well. Memory itself becomes ephemeral, as the speaker’s voice constantly questions itself, as seen in these lines from [Before a cold fireplace]:


To me, what makes never seeing a loved person again
unbearable is that eons will pass, stars will blossom,
wither and die, comets will fizzle out, the earth will
tumble into the sun – and I’ll still be bereft of that person. (26)

Memory is dubious, rife with self-deprecation, distorted by time. Yet in Carter’s own most skilful realisation of these small protests against memory’s failings, he achieves the ring of truth, as in the beautiful haibun in 2 parts, [Tule Lake]. In Part 1, Carter writes about an experience his parents had in a restaurant:

She glanced again at the menu as the waitress took their
food ticket to the order window, where the cook waited.
There really is a blue plate special in America, she
thought, amused. I should’ve ordered that.

Then she heard the waitress, looking back at her, tell the
chef: “Two hot turkey plates. Spit in one.”

Throughout, this is a poetry concerned with extensive ideas, confronting thoughts on love, hope, the soul and death. Other moments of human detail fuse with Carter’s perfect pitch in small but important moments of transcendence, for example, as we see in the humour of [Irrelevant questions, or: a memorable fancy]:

Maybe that’s all the afterlife is: a spectator sport.
You’re the spectator, your “checkered past” the panorama
or pageant (fish any cliché you like from the bin of
consolation prizes). (37)

Poets of any ambition will want their themes, details and language to resonate beyond the specific context. But rather than coming from here to eternity, Carter comes from eternity to here, in search of a serviceable receptacle to hold a swirl of thoughts and memories. Primarily, it is Carter’s ability to make us think harder about our own lives that I believe is the crux of his book. His subtle, inquisitive intellect gives him an appetite for story, complexity and complication. He is by no means a dry poet. He can be very funny, making us laugh as well as think. He frequently mentions family, friends and acquaintances in his work. He gets emotional at times, nostalgic, even a bit sentimental, as we see in [Metamorphosis]:

(Her next fiancée turned my engagement ring into a
fishhook. I was perversely delighted by the news, more
delighted that she bothered to tell me.)

“Shared dreams” Her magic muscle

Although moods vary not just from poem to poem but from line to line, a key concept running through Carter’s work is that his world and the people in his immediate circle are there to be enjoyed. Influential places and people never completely disappear. Like the lovers in Carter’s life they are given their emotional connection in the poems. It is in the poems that lovers (and others) lift from the page, as we see in [Do not stand on the top step]:

Yes, something of surrender in the sound of rainfall.

Something of our bodies – golden, swaying on the
Lowe’s aluminium ladder to Elysium, letting go of
letting go like the rain.

We were two young people. We were two people on the verge
of becoming one. Someone (I don’t remember who)
blinked, and then (the rain stopped) we were two. (62)

The poet’s gaze ranges from devoutly satirical to respectfully serious. In this collection poetry is often a filter for life. It explores not only light but darkness. Words bathe in tenderness and frolic in joy. Such poems are testament to Carter’s ability to infuse memory with sensory wealth and cultural context. His writing is many layered, satisfying, offering crafted, thoughtful poems that enlarge the reader’s knowledge and are a pleasure to read.



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