The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement
By Diane Lockward
Wind Publications, 2016
The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement begins with quotes from Byron (“The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity),” and, rather more unusually, from the Stanford Law Review (“. . . . carrots are often inefficient),” discussing the relative merits of incentives and disincentives—carrots or sticks–in economics. Lockward’s central poem (“Original Sin”), featuring punishment of a more physical and emotional kind, tells of the strapping the narrator’s father administers when she wrongly confesses to yanking off the tail of her pet bunny in order to cover for her guilty friend. When at the end of the summer, the bunny is found dead in her pen, she again feels her own guilt:
I must have understood even then
that I’d been born bad and the only reason
I hadn’t yanked off my rabbit’s tail was because
Karen got it first. Some part of me, the part
already destined for Hell, had wanted
that soft talisman that promised luck, wanted it
in my own hand, and wished I’d moved faster.
Immediately following is a thematically linked poem, also, it seems, in the self-immolating tradition of Hawthorne, called “I Want to Save the Trees;” It begins innocently, tying the narrator’s tender care for the trees in her yard to holy communion “without wafer /or wine.” The poem’s a peon to trees, “their fidelity, and willingness to stick / it out.” To cut them down is criminal—
Logs piled up like corpses after a massacre.
But here, the narrator turns strange, putting me in mind of an early Henry James story, “Washington Square,” by her stubborn refusal to forgive the unfaithful lover who has carved his initials into an oak tree in her yard, presumably long ago; his disloyalty is like a “Dutch elm disease” within him as he “tattoos” the tree with their entwined initials. The consequent wound transmogrifies over time into a wound on the face of Jesus, and the poet ends:
I curse my faithless love with his heart
Rot and his ring of lies, his roots weak and shallow
As the willow’s uprooted in last winter’s storm.
How much of all this is tongue in cheek? After all, Swift, mocking the English treatment of Irish, was not above exhorting them to eat Irish babies for lunch; I suspect “Original Sin” has more to do with a father’s guilt than a child’s, and “Save the Trees” more mocking of overbearing lovers than passion for ecology.
This suspicion is confirmed by the book’s prequel, “My Arty Ars Poetica: A Cento” where Lockward, who has had work featured in Garrison’ Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac as well as appearing on Poetry and Verse Daily, more blatantly satirizes the ego, vanity, and outlandishness of poets. It’s a clever piece, a pastiche of quotations seemingly taken right from the contributors’ notes of the hundreds of little magazines in America, a persona poem in the voice of a Texas hillbilly who “walked/ a peach orchard alone at night and saw the Milky Way, // felt freighted with a sense of mortality” and cut his “musical teeth in the jungle.”
This mocking tone, cast in discursive, colloquial language, reappears throughout this book, each brief satire an encounter between poet and adversary, the object of her mockery, whether father, boyfriend, marital cliché, or publishing ritual. Derisively, the poet’s persona aims her barbs:
not patch could repair you, because no landfill could
hold you, I dumped you like an old tire onto the highway.
I violated a local ordinance and hurled you like a bagful
of dog-doo onto someone else’s yard, tossed you like
watermelon rind after a picnic, like a brown banana peel,
like a used Kleenex, like a dead chipmunk. I scraped you
from the sole of my sneaker like a wad of chewed-up gum.
Deleted you from the dictionary, a date word, obsolete
(“How I Dumped You”)
Lockward, the author of several books and editor of anthologies and of “The Gazette,” a weekly appearing on WOM-PO Women’s Poetry Listserve, skewers the follies of marriage as vividly as Jonathan Swift skewers political in-fighting in Gulliver’s Travels. One Lockward persona (“Shopping at the Short Hills Mall”) unforgettably begins
I walked into a store and bought a new husband.
The old one had conked out and was minus
The salesman explains the many features of the new model—“There was a button for tricks, one for special effects, / And one to get colored lights going”–so that I began wishing for a more sustained treatment, an entire village of automatons marrying and divorcing and fillings courtrooms presided over by automaton magistrates.
The couplets of “How Many Times Did They Need to Be Told?” crystallize the clichés of married life:
He forgot to always wear clean underwear.
She forgot about buns in the oven.
Something icy and detached lives in the heart of Lockward’s various persona, rather like a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. In “The Instincts of a Dog,” a persona masquerading as one of the “responsible, compassionate people,” coolly notes her brother’s cries “high-pitched and desperate, his lungs gasping for air” as they walk hand-in-hand scouring the neighborhood for his lost dog.
Other poems, in contrast, register deep grief and loss. “Nesting” tells of a nest built outside the narrator’s window:
Last year’s broken shells
Buried under the new abode, bracing it
Like a foundation of crushed stone
The couple observing this nest are reminded of their own life, “a new life inside the old, / how we have woven something new // out of fragments, / what we’d thought ruined”. And quite movingly, we are given a glimpse of face behind the glass, “the apparition of a child, / his eyes sun-lit, his hair thick and dark.” This haunting evocation echoes an earlier poem in the book, a poem (“The Phone Call”) which announces a death—
It happens on a morning
Much like any other—
Nothing is explicit, though it’s clear a member of the household has died. A child’s absence is a persistent mystery in this volume, haunting its pages. “Losing Daylight,” holds “sorrow for our lost youth, our prodigal boy,” though no more is said of him. In “Preservation,” the poet wishes to
Cover the mirrors as in a home
where there’s been a death,
. . . .
Stack all the mirrors in that one room,
the one I won’t go in, the one that once was his.
Animal life abounds in this book. “How Heavy the Snow” evokes a winter scene with snow that “billows and blows like sheets on a line”, interrupted by wild turkeys—one of dozens of bird species to inhabit Lockward’s poems– “almost terrifying/ the way they spread across the yard, / an army invading from a foreign land.” Lockward’s descriptions are vivid, her creatures are strange—
Ugly birds, their long, arrogant necks black
And greasy, bellies distended. Out of season,
Hungry and desperate, they swivel their heads
Like periscopes and peck the seedless snow.
At times the poet gets so close to her subject she might be looking through a microscopic lens, as in “Sweet Images” about a girl’s contradictory desires to be model-thin and to eat chocolates and other sweet things. The girl wishes she didn’t long for sweets. “Eat me” they call to her, and she responds:
A modern-day temptation, a snake
Coiled in every cookie and cake.
She curses the patisserie and the bakery. . .
What are we to make of “a snake coiled” in a cookie, something perhaps not at all tempting?
These are sophisticated poems. Lockward knows her craft and knows it well. (After all, she’s author, among other books, of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop.) But she sometimes seems caught between several esthetic goals: the momentary epiphany (a la Mary Oliver); the scintillating satire and gentle condescension of Billy Collins or a Tony Hoagland; and the simple welling up of feeling and memory as happens in two or three poems here. Whatever her aims, these poems abound with clever language and insightful observation. We all have something to learn.