Jared Carter's The Land Itself
a book review by Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts
The photo of Jared Carter above was taken by Richard Pflum
Jared Carter is an American poet. His first collection of poems, Work, for the Night Is Coming,
won the Walt Whitman Award for 1980. His second poetry collection, After the Rain, received
the Poets’ Prize for 1995. His third collection, Les Barricades Mystérieuses,
was published in 1999. His fourth collection,
Darkened Rooms of Summer,
was published in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press, with an intro by Ted
Kooser. His latest collection is
The Land Itself, published by Monongahela Books in 2019.
Jared Carter’s The Land Itself
reviewed by Michael R. Burch
The Land Itself is a slim volume of poems by Jared Carter.
In his introduction the book’s publisher, BJ Omanson of Monongahela Books,
describes Carter as one of America’s “premier regionalist poets.” While I agree,
I am going to focus on what I take to be the more universal aspects of Carter’s
What Carter shows us, I believe, is that we live in a universe that is
passing strange, and inexplicable at times.
In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom mentions more than once that he sees
strangeness as an attribute shared by the canonical writers. I suspect Bloom may
be onto something—thinking of the rich and varied strangeness of Homer, Dante,
Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, et al—and my primary impression
of The Land Itself is of the delicious richness of its strangeness.
I doubt such strangeness is limited to Mississinewa County, the fictional
Midwestern region where Carter’s poems are set. So I take him to be using
Mississinewa as a lens of sorts.
Of course there is “good strange” and “bad strange,” so we will have to
consider the quality of Carter’s poetry eventually, but I think it’s safe to say
for now that his readers will never be bored while reading The Land Itself.
For me the book has something of a primitive Celtic feel. The ancient Celts
saw the “real world” and the “other-world” as coexisting and sometimes
converging and merging in uncanny ways. Carter excels at describing such
“mergers” without fanfare, but in such a way that we can’t miss how eerie things
have become, and how quickly.
The Land Itself begins on a Quixotic note, with a dog barking in the distance
and “somewhere a windmill turning in the wind.” The first small town we
encounter is ironically named Summit. But Summit is long gone, vanished without
a trace from its hill. What remains? “Only the land itself and the way it still
rose up.” Here we find the book’s title. What is left when we ourselves are
gone, or have become mere shades of ourselves? The land itself, a haunting
There are biblical notes. When the discovery of natural gas led to a boom in
Tipton County, a yard light called a “flambeau” was “like the pillar / of smoke
by day and fire by night that led Moses / and the children of Israel to the
promised land.” But when the boom was over and the gas was about to be cut off,
it was as if “some presence, terrible / and unforgiving, was about to lift its
sword.” Explicable events have supernatural counterparts around the globe,
whether in Eden, Avalon or Tipton.
Seemingly simple things are not so simple after all. Everything is tinged
with mystery. In one of my favorite Carter poems, “After the Rain,” a crop of
arrowheads is hard to explain. Did they fall like hail from an empty sky? One
must be ready to see things in a different light: “After the rain, perhaps,
something will show, / glittering and strange.”
Jared Carter is the poet of the uncanniness of the commonplace, and he
convinces us that our ultramodern “realism” is not as trustworthy as we had
previously imagined. In “Legacy” tools have become “strangely heavy,” the heat
“thick as flannel,” and nothing is more important than drawing a cupful of water
and leaving the pump primed for the next thirsty wayfarer.
But sometimes the pumps stop working, there is “no heat, no money for seed”
and impoverished people have no choice but to “pack up and leave” taking only
what they are able to carry. Then “Everything else was left behind: piles of old
clothes, root cellar full of empty Mason jars, strings of peppers tied to the
rafters.” Now “Grass grows / knee-high around the pump” and “something rustling
through the timothy grass” pauses as if waiting for the poet to follow. We have
no idea what crouches waiting ahead, which makes the poem all the eerier.
Halfway through the book we no longer know what’s up and what’s down. One’s
hometown, or something much like it, has entered The Twilight Zone.
As we continue to read, we encounter other mysterious things: a wobbly
ladder, a porch light full of dry “intermingled wings and bodies,” a dowser
“glistening with raindrops, arms trembling with power,” an abandoned train
station from which the poet as a boy had once departed “all of it strange and
moving away from me,” a mysterious woman in a cloud of moths, a snowy owl
“moon-faced and pale” waiting in the shadows with “no reason to go.”
Everything is exceptionally strange, there is no “normal.”
The book’s longest poem, “Spirea,” begins: “Then she came, the sybil, out
through the doors of The Bell [the local drinking establishment]” as “someone
oblivious to danger, who knows already / what lies ahead, and has nothing to
fear.” The townspeople are “unable to return her bright gaze.” There is “about
her a presence, an immanence.” I won’t give any more away, but there is a
The book concludes with “A Good Place” and its procession of seemingly normal
objects, as if the natural order has been restored. But at this point we know
nothing is as it seems to be, and doubt that we understand anymore what
“natural” means ...
The Land Itself is delightfully eerie. Its stories are scarier than most
ghost stories because we suspect these particular tales may be true, that fact really is
stranger than fiction. But what about the quality of the writing? Is Jared
Carter only a marvelous storyteller, or is he a marvelous poet as well? I
believe he is both. I can think of few poems written in recent years that are
both as eerie and as good as Carter’s in The Land Itself.
If you’re ever going to buy a book of poems by a contemporary poet, this is
the one to buy. If not, you don’t know what you’ll be missing.
I will conclude with one of my favorite Jared Carter poems ...
After the Rain
After the rain, it’s time to walk the field
again, near where the river bends. Each year
I come to look for what this place will yield—
lost things still rising here.
The farmer’s plow turns over, without fail,
a crop of arrowheads, but where or why
they fall is hard to say. They seem, like hail,
dropped from an empty sky,
yet for an hour or two, after the rain
has washed away the dusty afterbirth
of their return, a few will show up plain
on the reopened earth.
Still, even these are hard to see—
at first they look like any other stone.
The trick to finding them is not to be
too sure about what’s known;
conviction’s liable to say straight off
this one’s a leaf, or that one’s merely clay,
and miss the point: after the rain, soft
furrows show one way
across the field, but what is hidden here
requires a different view—the glance of one
not looking straight ahead, who in the clear
light of the morning sun
simply keeps wandering across the rows,
letting his own perspective change.
After the rain, perhaps, something will show,
glittering and strange.
From After the Rain. First published in The Formalist.
Copyright © 1990, 1993 by Jared Carter.
More about Jared Carter
Carter was a recipient of the Indiana Governor’s Arts
Award for 1985. His fellowships include grants from the National Endowment for
the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Other honors
have included the New Letters Literary Award for Poetry in 1992, judged
by Philip Levine, and the 2002 Rainmaker Award for Poetry from Zone 3
magazine, judged by Marilyn Chin. He was invited to read his work at the Library
of Congress on December 9, 2004.
A Midwesterner from Indiana, he studied at Yale and at Goddard, and worked briefly as a newspaper
reporter. After military service and travel abroad, he made his home in Indianapolis, where he found employment
in textbook publishing. He continues to serve as a consultant in that field.
In his main body of work, Carter offers “a local
habitation and a name,” and invites the reader to explore a place called
Mississinewa County, a world of small towns and family farms and hard-working
people who live close to the land.
The many characters in Carter’s poems—soldiers, Shakers, farmers, ex-football
players, berry pickers, derelicts—strive to maintain their dignity and to
uphold their traditions. It is the striving that connects them with the universal, and it is the author’s
craftsmanship—a style one critic, H. L. Hix, has described as “diamond-hard
clarity”—that makes them memorable.
Mississinewa County first sprang to life in Carter’s initial book, Work,
for the Night Is Coming. Critical response was immediate. “From
beginning to end,” Dana Gioia wrote in his review of the book in Poetry,
“this volume has the quiet passion of conviction, the voice of a poet who
knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” In McGill’s
Literary Annual, Henry Taylor described Work, for the Night Is Coming
as “one of the clearest and strongest first books to have appeared in recent
decades.” Writing for Library Journal, Margaret Gibson called it “a
true winner. It is simply splendid.”
Carter’s second collection, After the Rain, attracted similar notice. “Extraordinary,” Gioia reported in the Washington Post Book World,
“a dark, haunting book in the tradition of Frost.” In New Letters Book Reviewer, Ted Kooser found After the Rain
to be “a moving and masterful book, charming in the best sense of that
word.” It offered “proof,” Robert Phillips wrote in the Houston Post, “that the art of poetry is
alive and well in America.” Perhaps Robert McPhillips, writing in the Dictionary
of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1994, best summed up the critical reaction to Carter’s second book: “Well crafted,
philosophically profound, and eminently readable . . . the finest, most varied, and most rewarding volume of poetry published in 1993.”
Carter’s third collection, Les Barricades Mystérieuses, published by Cleveland
State in 1999, takes the reader even farther into
Mississinewa territory. At the same time it pays homage to one of
Carter’s particular interests, the heritage of French exploration and
discovery in the American heartland. Always
an upholder of traditionalism in prosody and poetic practice, Carter turns, in
this third book, to the extremely repetitive and very French poetic form of the
villanelle. David Lee Garrison, writing in The Southern Indiana Review,
found these villanelles to be “as simple and subtle as the change in light and
shadow against a wall created by the shift of a log in the fire, the sound of a
door swinging open in the wind, or peonies that reveal an old pathway through an
“Carter’s is a poetry of a resolute middle distance, firmly of this world:
between the dust under the earth and the dust of space there exists the place
that the poem can illumine.”—Helen Vendler, New York Review of Books
Please click here to read Jared
Carter's interview with Michael R. Burch, editor of The HyperTexts.
You can check out Jared Carter's literary blog by clicking
here. His books are available on-line at the links below:
Darkened Rooms of Summer
Work, for the Night Is Coming
After the Rain
Les Barricades Mystérieuses
and at amazon.com
More Poems by Jared Carter
It is not out of sleep that I
You were so lovely once, or why,
I know a light has vanished from
these wintry days.
Lately my quest has found no one
who still might praise
What we two shared. Forgetting, though,
is far more kind,
And leaves no pattern in the snow
that falls behind.
In that same moment, something stirred,
as though the place,
The time, the feelings long deferred
had been erased,
Leaving two opposites to draw
The demonstration of a law
whose numbers spike
Into infinity, yet show
a simple proof—
Something beyond what we can know
arrives at truth.
He could not read; had never learned.
Few books were found
In that bleak place where coal still burned
But we two met, and for a while
worked side by side
Stacking raw boards in endless piles
until they dried.
The world he saw, with those clear eyes,
was not benign;
It simply was, without disguise,
Pfc Harris, who became
a ghost immured
In hospitals with sylvan names.
His kin deferred
To specialists, who all agreed
Would benefit him most. That deed
Lived on another twenty years.
His muttering replaced the tears
he could not shed.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
across the keys like travelers in snow:
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
You’ll find no staff to lean on, none to play
among the drifts the wind has left in rows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
beyond the path. Give up the need to say
which way is right, or what the dark stones show;
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
And what the stillness keeps, do not betray;
the one who listens is the one who knows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray;
out over emptiness is where things weigh
the least. Go there, believe a current flows
each time you start: expect to lose your way
Risk is the pilgrimage that cannot stay;
the keys grow silent in their smooth repose.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray.
Each time you start, expect to lose your way.
From Les Barricades Mystérieuses. First published in Poetry.
Copyright © 1987, 1999 by the Modern Poetry Association.
You’re sickly pale—a crooked root.
But one last remedy remains:
Before the dawn we’ll go on foot
Through grass sleeked down by heavy rains
To the sexton’s house. Already he
Takes down his spade, and goes
To walk among the whitened rows.
His wife awaits with lengths of string
Necessary for measuring.
She has no fire alight, nor words
To spare, but bolts the wooden door
And helps you out of clothes that fall
Soundlessly to the floor. Naked,
You mount the table and recline;
She comes, her eight stiff fingers
Trailing bright bits of twine. First,
Crown to nose, then mouth to chin,
Pressing against each crevice, in
And down the length of your cold frame—
Whispering unintelligible names.
The feet are last to stretch: from heel
To toe each one must be times seven
The other piece. She nods, and knots
The two together, breathes her spell,
Then turns to go. I leave a pair
Of silver dollars there, and take
The string to tie where it will rot
The winter long: on hinge of gate,
Wheelbarrow shaft, or eaves-trough’s fall.
Behind us, where the darkness drains,
A blackbird settles on the roof
And calls back to another that rain
Is coming like an awful proof.
The two denounce the scratching sound
The sexton’s spade makes on the ground—
Measuring off the careful square
Of someone else expected there.
From Work, for the Night Is Coming. First published in Sou’wester.
Copyright © 1979, 1981, 1995 by Jared Carter.
Here is the spring I promised we would find
if we came back this way—a hollow space
beneath the hillside, waiting all this time
for us to angle through the leaves, and climb
down to the ledge, to where it slows its pace.
Here is the spring I promised we would find,
with elderberry blossoming, and thyme
and saxifrage along the limestone face.
Beneath the hillside, waiting all this time,
the falls, in overflowing steps, combine
to form an unexpected stopping-place.
Here is the spring I promised we would find:
across the pool, the accidental lines
and endless circles merge—a constant grace,
beneath the hillside, waiting. All this time
has brought us here—to listen to the pines,
to drink, to watch the water striders race.
Here is the spring I promised we would find
beneath the hillside, waiting all this time.
From Les Barricades Mystérieuses.
First published in Free Lunch.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Jared Carter.
These are the old dreads whispering to me
Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
through the slant light of the meetinghall
this wintry afternoon. Mother Ann Lee
is here, raising a splintery hand to call
for lines to form between the facing walls
and dance the figures that can bring to pass
a momentary clearing of the darkened glass.
A blaze of dying sun brings out the grain
across the wooden floor. Outside this space
their bodies could not touch, nor long remain
together, else some elder’s wrinkled face
shone down, from its high watching place,
and shamed them. Here, desire slipped its rein,
the better to be harnessed on a higher plane.
To save by giving what one cannot keep—
mortal to dance, and by such whirling come
into immortal worlds—while others sleep,
to waken from the body’s dark mysterium—
these were the steps she taught. And once begun,
there was no turning back, no way to slake
this thirst for otherness except to shake.
And as a tree in winter fills with crows
convened out of some harsh necessity
till every branch is bent and overflows
into a mirroring of what one sees
in summer—creatures become leaves,
all turning, turning, in a dark repose—
so did they circle here, and come in close
until they flowered, and it was summer now,
by Shawnee Run, near the stone landing,
where fireflies had filled a sycamore
with single light, and all who say, standing
along the shore, knew a sure commanding
in that pulse, and walked there, bright
and dark by turns, in the summer night.
None of that charmed singing in the air
above their heads has lasted. Nothing remains
of what it meant to dance the hollow square,
to walk the narrow path, the endless chain.
Not even the sun’s slow march explains—
here they kept time simply by the swing
of a lead bullet fastened to a string.
The guided tour moves on. I cross the floor
through triangles of light and shade, done
with imagining, yet pausing at the door
to look back on this room, and how the sun
reveals, for just a moment, what will come
when we are finally shaken, and by grace,
no longer darkly see, but face to face.
From After the Rain. First published in Cumberland Poetry Review.
Copyright © 1985, 1993 by Jared Carter.
At every hand there are moments we
cannot quite grasp or understand. Free
to decide, to interpret, we watch rain
streaking down the window, the drain
emptying, leaves blown by a cold wind.
At least we sense a continuity in
such falling away. But not with snow.
It is forgetfulness, what does not know,
has nothing to remember in the first place.
Its purpose is to cover, to leave no trace
of anything. Whatever was there before—
the worn broom leaned against the door
and almost buried now, the pile of brick,
the bushel basket filling up with thick,
gathering whiteness, half sunk in a drift—
all these things are lost in the slow sift
of the snow’s falling. Now someone asks
if you can remember—such a simple task—
the time before you were born. Of course
you cannot, nor can I. Snow is the horse
that would never dream of running away,
that plods on, pulling the empty sleigh
while the tracks behind it fill, and soon
everything is smooth again. No moon,
no stars, to guide your way. No light.
Climb up, get in. Be drawn into the night.
First published in Poetry. Copyright © 1999 by the Modern Poetry Association.