Every now and then I run across a poem so tasty I’m greedy for more by the same poet, which is how I felt after finding Rob Carney’s prize winning “Seven Pages from The Book of Sharks” on terrain.org. The poem tells a wholly invented myth of sharks in plainspoken and often lighthearted language. I could imagine Carney’s sharks swimming through a children’s book illustrated with circling fins and toothy jaws. In one stanza the poet becomes a child talking to another boy who tells him, “Sharks are the ocean’s way of talking./Like talking with your hands.”
Storytelling is characteristic of Carney’s poetry. One of his previous collections even bears the title “Story Problems” (2011), and it includes a particularly lovely set of poems featuring apocryphal “Old Songs about Washington,” telling tales of bears, salmon, whales and other denizens of the wet, green Pacific Northwest where Carney grew up. Nowadays Carney is a professor of English and Literature at Utah Valley University and his latest book, 88 Maps: Poems, finds the poet striving to become native to this place despite surges of homesickness.
The mysterious maps of the title poem are discovered in a carefully constructed cabinet left in the basement of the poet’s new house by some unknown previous inhabitant. These maps chart a baffling new landscape showing, the small concavity above his cat’s bones/ where loosened dirt/ sunk slowly in the rain, and strangely detailed, tidal charts of his room-to-room movements,/ the constellations of upstairs furniture. The mapmaker is no malevolent spirit, however. He has thoughtfully provided, a map of the Salt Lake metro area/ in case I’d moved from out of state, which the poet uses to swat a wasp. At least it wasn’t a honeybee. The metaphorical stage is set for the poet to find his way, though he is exiled in the dry Utah desert.
Seems like every weekend in the summer here, someone wants to take you down to Moab. You go there and hang out, and marvel at nature and beauty. Like it’s your job. writes Carney in the prose poem “Undercurrents,” and then segues into a story about growing up in Washington State. He ponders the question of how to find a new home by shopping and under the section heading “Home Appraisals,” the poems are based on real estate ads—“Two Story, Stone and Brick, Single-Family Dwelling:” If there’s added value in a ceiling fan,/ then there must be value in a hawk. Or “2,140 Square Feet:” says nothing at all about the unsquare angles.
Carney’s poetic impulse is to turn everything into a myth, and he makes an admirable effort to find poetry in the antics of the Utah Legislature and their Republican cronies (Carney makes no secret of his politically liberal views; in response to a particularly flattering comment addressed to him at a writing conference he wishes he had said, thanks for calling my poems open-minded./ That seems a good measure to go by. I won’t forget).
My favorite title in this entire collection belongs to a poem called, “To the Representative on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, Who in 2012 Said, ‘Evolution, Big Bang Theory, all That Is Lies Straight from the Pit of Hell, ‘ I Offer This Quick Study on Natural Selection, in Which the Eagle is Thought; the River is Reason; the Salmon Is Insight; Tomorrow Is a Salmon; and the Crows, of Course, Are You.”
With a title that splendid you hardly even need a poem. A few of these political poems have footnotes to prove that regardless of whimsy and poetic license, Carney is absolutely not making some things up.
Despite this sense of ambivalence, and a poem that laments, “Every Place I’ve Ever Lived is Gone,” Carney comes down on the side of trying to form real connections to people and place. He rails against the dead-alive virus of consumerism, and the eagle-free landscapes of developments with names like “Eagle Ridge, Eagle Crest, Eagle View.” The final poem, “In the Only Zombie Flick I’ll Watch,” says, it isn’t brains they’re after./ It’s our phones. So hang up and read. These delightful poems tread a line between politics and poetics, finding enchantment in a neighbor who brings over apple cider and chats about raccoons, an owl hunting in the yard, and wolves that lope into your dreams.
88 Maps: Poems
Lost Horse Press
Rob Carney earned a BA in English from Pacific Lutheran University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University, completing his PhD at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He is a two-time winner of the Utah Book Award for Poetry and the author of three previous books and three chapbooks of poems, including Story Problems and Weather Report from Somondoco Press. His work has appeared in Cave Wall, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, Redactions, River Styx, Sugar House Review, other journals, as well as Flash Fiction Forward (Norton 2006). In 2014 he received the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry. He is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University.
And here is a video of him reading his poem produced by the Utah Department of Arts & Museum’s Bite Size Poetry
Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.