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Hayden Carruth. Last Poems. Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

Hayden Carruth: Last Poems is a moving tribute to the work of the late poet (1921-2008). Carruth lived in Vermont for many years and later taught at Syracuse University in the graduate creative writing program. His last years were spent living with his wife, poet Joe-Anne McLaughlin Carruth near the small central New York village of Munnsville. He served as editor of Poetry magazine, as poetry editor of Harper’s, and as advisory editor of The Hudson Review for 20 years. He was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for his Collected Shorter Poems and in 1996 the National Book Award in poetry for Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey. He was also the winner of numerous other awards including a Bollingen Prize, the Carl Sandburg Award, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Patterson Poetry Prize, the 1990 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Vermont Governor’s Medal and the Whiting Award.

Last Poems, as the title suggests, collects a number of Carruth’s last poems—as well as twenty-six of the concluding poems from his previous volumes to round out the book. Carruth was unafraid to write from the perspective of naturalist, lover, critic and from his own struggles with mental illness. Brooks Haxton, a fellow poet and former poetry student of Carruth’s writes in his introduction, “Doctor Jazz,” to the volume:

Mastery of rhyme and meter, conspicuous breadth of lexicon, syntactic deftness, range of idiom, and improvisational freedom, part jazz, part free verse, had been hallmarks of Hayden’s developing style for years. The voices of naturalist, bard, historian, social critic, philosopher, farmer, mythographer, raconteur, soldier, jazzer, and private person, in love and in pain, all these threads were already strong in the fabric.

Carruth presents meditations on philosophy, history, poetry, jazz, and country life. And in his final poems, perhaps the most moving of the collection, he covers his own physical decline. Again, Haxton writes:

His daughter, Martha, ill for several years with cancer, died in her middle-age. Many of Hayden’s friends died, too. His health declined. He used a cane. After his fainting spells, he needed vascular surgery, and after a major coronary, heart surgery, which laid him up with life-threatening pneumonia. He spent seven years on oxygen, lost vision in one eye and then the other. All this was more difficult because of his lifelong depression. Finally, in his last weeks, came a series of strokes, which at first left him uncharacteristically animated and cheerful. He died at eighty-seven, home in bed, in Joe-Anne’s arms.

“Moon” is a lovely poem found in his collection From Snow and Rock, from Chaos (1973) which exemplifies Carruth’s skill at describing nature:

I watch you, alone and lonely,
both of us lonely, full of this late
fire. Then I descend once more
to the cove, to deepening snow and the house
that stands by the loud brook in freshet
under the hemlock bank, finding
my loves there, compassionate and always
careful of me. And you
are hidden by banked black boughs,
as I am hidden by love.

                                               Hours later
when the night has gone to frost
again, a reversion to winter,
I walk out onto the crusted snow
and there you are, high
in the winter sky again, so clear
like a free flake in the stream
of stars.

In a very heartfelt poem, “Words for My Daughter from the Asylum” found in The Bloomingdale Papers (1975) which uses an original end-rhyme scheme (ABCCB), Carruth ends the poem with:

That some small wisdom always may endure
Admidst your weariness; that lovers may
Be kind to you; that beauty may arouse
You; that the crazy house
May never, never be your home: I pray.

In one of Carruth’s most successful poems, “Mother,” we have a melding of his sincerity and poignant self-revelation. The poem is from his collection Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreus River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands (1989). It begins:

Mother, now at last I must speak to you. The hour, so late but
even so, has come.
Mother, after sixty-one and a half years of life,
After one and one-quarter years of your death,
After your incomprehensible durance and anguish, which
deranges me still,
After the wordless years between us, our unutterable,
constricted, strangling chaos,
After the long years of my private wrecked language, when
my mind shook in tempests of fear,
After everything between us is done and never to be undone,
so that no speech matters,
Nevertheless I must speak.

This invocation has all the fury and directness of the Confessional poets such as Plath, but unlike Plath moves away from mythic imagery toward a realism and mood of compassion:

How your pallid, brown-spotted, wrinkled, half-paralyzed
countenance grimaced,
So that I could not tell whether you were smiling or stuck
with terror.
Until I recognized that it was the ultimate human expression,
the two masks superimposed…

Carruth masterfully gives us a compressed biography of his mother’s life taking us from age four through motherhood to the moment of her death:

At age four she stood on a piano stool in a white ruffled dress
     and played a half-sized violin. The music was not
     preserved in the photograph. Later one of her favorite
     recordings—she had many—was Menuhin’s performance
     of the concerto by Mendelssohn.
At seven she dined at Delmonico’s and marveled at the ballet
     girls dancing overhead, their skirts whirling in circles
     above the glass ceiling.

And much later:

I see you now in your eternal moment that has become mine,
You twisted, contorted, your agonized bones,
You whom I recognize forever, you in the double exposure,
You in the boat of your confinement lying,
Drifting on the sea as the currents and long winds take you,
Penitent for the crime committed against you, victim of your
     own innocence
(Existence is the crime against the existing),
Drifting, drifting in the uncaused universe that has no right
     to be.

But it is in Carruth’s “Last Poems,” published posthumously, that we find most clearly Carruth’s great gift of caring and love. Love not just for a lover, but for the environment as well. In “After Television,” Carruth writes:

                                                             Oh, my dears
The Bengal tiger, the biggest cat in the world,
Who was our friend and protector on the plain,
In the tall grass and under the squirmy trees,
Is now down to a population of only 400.
Where did the others go? Of course we know.
We gave the command that drove them out.

In “The Last Piece of Chocolate” and “Valentine,” Carruth addresses his lover with great honesty and passion. In “Valentine,” he says:

                                                            Fetch me
My medicine and my imagination,
And then listen while I say in prose
you are more beautiful than any, more
talented and wise. You are my lifelong
love, my old companion, the one on
who I rely to see me to my grave.

It is to Carruth’s credit that even as he physically grew weaker and was actively dying he saw humor and wit and resisted the move to the mere sentimental. “See You Tomorrow” is perhaps the strongest of these with its wonderful internal rhymes:

Twilight is what the tittycrested romanticists say,
Referring to old age, Twilight! Don’t they know
That things always get brighter, at least until
They become invisible…
                     …The next time you see a line
Of geezers shuffling toward the checkout
Remember they are entering the arcade of
Death. Flashing lights and crashing bells
Surround them, and the only darkness is
The space between the soles of their shoes
And the floor. Hup, atwo, athree, afour—
The slow march and the muffled drum. So
Never fear, they will get there in blinding
Dawn when the day of demolition has just
Begun. Whoop-de-do and tum-tum-tum,
Benighted night will never come.

—Walter R. Holland