Review of Carnavoria by Laurie Saurborn Young
Syracuse: H_gnm_n Books, 2012. 102 pgs. $14.95, paper.
Laurie Saurborn Young's poems in Carnavoria provide speakers who are constantly shifting and changing, both delighting in that change and hoping to catch some whirlwind of transcendence, if only by capturing each bewildering image as it comes. In the first section of the book, bodies of water, and the constant image of what we find and can become in the depths, dominate the poems. In the first poem, 'The Name of the World', five swimmers in a lake 'present the facts of [their] bodies to water' and eventually 'depart as possibility', while in 'The Exception Ode', one of Young's many shifting "you's" 'stand[s] in water' and 'break[s] into a thousand—/or is it only five?—red birds flying'. Water serves as a charged place where transformation happens, for good or ill, and the speakers are addicted to the shifting mutability it provides. Not changing is something close to death. The end of 'Moving Costs' tells us that the speaker and her sister, who have remained in a 'tiny town in California', 'stay and wait to hear back from bravery as it burrows toward the sea'. To stay means to not be with bravery at the sea (which is that place where anything is possible); these poems are brave, and they never stay in one place. They remain liminal and always at the edge of possibility.
Another theme throughout Carnavoria, the very opposite of the liminality described above, is the need to know all possibilities and see them play out. Often, the poems seem to be setting off several little thought experiments at once. In "Goodnight Moon", after a series of hypothetical scenarios, the speaker says 'Years ago I wanted a series of parallel/lives, to see how it turns out for all of me', and the poems themselves do this, providing us with a narrator who stays, a narrator who goes, a narrator who becomes David Byrne, a narrator that is "5 hounds/ on 100 trails", and a narrator who becomes 'all kinds of scenery', among others. Many of these poems, like little tornadoes, seem to want to include everything in their swirling and shifting mass: the lines 'Today someone asks me how I am and I say/Everything' are about as close to capturing the heart of this books as any blurb or review could get.
Even as change is welcomed, Saurborn Young's poems also tell us about the downside of constant change. Sometimes, the poems in Carnavoria are simply lonely. In 'What I Can Tell You,' the speaker gives a chronicle of things that the speaker has lost:
Once I had a niece,
but I left her out in the sun too long. I left her with
wedding china, old pictures of camping trips,
a cat hiding under the bed. Each night I dream
of what I left behind, though there is little of it
that I still want.
Though the speaker has been brave, has transformed into something completely different in the water, he or she has also necessarily had to leave certain things behind—people, possibilities, and lives. In 'Two', the speaker describes herself as 'a dog with six/legs' and 'the far woman on the phone singing'. These poems also see the fundamental loneliness of simply being a person in a separate body from other people, each of us unable to completely know another:
Aren't we all lost each night, as stars turn
to others, signals strong or faint? How I look
Out this window does not transfer. It just simply
Although the book has a few clear threads and recurring characters (speakers with common stories, a sister) it seems foolish to boil Carnavoria down to themes; the book, like the individual poems, spins in all directions at full speed. It's the voice of each narrator that holds the poems together and makes each new image and idea seem both completely strange and completely inevitable. Carnavoria's poems, like all the best poems, resist the intelligence almost—but not quite—successfully.
Letitia Trent's work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, Folio, The Journal, Diode, Blazevox, and many others. Her first full-length poetry collection, One Perfect Bird, is available from Sundress Publications. Her chapbooks include You aren't in this movie (dancing girl press), Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University's The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony. Letitia is a former co-editor of 21 Stars Review, a journal of constraints.