Elegy for the Floater
by Teresa Carson
Cavankerry Press, 2008
soft cover, 84 pages, $12.80
Teresa Carson's Elegy for the Floater is a collection of poetry at once raw and refined. It is brutally gentle, a caress with broken bottles, a kiss of pavement. The paradoxical contrast of it all is best captured in her poem "I Made Fifty." Cataloging a list of Carson's potentially fatal choices during her years of risk, she elicits a sort of survivor's guilt from the grand scheme of her early life. The pall of her older brother's suicide hangs over everything, and he never had a chance to reinvent himself. The poet did.
Long after reading this collection, it will be difficult to shake the catalog of images surrounding Carson's brother, Joe. He was afflicted with "chronic psychophrania. . . . / stank, saved bottles of pee, / kept getting arrested. . . . / [and] looked like he slept / under cardboard, on subway grates" (Carson 11). He committed suicide by jumping off of a bridge with chains wrapped around him, chains weighted down by cinder blocks. He was a fan of Houdini, but Joe never could escape.
While these poems catalog a variety of experiences in Carson's life, it is the collection, as a whole, which becomes the elegy for Joe. The collection contains praise and love and wistful nostalgia for an epoch of Carson's life which was fraught, undoubtedly, with sorrow, anguish and elation. There was the "Summer 1969" freedom of joining "runaways who squatted / in Lower East Side buildings, panhandled / by subway stairs, walked barefoot on hot sidewalks" (Carson 29). The illusory, hippie dream is immediately shattered in the subsequent poems which detail the systematic ways a late-20s, married drifter/addict rapes the 15-year-old, runaway Carson. The darkness and the light intermingle.
The wild freedom of Carson's youth has an edge worthy of shared shelf space with the darkest visions of Lou Reed's Velvet Underground or Jim Carroll's twisted Catholic boy. Carson writes that her "Catholic-school uniform excited him," her predator "boyfriend," that is. "He'd pick me up from school, drive to secluded places–like the deserted strip / under the Turnpike extension or woods in Staten Island. / Afterwards he'd drop me off two blocks from Belmont–I didn't tell him / exactly where I lived" (Carson 34). Those lines from "Tramp" detail a mix of self-awareness, shame and abuse that live vividly in the poet's present some 40 years later. Her youth was filled with a risk-taking freedom borne of neglect.
The youngest child of 10, a father living full time with his girlfriend, a mother ravaged by years of child-rearing, neglect and emotional abuse, a schizoid older brother wandering the streets, Carson portrays a 15-year-old self who, yes, is legally liberated. However, that liberation has come with a price: "Large holes / in walls, no furniture, unclean, / not much to eat in house, / burns paper in the toilet bowl / to keep the bathroom warm" (Carson 46). She can risk everything because everything has derailed already. Carson's home unravels, and her clinical renderings of these memories add to an overall mosaic image of a familiar splintering. It is a wonder that Carson made 50, true, or that her brother, Joe, lived as long as he did.
Despite the brutality, there is a poignant delicacy to these poems and memories. Like the way a diamond is forged through the extreme pressure of adversity, Carson's poems are forged without fear. Whether taking on workplace gender discrimination as a phone installer in the '70s or examining the autopsy report of her brother's suicide, Carson's pen shies away from nothing. That lack of fear allows her to burnish words, to polish sentences and make beautiful what might otherwise be horrifying to examine. Carson leads the reader into a story that begs to be heard, that commands attention and does not let go. Only on the final page do these words appear: "Rest quietly, my brother" (Carson 96). Only then is the requiem complete.