Of Erstwhile Words: Madison Jones Reviews Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey by Hayden Carruth

October 16, 2014 0 Comments Book Review 774 Views

Book Cover

Winner of the 1996 National Book Award
Featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac

You may be wondering why I am reviewing a book from 1996. How can a book from almost twenty years ago deserve a spotlight on a blog devoted to contemporary environmental and place writing? For this, I must apologize. I simply can’t resist using this book for my first contribution to the blog. I felt almost selfish doing so, with so many excellent collections of poetry sitting in a pile on my desk, but I truly believe that Carruth’s work and influence can speak to us in a new, vital way.

My experience with this book began with our web editor, Robin Ward, who lived in the house behind me growing up. His mother was close with my mother; we played together as children. As it turns out, Robin’s grandfather happens to have been Hayden Carruth. The Hayden Carruth. I don’t know how I didn’t know this fact about him when I was young—nor did I know enough about Carruth or poetry to care much when Robin told me his grandfather was a famous poet. About five years ago, Robin handed me an old copy of Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey. I will never forget turning the strangely patterned cover over—the pattern I imagine Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s wallpaper might look like—to the author drawing by Richard Kathmann, a man I would later learn Carruth said, “Of anyone I know, he observes most carefully and feels most accurately.” This relationship between the careful observation and the accurate portrayal of feeling seems to be the purpose of writing poetry for Carruth. You can see it in the drawing itself. The darkness of Carruth’s eyes is supremely haunting.

That first poem, “Five-Thirty AM,” remains my favorite of his, even after reading everything he has ever published. I will never forget how floored I was the first time I opened this book and discovered it:

Out the eastern window at

five-thirty this morning

are the pear tree, the sycamore,

and the high hill, the crest of it

It grabbed me by the collar and held me still, whispering its truth. Look at his line breaks. From the first line’s ending with “at” you get this jarring, idiosyncratic mode that not even a master like W.S. Merwin (who I would certainly compare Carruth to) can evoke.  From that moment, Carruth’s writing had a profound effect on me. The question “What can one do but write this” remains with me each time I begin a poem. His perspectives are so painful and quiet, so dark and cloudy, yet so razor sharp. I am writing this review today in the hope of bringing some of Carruth’s poetry to readers who might not know him, or those who don’t know him well enough. Environmental poetry needs Carruth today as much as it needs Merwin and Wright, Shinder and Valentine. We must not overlook Carruth just as Robert Frost, Mary Oliver, or Wendell Berry. While Carruth’s environmental imagination was usually one of mourning and comfort, what he offers us is an untrammeled spirit of survivability.

Consider lines like “A man plowing starts at the side of the field” in “The Woodcut on the Cover Of Robert Frost’s Complete Poems,” or “When I was forty-five I lay for hours,” the opening of “Forty-Five.” He is a master of first lines and of last lines. His lyric punch always comes from a rich sense of narrative, of a powerful but quiet perspective that constantly sees loss and forgetting while struggling to hold out for love, for the good, the beautiful, the transient “first/ dawnlight spreading faint and/ soft and gray.” Though he sees the destruction of the environment, he finds solace in nature. His poems often leave an unsettling, unspoken background, and they manage to foreground small, powerful moments. Carruth’s nature evokes a rich understanding of the Tang tradition. His poems are part history and part reflection. They are moving and stunning, and I recommend him to anyone who wishes to see resilience and perseverance.

I’ll never forget going through my grandfather’s books two years ago after he passed away and discovering Carruth had reviewed A Cry of Absence, calling it “not only Jones’s best novel, but the best by any Southern writer in a decade or more […] It concerns us all, anytime and any place.” It seems so fitting to me now to have felt such a connection to Carruth’s writing. I couldn’t help but offer this post for Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey, especially because Kudzu originated from the name of my grandfather’s home, which we called after the invasive plant that proliferated along the fence line. I will echo his words here: check out Carruth’s work; “It concerns us all, anytime and any place.”

About the Author
Author Photo

Hayden Carruth (1921–2008) lived for many years in northern Vermont, then moved to upstate New York, where he taught in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University. He published twenty-four books of poetry, a novel, four books of criticism, and two anthologies. He served as the editor of Poetry,poetry editor of Harper’s, and for twenty-five years an advisory editor of The Hudson Review. The Bollingen, Guggenheim, and Lannan Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, awarded fellowships to Carruth.

[Bio from Copper Canyon Press website]

 

 

About the Reviewer

M.P. Jones is the editor-in-chief of Kudzu House Quarterly. He recently received an M.A. in English from Auburn University.  Recent poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Harpur Palate, Portland Review, Tampa Review, Canary Magazine, and Town Creek Poetry, among others. His poetry has been awarded Auburn University’s 2013 and 2014 Robert Hughes Mount, Jr., Poetry Prizes, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, among others. He has reviewed books for Southern Humanities Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and others. Live at Lethe, his first collection of poetry, was released by Sweatshoppe Publications this past fall (2013), and his second manuscript, Reflections in the Dark Water is seeking publishers. For more information, visit his author’s page: ecopoiesis.com.

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