Carolyn Smart’s playful and heartbreaking seventh collection of poetry descends into the violent, hungry world that produced and destroyed the fast-driving outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Careen’s opening poem, “Texas, 1930,” is a prelude that simmers, introducing a world of “prison farms with lean and beaten men running before the riders with their guns.” The skillful language that creates time and place is buttressed by newspaper clippings and startlingly sweet excerpts of Bonnie’s own poetry. The many characters run together vocally in tone, diction, and inflection (most movingly Clyde’s brother and fellow gang member Buck, and Buck’s wife Blanche), just as their bodies ran together, sharing cars, liquor, blood.
Form enacts subtle difference (Bonnie speaks in couplets, Clyde in flowing prose), a subtlety that provides access not to one psyche but to a local mindset—interrupted, then, by Frank Hamer, the man who would track the fugitives down, with his abrupt dashes that operate as hard lines of the law. The outlaws’ fatal poem, and book’s climax, ominously untitled, folds Hamer’s voice in with a symphony of others: bystanders, double-dealers, and those under the guns.
Necessarily negotiating with the myth of Bonnie & Clyde, Smart’s book is in part a keen anatomization of fame, its intersections with the media, its partial truths. The poem “like us: the photographs left behind at Joplin” describes the celebrity engendered by visual media—“we are you but better, no denyin”; but the poem that immediately follows starts: “nothing lies more than a photograph.” The denial of glamour is not entirely successful, and nor is it meant to be: poems deny neither charm nor gore, but rather affirm their unsettling coexistence. Thus we read in “the clothes that Blanche ran with” of a “Blue crepe evenin gown with low-cut back and lace shoulders,” followed mere pages later by a newspaper description of “A woman’s dress. . . so bloodstained that ‘it was impossible to tell the color of the garment.’” Similarly, Clyde’s bravado—“when I roar past your joint in Henry Ford’s best machine you’ll all come out to see me & you’ll cheer”—rides alongside Bonnie’s prayers: “Sometimes in the dark my fears rise up and chase me.” Language celebrates its own propensity for speed even while it knowingly leads to accident: “foul-mouthed acrobats we are holy speckled flash & spark, clipped & turnin, headlights sizzlin on through air.” Though Careen tumbles from thrill to fear and back again, it remains a substantive work about characters united and torn apart by love: “but when alone, our wounds displayed one to the other, it was / a pledge of all we were.” Smart’s poetry in these moments is heartrending and private, but avoids sentimentality in a space defined by hardness and hunger: “he wanted / all I wanted from a life, to claw our way out to where we aimed to be.” In Bonnie’s final, posthumous poem she says, “There are more lives than this plain desperation.” These lives, so many of them, are here.
Lise Gaston’s poetry has appeared in Arc, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, Numero Cinq, Prairie Fire, and is forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry 2015. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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