Monthly Archives: August 2011

A Read of Wolfgang Carstens’ crudely mistaken for life

crudely mistaken for life by Wolfgang Carstens (poems, 93 pages, Epic Rites Press)

The world, as seen through Wolfgang Carstens’ poetry, is mostly a dark, bloody and malevolent place. His preferred subjects are death and violence. He uses funereal and graveyard imagery to carve out poetic scars that throb like a raw wound on the page, whether he’s talking about the “sad drama of the flesh” or elderly men who “lift the bottle/in remembrance of those/lying broken in hospice beds,/inching towards oblivion”. And he does all this with what seems to be a cathartic honesty.

Carstens hangs his work pretty firmly to the flesh. He writes about bodies wasted away by disease (in “do not resuscitate”) or ripped apart by the animal world (“anniversary of your death”) or desicated in the human realm (“notes on Seed”). He does so in blunt language that is powerful but never maudlin; tombstones, for instance, are “the final wisps of humanity”.

But the work is never completely bleak. Carstens’ poems are often tempered by notes of tenderness, which usually manifest in the actions of children or a (brief) viewpoint shift through childlike wonder at the world before the darkness crowds back in. In “the drama of flesh” he describes building a snow-couple (snowman and snow-wife) with his kids – and then relates the subsequent weather-related destruction of this artificial relationship in sharp, black humour. In “tombstones” he watches his daughter pull flowers from the bouquet on the grave they are visiting and distribute them to all the stones throughout the cemetery, noting that “she was here/to celebrate the lives of everyone who had died”. It’s a moment of warmth in a poem otherwise chilled by the vacuum of oblivion that lies on the other side.

Such moments work like a match struck in and against the dark, bringing some warmth but never quite enough light.

But Carstens’ unwillingness to resolve light and dark in favour of one or the other gives the collection its dramatic tension, and an authentic poetic depth. His prosody reflects that tension, too. His is a free verse that is neither clipped syllables nor formal structure, but lines that move in and out of form. “flowers that count for nothing” comes close to iambic pentameter, for instance, while “on not being able to see her face in my mind” breaks structure down closer to blunt emotional momentum.

Crudely Mistaken for Life is not for the faint of heart. But despite much of the subject matter, and Carstens’ unapologetic use of hard-edged imagery, it is certainly also not without a lot of heart – not to mention thought and craftsmanship.

See a little light at http://www.epicrites.org

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