Rusty Truck Press
Allen Ginsberg begins Kaddish, one of the most famous modern elegies, by directly addressing the subject, his mother, with the realization, “Strange to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village”. It’s an invitation from Ginsberg to the reader to enter his private memory bank through a moment of almost idle reverie – as well as the taking up of a traditional mode of lament by an unconventional poet.
Wolfgang Carstens, by contrast, kicks off Enjoy Oblivion, a chapbook that is part eulogy of and part travelogue through his father’s death, by letting his readers know that “i just heard/that my father/is on his death-bed” and inviting us to witness his contempt for a man who left him little but “fucked-up/childhood/memories”. Carstens, a bit of an outsider poet himself, seems less interested, at least initially, in lament than catharsis.
Where Ginsberg’s poem leads readers through a guided tour of his mother’s life and times, Carstens hauls his through the Stations of his father’s final demise, from being called to the hospital through to the (lack of an) obituary. Carstens reflects less on his father specifically than on the profound presence of his absence for pretty much the poet’s entire existence. He also holds his father as a foil – an inverse inspiration for Carstens to be as positive a presence in the life of his own young family as possible.
Of course, there is anger, sometimes more elaborate in poems with darkly comic punchlines, such as “driving home,”; sometimes direct and final, as in the blunt “no”.
Solemn or scathing, Carstens does not dwell in the medium of Ginsberg’s meditative lyricism. His verse is built mostly on mono or duo syllabic lines, giving the effect of words sharpened down to a dart point, fine enough to firmly pierce his target with multiple strikes.
Where the main section of Kaddish ends with expressions of love and an offering of hope, Carstens ends his vent with the exhausted sentiment that “there/isn’t/any magic/left”.
However, his is not just an agonized howl. Carstens also holds compassion – if not for his father directly, then for the human condition and the reality of everyone’s shared, final destination. The poems that work this angle – the briefest, most abstract in the collection – may also be the most striking. In “there’s nothing”, Carstens solemnly notes that “there’s nothing/as lonely/as/a heart/that’s stopped/beating”. It’s an objective observation, yet devastating; equally inevitable to the heart that is as empty as his father’s was to the fuller one that these poems aspire to nurture. And it’s one that ultimately hooks Carstens to a richer elegiac tradition, outsider or not.
Escape (briefly) your own oblivion.