Helen Losse – A Review of Paper House by Jessie Carty

Paper House by Jessie Carty (Folded Word, Rocklin, CA, 2010, 85 pages) $12.

Paper House by Jessie Carty: Book Cover

If a poet doesn’t risk something, she cannot write good poetry. Jessie Carty risked a lot when she penned the poems that became Paper House. In sixty-four short narrative poems, Carty reveals where she came from, who she has been, and how she got to be who and where she is now. She risks embarrassment and criticism, and she risks angering those who knew her when her house was only made of “paper.” Of course, all confessional poets decide what to tell and what will remain untold, and Carty is no different. Not every detail of this book is autobiographical, yet much is. There are things that remain untold.

What Carty tells—whether she is the “I” in the poem, or she has take poetic license in her description of an imagined or partially imagined incident— makes her a brave poet, one who has surely found her voice: No one else could have written the poems in Paper House. No one else has the same raw material from which to draw. Anyone who grew up poor should be able to relate to these poems. Actually, anyone who grew up—and remembers anything of childhood and the struggle to grow to one’s adulthood—should be able to relate.

Carty does not impress her reader with unnecessary eloquence but rather with the rightness of her language, perhaps because she often writes from a child’s point of view. Her word choices blend with her story so that they often appear simple. They are hardly so, but her work is “accessible” even to the reader of little poetry.

The purple band
expands
and the candy cane
unravels
in vain.

(“As the Child Sees It,” p.14)

See what I mean?

And yet, the fact that Carty is accessible does not preclude her from being deep. Certain poems contain that modicum of mystery that distinguishes poetry from prose. In “If First You Were Water,” the reader must sense rather than completely understand what Carty means as the cycle of all life becomes personal through image. Carty, who is usually accessible, has become oblique but nonetheless likable, writing here like a “private” poet.

Paste shaped into Golem

Depending on how you define
Birth and Death

What is holy…

What of the teacups on the tiny table
Ready to be filled

(“If First You Were Water,” p. 27)

Again in “March 28,” Carty uses images whose meanings are clear only by reading between the lines. Amid the ruins of a trailer—overturned by a tornado—are powerful symbols.

The spot above the stove
where it [a crucifix] hung
is a cross of white
on a graying wall,
a wall torn open—
ragged like the picked
scab on some rural stigmata.

(“March 28,” p. 61)

Then as the poem’s speaker addresses the grass, “You saw nothing, / but a white nightgown / as she went back / for the dog.” (“March 28,” p. 62) This image appears to be painful to the poet to whom its meaning is far greater than even the most educated guesses of a reader, who does not know why the girl made the crucifix but realizes that its imprint hurts.

Jessie Carty grew up poor, but her mother, who loved to read, read to her children. “I interrupted Mom while she was reading me / The Three Bears because I needed / to know what porridge was. ‘It’s cereal,’ she said.” A precocious child, Carty pondered …the kind of cereal that would cause a child “to steal”—She considers Coco Puffs but “decide[s] on Lucky Charms”—the logic of the small, blond Goldilocks who would “get in the bears’ beds,” the sadness of Baby Bear being an only child, who would have no bunk beds “to fly from like a bald eagle.” Then Carty drifted off to sleep, while her mother read on. The next morning she asked the logical question: “‘How did the story end?’ My mother replied, / ‘Happily Ever After.’” (“Once Upon a Time,” pp. 13-14)

Many of Carty’s poems involve references to classic fairy tales. Not only do we see Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but we also meet Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel. And at three, while unknowingly awaiting the birth of a sister, Carty gets in trouble for her refusal to eat cold eggs that, even with ketchup, didn’t turn “green.” (“October 1979,”p. 39) She obviously knew her Dr. Seuss, too.

Twice she mentions unicorns. The first is as girl scout: “drum circle … / I seek my spiritual animal. / Should I lie? / I see a unicorn.” (“Color Guard,” p. 69) The second occurs as an adult as she sorts keepsakes from her past.

This is the scarf my mother bought
all because I loved unicorns, then.
Because no ten year old needs a silk scarf.

(“October Cleaning,” p. 82)

But the book is also about the difficulties of childhood—sometimes the things a child should not see. In a poem mentioned previously, Carty tells us that she thought “the bear family bedroom / … sounded a bit like the one we were in. / Our bedroom was one big room that the adults and children / shared.” (“Once Upon a Time,” p.14) She shows us, in the title poem, her dad, “downstairs, / in the room next to the kitchen, / … on the couch wearing boxers. / … / his cigarette dripping red-tipped ash / onto the carpet, forming a hole.” (“Paper House,” p. 2) Not permitted “to attend / the viewing [of their grandmother], Carty and her siblings were present “to watch her / dying on a / rented bed / in our den.” (“Little Black,” p. 60)

Children, left to their own devises as Carty and her two brothers and two sisters were, find both trouble and mischief. Carty was not in the room, “when my baby sister / sat on the toaster” and she “poured the [hot oil] into an old plastic, / Cool Whip container.” (“While We Were Unattended,” pp. 22-23) And the unforgettable lines,

10 year old hands
wash them out

along with her red sheets
no one to mention them to

(“Kaleidioscope”)

We all have incidents we’d rather forget. We are all the products of our childhoods, like it or not. Carty has boldly embraced hers; she grew to change her life but not to forget.

All this hand remembers is that it craves yellow. It
painted a room the shade of a child’s sun because that
is still the sun. What to do with this forgetfulness?

(“What the Hand Dreams,” p. 78)

What does she do, indeed? What do any of us do?

At times, Carty wanted to give up. As she sat in her car, ”lost” and confused, she remembered an earlier day.

On a field trip to the Outer Banks
when I was ten
I spent all my money
in a dollar store
I shoved all my purchases
in a brand new hot pink bag

I lost it
that bag

[Then on the last stop of that trip]
…someone pushed me
into the not yet warm ocean
where I had to…
avoid the pull
that said
give in
(“That Said,” pp. 72-73)

But Jessie Carty did not give in—not in the pull of the tide as a child and not parked on the bridge as a young woman. She grew up, went to college, got married, and found a job. She earned her MFA in poetry from Queen’s College in Charlotte, NC. And now she has risked much and given us her first full length volume of poetry. Paper House is one of the best books of poetry I have ever read.

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