Jim Carroll is probably best known for his 1978 book The Basketball Diaries, which became a feature film with Leonardo DiCaprio, released in 1995. However, he first made his reputation as a poet. He had been widely pubished in various journals and anthologies before the release of Living at the Movies, his first collection, in 1973, when he was 22 years old. Living at the Movies is reprinted in its entirety, along with selections from his second collection, The Book of Nods (1986), in Fear of Dreaming.
I tend to favor poetry that is more-or-less easily accessible, which Carroll’s work is not, but I am somehow drawn to these poems – very strongly drawn to them. In fact, I love them, although they are not easy going. Carroll’s imagery has been called “hallucinatory,” and that seems as good a word as any to describe the associations he sets up. It is worth mentioning that Carroll is also a rock musician, with four albums to his credit, as well as a “best of” album, because there is a hard-edged, eerily beautiful music in these poems that sets off and supports the strong, unnerving images.
This is not to say that all of these works are impenetrable. For example, despite its ambiguity, “Birthday Poem” bears some traces of objective reality, although the element of the fantastic still intrudes:
3 hours into the afternoon of March 9th
and the morning is still lingering like a cloud
reflected onto a building on 53rd St.
where I am.
the streets are much too involved (with what?)
much too wet too (with rain)
though I don’t mind the rain
only the wet streets and
Ron Padgett might or might not agree with that,
but we’re having breakfast together nonetheless.
There is a delirious rambling quality to these works, a kind of free association that leads them to shift from light to dark and back again without warning while Carroll throws out image after image that might have come from a late 20th century Lewis Carroll, minus Alice’s innocence, as in “Heroin”:
Sat for three days in a white room
a tiny truck of white flowers
was driving through the empty window
to warn off your neighbors
and their miniature flashlights.
In a way, although it is certainly not a direct parallel, they call to mind the frantic intensity of David Wojnarowicz, the same darkness, the same sort of “viscerality,” but Carroll’s stance is more dispassionate, less angry, and only rarely ventures into that fragile, edgy verge that Wojnarowicz lived on. There is that same sense, however, of playing a game of “chicken” with life – these are, after all, a young man’s poems.
The selections from The Book of Nods show a greater depth, as might be expected thirteen years later, but are still undeniably the work of the same poet. There is still that “in your face” feel to many of them, that clear-eyed gaze that says “here are the consequences – deal with it.” From “The New Death”:
I see it passing
in silicon deserts.
It cannot slow down
though at times
I will gather enough speed
to fix my motion
onto its tracks
and gather its eyes
like dice into my fist
to weigh the vision there
against my own.
The subjects are larger, the voice still immediate, the thought still profound and sometimes chilling.
The book ends with a selection of writings from 1989-1993, previously unpublished, including a very short story, several poems, and what I call “fragments” – those bits of writing that might, someday, become the kernel of something larger.
Jim Carroll’s poetry is something rare and wonderful – indeed, in a literal sense, in spite of its “New York street kid” ambience, there is a great sense of wonder in this work, but it’s not sitting there on the street waiting for you to pick it up. You have to dig for it.
(Penguin Books, 1993)