Go Cat, Go: A Close Look at Jefferson Carter's Get Serious
By Frank Jude Boccio
Jefferson Carter is a poet living in Tucson since 1954. For thirty years he taught full-time at Pima Community College, his last eighteen as Writing Department Chair. He’s a passionate volunteer for Sky Island Alliance, a local environmental organization as well as a long-time yogin. His work has appeared in journals like Carolina Quarterly, Sonora Review, Spork, Barrow Street, Cream City Review, and New Poets of the American West. In 1991, he won a Pima/Tucson Arts Council Fellowship. His fourth chapbook, Tough Love, won the Riverstone Poetry Press award. Sentimental Blue, his seventh chapbook, appeared in 2007 from Chax Press (Tucson).
Chax Press also published My Kind of Animal in 2010 as well as his recent collection of poetry, Get Serious, which has been selected as one of the Southwest Books of the Year (2013), and deservedly so. W. David Laird had this to say about Get Serious: “Filled with fun as well as thoughtful innuendo…. Wonderful humor, terrific images, hardly a rhyme in sight.” Jefferson and I snickered a bit the other day before class, as I paraphrased Laird and said, “yeah, oodles of fun!”
Yes, I know Jefferson Carter; he takes my class at Tucson Yoga, so I will gladly cop to perhaps having some bias. In fact, I even make an "appearance" in his poem, "Cat Pose" where he writes: "My teacher likes/"hospice" as a metaphor/for life. Why maim/each other? We're all/patients here." But I didn't HAVE to write this review, after all; I could have merely ignored the fact that I had read the book! And despite the reference to humor (which is certainly there; reading one of his poems in the Tucson Museum of Art's café garden, I laughed out loud, nearly spewing my cappuccino out my nose!), one of the things I appreciate about Jefferson is how he plays such a wonderful curmudgeon. Maybe it's because my dad was one, or maybe because I harbor an inner curmudgeon myself, but I enjoy a bit of feisty, crustiness, and cynicism. I especially appreciate when he tells us that his wife, perhaps exasperated by his "negativity," tells him: "You know… if you were happier, you'd be happier." All this works because you don't have to have Jefferson placed right in front of you as you lead a yoga class to see how obvious this crustiness is but a soft coating over the heart of a romantic, replete with a compassionate response to, and acknowledgment of duhkha. At times, the poet he most reminds me of is Billy Collins, but a more mordant, twisted, even punk Collins.
Carter is not afraid to touch upon subjects that many would shy away from and offered especially from his sometimes willfully politically incorrect perspective. This isn't to say he's some kind of bigot, racist, sexist, right-winger. Far from it! His politics seem to be very much of the leftist persuasion; he just doesn't necessarily honor the left's sacred cows either.
He is out-and-out acerbic in a poem like "American Ingenuity," or "An Apology For Wannabes" where he writes:
In this Age
of Irony, let me,
as one of our
political sock puppets
used to say, let me
say this about that –
the lessons you
learn from history
would be noisy
as a marching band
& empty as a Kleenex box
on the table
outside some senator’s
I just LOVE the bite of that language. And then he can completely sucker-punch you with the tenderness of “Johnny-Jump-Up”:
… my son giggles as I bend my body
into position three of Surya
Namaskara, the salutation
to the sun. I breathe as if I believe
yoga will make me young, a faith like
letters to the editor or small checks
mailed to an honest politician. Too
skeptical to chant Om Shanti Shanti,
I stop and kiss my laughing son, breathing
his odor, a sweetness the world once had.
I read that poem and my heart breaks with recognition. (Jefferson has written a whole collection, None of This Will Kill Me, about fatherhood).
Jefferson writes a lot about his cats and dogs, too, from waking up “eye-to-eye with the cat’s anus” to damning anyone who would deny his dog a soul. In “Thunder”, he imagines the inner life of his dog, “half-blind, diabetic, fat as a woodchuck,” burrowing into his bed between him and his wife:
trembling like she’s never heard
thunder before. Maybe she hasn’t
she lives so much in the moment.
Here’s her day: I was in. Now I’m out.
I was out. Now I’m in. You going
to eat that? You going to eat that?
I’ll eat that! Here’s her night so far:
What’s that? Thunder. What’s that?
Thunder. What’s that? Thunder.
There are also the poems where humor and political incorrectness can come together like in the deliciously funny “Land Of The Pharaohs” when he blends politics, poetry, and Christianity:
I recite my poem
about Martians & Geiger counters,
its conclusion an ironic invitation
to Jesus to drop by some morning
for coffee. They hate it.
His humor is on full display when he writes about a 90-year old yoga practitioner who farts throughout class, “backfiring like/an old Vespa among the scented/candles”.
The collection ends with “Helen,” one of the sweetest, most honest yoga poems I’ve ever read, with none of the sticky sentimental treacle or portentous symbolism that is so often found in contemporary yoga poetry.”
Nobody laughs. Certainly
not me. No jokes about gasasana,
the five inner winds, the vibrations
of the blissful sheath. I’m practicing
ujaiyi breath, pretending I’m fogging
a mirror, imagining my blurred reflection,
which is almost nothing & preparing
to bow & say the divine in me
bows to the divine in you.
He manages to get it both ways, getting the laughs and the sincerity and reverence.
Jefferson complains that nobody says “Go, cat go” anymore. Well, Jefferson, GO CAT, GO!