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Integrity of Vision

Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll

Starting with little in mind
the best you might do is begin it
over and over again. Transforming
the real earth to a texture and strength
beyond control. . . .
--Jim Carroll, "Prologue"

Over the past thirty years, poet, diarist, and rock musician Jim Carroll has proven himself a multifaceted artist of many talents, and what is most remarkable is the ease with which he moves between genres; this alone makes him difficult to pin down. Yet, even though Carroll has experimented in many forms which display striking surface differences, his artistic vision has remained consistent and true. This integrity of vision is especially apparent in Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll, which collects in one volume the complete text of his first work of poetry, Living at the Movies (1973), selections from The Book of Nods (1986), and an assortment of previously unpublished new poems, prose pieces, and songs written between 1989 and 1993. Fear of Dreaming charts the development of Carroll's poetic sensibility from the late 1960s to the present, and in doing so reveals that the seemingly disparate branches of his oeuvre are, in fact, united by a distinct artistic vision.

New York City street life forms the core of Carroll's artistic vision, and the poems in Fear of Dreaming illuminate the aesthetic underlying all of Carroll's work. Carroll animates what we might consider inanimate parts of the city--its machinery, sky scrapers, pollution, and so on--and highlights its darkest profile. The "New York City Variations" (from The Book of Nods), for example, depict the city as a living being whose danger and indifference is inseparable from its beauty: "New lampposts curve over the avenue in darkness, like chrome tears" in the first "Variation" (173), and in another, "Air-conditioned blood drips like rosaries / from glassy facades to the cosmopolitan eyes" (176). Likewise, in "Fear of Dreaming," a new piece that is the title poem of the collection, Carroll writes: "Too many teeth / In this city / Are bared." But as in his earlier poems, this dark vision is juxtaposed against the idyllic retreats afforded by imagination, dreams, and drugs: "What I want is sleep / inside a strange language, trimming / The bonsai under glass" (260).

Fear of Dreaming also highlights Carroll's continuous process of self-examination and his identification with the city as intimately connected with himself (themes also foregrounded in his diaries and rock lyrics). In Carroll's earlier work, the juxtaposition of dream and reality produces poems that are simultaneously inner-directed and self-contemplative yet also "about" the city; it is as if Carroll's consciousness and that of the city are united, and this affinity places imagination and concrete reality on equal footing, producing a surreal, even hallucinatory effect. Always present is a tension between the concrete reality of city life and its psychological unreality, and always Carroll is aware that writing is a purifying force. Often his early poems express a desire to escape the city's oppressiveness, as in the prominent seashore imagery of "Blue Poles," "The Distances," and "Styro." But harsh, man-made reality always intrudes upon the idyl: in "Styro," for example, "gulls play in their crude reflection / a tanker passes to split Europe" (18).

In his recent poems, however, Carroll seems to find reality so unreal that it is itself a fantasy land, and his views of politics and city life have become increasingly cynical. "Evening News" points to random tidbits of meaningless information gleaned from television news, which offers, among other things, "actual computer-enhanced photos / Of Venus / That crater down there / is called 'Eve' / That gorge to the left / is called 'Tic.'" Similarly, Carroll's earlier poems have never been so overtly critical about mainstream politics as "Inauguration Day," which highlights the circus-like media treatment of Clinton's inauguration as well as the questionable qualifications of the President and his appointed officials. Carroll hints that "we won't get fooled again" by quoting The Who's line, "Meet the new boss, / Same as the old boss" (265). Finally, perhaps most significant is his poem, "In Time, AIDS," in which he writes, " To be modern / In the city is to be a victim in time" (266).

Carroll's recent poems, much less optimistic than past works in their focus on everyday realities, show a growing sense of despair. Yet in his earlier work, Carroll has used poetry to create a beautiful world in spite of the ugliness and violence the "real" world offers. As he puts it in "Love Rockets": ". . . I'm off to rescue the sky from its assassins / jogging and screaming and launching my clean mortars / into the March obscene air." Poetry is his weapon against the corruption of beauty: "I'm here. and I have something to say / as well as something to take care of. / . . . . / I like the sky (don't you) its warmth, its friendliness. / I'm not going to let all this fucking soot taint that terrific blue" (18). Carroll's awareness of the power of writing continues through The Book of Nods section, which he concludes with the plea, "In the subscription of hearts / In the strangled teeth of work / In the judgment of each word / In the end, pretend you hear me" (239).

Carroll's self-conscious reflection upon his writing process also helps to forge unity among the disparate aspects of his life and work, and in this sense his poetry bridges the apparent gaps between the cross-genre expressions of his artistic vision. In Fear of Dreaming, "Fragment: Little N.Y. Ode" (from Living at the Movies) provides an especially powerful intersection of poetry, diary, and music. In the poem, Carroll writes: "I sleep on a tar roof / scream my songs / into lazy floods of stars . . . / . . . ./ this city is on my side" (30). Likewise, in The Basketball Diaries, he describes his frequent trips up to the tar roof of his apartment building, where "It's just me and my own naked self and the stars breathing down" (43); and in the song "Jody," on Dry Dreams, he sings, "Downtown the rooftops are wide / I was sinking in the tar, I screamed / 'This city is on my side.'" Similarly, phrases from the prose works "Just Visiting," "Watching the Schoolyard," "Lenses," and "Me, Myself, and I" (from The Book of Nods) are also lyrics on the albums Catholic Boy and Dry Dreams.

Several of the prose selections included in Fear of Dreaming also hint at the new directions Carroll is headed toward, depicting his movement over the past decade from autobiography toward fiction (he is currently working on two novels). A few of the prose works selected from The Book of Nods are semi-autobiographical (such as "Watching the Schoolyard" and "Me, Myself, and I"), but Carroll's main concern is to depict "nods," or drug dreams. The results are startlingly surreal--very much like Salvador Dali's paintings of melting watches. Some of the characters appearing under odd circumstances are Zeno, who "pulls up on a rocket sled and lectures me on motion" (132); Keats drinking methadone (133); Arthur Rimbaud visiting a dentist (137); and Vincent van Gogh, "wearing a cheap iridescent suit, beneath it a yellow polo shirt with the image of two small green alligators copulating sewn on above the pocket" (108). Others poems, such as "Homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins" (in which an espionage ring maintains security "in the detection of a flawed meter, and messages of coercion and betrayal are delivered in iambics" [116]), and "Days," are more "realistic" in the sense that the events described, while bizarre, seem more tied to concrete possibilities. An especially harrowing "realist" piece is "Just Visiting," in which Carroll details the obsessive last thoughts of a bank robber holding a teller hostage.

Finally, two prose works highlight Carroll's increasing interest in magic, mysticism, and voodoo as sites forming an intersection between surrealism and realism, reality and imagination. In "Guitar Voodoo," from The Book of Nods, the narrator, jealous of his lover's ex-husband, takes vengeance by performing "guitar voodoo" on him: he soaks photographic slides of the man in a magic potion, then, using one of the slides as a guitar pick, murders him by running "the voodooed image across the [guitar] strings windmill style, like Pete Townsend" (120). Likewise, in "Curtis's Charm," a new autobiographical piece, Carroll's friend Curtis is convinced that "his new Caribbean mother-in-law, an adept of the dark tricks, is tagging him with sundry spells of heavy voodoo Ju-Ju" (244). Carroll's solution (though he doesn't believe it himself) is to construct a charm to ward off the voodoo; he draws a Star of David surrounded by four crosses and the names of four archangels, then a snake with a lightning bolt through its neck, and sends Curtis on his way. Just a short time later, while buying a newspaper, Carroll does his "first Manhattan double-take in about fifteen years." There, on the sidewalk, is a dead snake, and "Its body [has] been severed right at the neck" (253). Judging from the works Carroll has read at spoken-word performances, at least one of his two novels-in-progress contains heavy doses of magic and voodoo.

Carroll best expresses the spirit of the collection in "Coda," for Fear of Dreaming confirms that Carroll is always "Doing now what is / Needed for what I am becoming" (273). Fear of Dreaming presents almost the entire body of Carroll's poetic works together so that, at last, we can view his life and work as an ongoing personal and artistic metamorphosis. Clearly Fear of Dreaming highlights the way in which Carroll continually re-creates himself and his world by "recycling" the artifacts of his life, presenting them in new forms, and adding new material to them. Equally important, as we look over the development of Carroll's poetic sensibility over the past thirty years, we can see a distinct artistic vision that unifies his diverse body of work from poetry to diaries, rock lyrics, and fiction. It is this unique vision, along with Carroll's continuing personal and artistic metamorphosis, which marks him as one of our best contemporary artists.


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