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Void of Course
Review by Paul McDonald
Louisville Eccentric Observer
Jim Carroll reaffirms his prowess as mentor and scribe of the human condition.
Poet/Diarist Jim Carroll's new book of poetry begins with a powerful commentary on
addiction and grace entitled "Eight Fragments for Kurt Cobain." Although
addressed to the late songwriter, it's pretty obvious that on certain levels, Carroll
perceives Cobain as a reflection; otherwise his words would not carry so much authority:
"...And you shoved the barrel in as far as possible/Because that's where the pain
came from/That's where the demons were digging...But Kurt/Didn't the thought that you
would never write/another song/another feverish line or riff/Make you think twice?/That's
what I don't understand/Because it's kept me alive, above any wounds..."
Carroll first bared those wounds in his book The Basketball Diaries , a
collection of journal entries written in the early sixties between the ages of 11 and 15,
where he documented his descent into heroin addiction and life on the streets of New York.
In the fall of 1966 Carroll began to attend poetry workshops at the St. Mark's Poetry
Project and his interest in writing, poetry in particular, deepened. Eventually, portions
of The Basketball Diaries later appeared in The Paris Review , and
no less than Jack Kerouac was moved to write that "...at 13 years of age, Jim Carroll
writes better prose than 89% of the novelists working today." Carroll followed this
up with Forced Entries , another book of journals written in the early
seventies, where he chronicled his experiences of detoxing from heroin and hanging out
with the New York Arts and Literary crowd, which included living at the Chelsea Hotel with
Singer/Poet Patti Smith and controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In the early
eighties he formed The Jim Carroll Band, a prototype of the punk/grunge movement, that
produced several albums including the critically acclaimed Catholic Boy and
the alternative hit single "People Who Died." In 1995, "The Basketball
Diaries," was made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Yet throughout his career,
Carroll has never lost touch with his original muse. He has continually produced a number
of books of poetry, the latest of which is Void of Course: Poems 1994-1997 ,
published by Penguin Books.
"Eight Fragments for Kurt Cobain" sets the stage for seventy-five poems that
range from short, humorous observations about Buddha and William Burroughs, to the surreal
dreamlike qualities of "Crown of Thorns" and the outright cathartic stream of
consciousness of "While She's Gone." In the first poem, we see Carroll speaking
as an elder barely a generation removed from Cobain. Carroll's identification with Cobain
gives this work an added edge not only because of their connection with popular culture,
but primarily because Carroll managed to survive his ordeal. No one, save those junkies
who have lived as Carroll had, could possibly understand what Cobain was going through.
Yet Carroll's elegant lyricism deftly communicates his sorrow and disappointment.
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about Carroll is his astute economy of
language. With laser precision he is able to craft an idea and bring forth a vision with
as few words as possible. In "Facts" he observes, "It's own wisdom has/
Left Holland in ruins." In "The Bakery" he writes "Everything I've
learned I have stolen/From her pockets everything I have/Written I've learned on her
lips." And, in one of the many pieces titled "Poem," he tells us, "I
can see/A future which belongs to a starved audience.../Coming this way to create/A false
sense of balance."
One of the strongest works in the book, "While She's Gone," is a monumental
epic of need and loss where Carroll takes us through nine pages of bone to the rail
despair, recalling the lover that has left him: "I chew on the pubic hairs you left
on the sheet/Like a country boy chews on a blade of grass as he walks/Near a pond,
skimming flat rocks across the water./If the angels knew, were kind/That is where I'd
be...With our tongues we could tie the laces of angels/Light or fallen, no matter/Your
thighs moved as smoothly as Latino gangsters..."
Throughout this book, Carroll consistently refers to the images of demons, angels,
snakes and fire as symbols of passion and transformation. While the title of the book,
Void of Course may denote a sense of loss or lack of direction, Carroll
decides that if he is indeed moving through some kind of purgatory, he will not be idle
and let the darkness overwhelm him. Carroll embraces his demons and in doing so they are
transformed to daemons, or sources of wisdom and genius. No poet worth his salt can do
less. Void of Course reaffirms Carroll's prowess as mentor and scribe and of
the human condition.
© Paul McDonald