Green Cammie by Crysta Casey
(Floating Bridge, Seattle, WA., 2010)
On reading the first three lines of “A Curse,” the opening poem of Green Cammie–
You told them I was slitting
my wrists. But I had no scars
on my arms then.
I knew I’d have to shove my biases aside. I’m not a fan of the personal lyric, life/living processed down to an iconic moment, an epiphany, an image that stands up for something supposedly larger. I don’t like being manipulated as a reader, funneled into a pre-conceived shadow of a glimpse of an experience I will never experience. I prefer poetries that are neither illustrative nor evocative–the mirror held up to reality has long been shattered, reflective shards scuffed and swept into the gutter, never to be whole again. That mirror lied or at best told only part of the truth.
Yet how do I not dis a poet who has experienced the hurricane-force resistance against women in the military and countless other travails? Assuming the I in the poems is the poet Crysta Casey, who appears to have suffered numerous personal tragedies–institutionalization and cancer–who writes about people whose lives leak or explode out of our world, how do I criticize the poems when the life of the poet has already weathered so many negative circumstances? If I dis the poems, drawn from two manuscripts found after her death, am I disrespecting the deceased poet?
How do I critique poems hitting so many–too many?–wrenching themes: abuse of power (Captain Bowman acting like a toddler over plastic spoons), substance abuse, unabated sexism, perseverance, the slippery border between sanity and insanity, sexual abuse (poet taking a shower at age 12 with her father, mother reluctantly assenting), female sexuality in a male-dominated culture, frank portraits of men and women who are down, going down, but not out?
As a reader and writer who came into poetry through the Beats, rawness in language and subject levels oozing out of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, and Gregory Corso’s poems, I can appreciate the unapologetic, unpolished writing, the bald, bold heft, of these poems, gouged out of a living. That these poems exist at all is worthy of celebration. Lesser artists might have been reduced to bitter silence.
I can also appreciate the lack of sentimentality. Some may judge these subjects, these people dog-paddling in the shrinking puddles of their lives, as pitiful. But these are not poems begging for pity. They are not begging for anything. The last poem, about a missed opportunity with a friend, in the hands of lesser poets, could be maudlin. The last six lines exemplify Casey’s matter of fact restraint:
Kim called to go out to Ivar’s.
She would treat me. My answering machine
took the message. I never got back
to her. She hung herself on a Friday.
Two weeks later, I went down to paint the boat.
It was gone.
Green Cammie makes me wonder what work Casey would have produced had she had the time/space to compose, had her life been filled with fewer difficult challenges, had she lived longer (she was in her mid-50s, the prime for many writers). There’s force in some of these poems, painful experiences transformed, yet the power often seems deferred, does not build, does not bowl the reader over.
I also wonder how many other poets lance the boils of our world but don’t have the career arc to cut deep? How many poets are lost by their loss? What do we lose as readers, as a culture? Listen to Casey’s poems to try to hear all the other poets who cannot find the place in their lives to speak to all of us.
Crag Hill until recently edited SCORE, one of only two journals dedicated exclusively to concrete/visual poetry. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including several available on-line. His creative and critical works in progress can be found at http://scorecard.typepad.com. He teaches English Education at Washington State University.