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Apr132011

1996

Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995 

By Hayden Carruth

Original and Current Publisher: Copper Canyon Press         

Patrick Rosal writes:

In “Birthday Cake,” Hayden Carruth proclaims, “I am too old to write love songs now.” But Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey is as much a book of love poems for a wife and a nation as anything. In the poem, he’s eating a stale piece of his lover’s birthday cake, five days in the refrigerator, and he comes to contemplate his own amazement at the fact and feeling of being loved.

The poem itself, like the collection, has several notable moments in which Carruth declares his love for the things of the world, that which is “beautifully vulgar and bluesy,” a phrase he uses to describes his lover’s verse, but it’s true of his own poems as well. He loves, too, “the season of mud and trash, broken limbs and crushed briers / from the winter storms, wetness and rust, / the season of differences.” In the cycle of seasons, winter is ending, spring beginning, and he contemplates his aging and her youth (“you still young at forty-two and I growing old at seventy”).

Without the aching penitence of William Carlos Williams’ “Asphodel,” Carruth’s collection is an act of looking back, wherein looking is an act of love, a moral act, to witness and remember one’s life. And Carruth is like Williams in many ways, yes, his love of the ordinary and the broken, as in the poem “Quality of Wine”:

This wine is really awful
I’ve been drinking for a year now, my
retirement, Rossi Chablis in a jug
from Oneida Liquors; plonk, the best
I can afford, awful. But at least
I can afford it, I don’t need to go out and beg
on the street like the guys
on South Warren in Syracuse, eyes
burning their sockets like acid.
And my sweetheart rubs my back…

And so even when he is contemplating his mixed luck and the poverties of the local landscape, there is his inability to reject tenderness and affection—a failure I can live with. Maybe even a failure I can live by. You’ll have to read the whole poem; the ending is worth all our tragic era’s wishes.  

I can’t bring up Williams in a reading of Carruth if I don’t mention their shared passion for the American vernacular. In a charming series called “Faxes to William” (the title is not, as far as I can tell, addressed to the Paterson bard), Carruth carves gorgeous American idiomatic shapes:

These nearly anonymous bastards
have increased my assessment 3.5
times. That’s three point five! Taking
advantage of an exiled poet, the shits.
They better watch out, I’ll spread their
rotten town all over the map for the rest
of time! Well, for a few years anyway

If you can stand the punch line of the nineteenth, and last, section in the series where he reveals that William doesn’t even have a fax machine, the poem (dedicated to Stephen Dobyns) moves through gorgeous landscapes and grumpy meditations like the one above.

In this relatively short collection, Carruth tests all of his muscles with the formal invention of the fax as well as the tradition of the villanelle—both with equal ease. More importantly, the forms contain vital and complicated human experiences. Carruth can evoke outright both laughter and outrage. He is not blind to injustice to say the least:

When the young brown-haired
woman was shot
a drop of blood swayed
briefly
on the end of her nose
and her baby brother for an instant
thought of a lantern.

This is the opening passage of “The Camps,” a long poem in quick episodes, snapshots really, surveying the atrocities both domestic and abroad. “[T]his,” the poem continues in a later section:

is his way of being in the world, writing
on scraps of paper with stubby pencils
or on cheap tablets from the drug store, on a battered typewriter
set on an orange crate in a roach-ridden flat
in Chicago or in a small country house
on a computer, writing…

That is, the speaker is located in a specific and tangible world and compelled to record the injustices—compelled to reveal his position in the cartography of war while, at the same time, rendering what he can of the war himself. This is an astounding poem of political conscience, not just in its form and vision, but in the way it reflects, pauses, telescopes, pauses, and swells.

Carruth sort of famously cut himself off from the traditional academic communities, though it seems he had many friends in the academy throughout his lifetime—James Laughlin among the many, but also Adrienne Rich, who appears in one of the finer, poignant poems of the book called “California.”  Many of the poems—as he addresses his beloved wife, and expresses his grief over a gravely ill daughter, and stares down the lines of power, and etches forceful images of violence—refer to places visited in and far out of New York and Vermont, though Carruth largely preferred to be rather isolated. This is a powerfully troubled spirit who drew from rich wells of restlessness and exile and put into poems endless dimensions of appetites, whether scrambled eggs or whiskey or both—what we long for and live on, what we grieve and ultimately leave behind.

Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (Persea, 2003), which won the Members' Choice Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman (Persea, 2006), which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry and the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Tin House, American Poetry Review, The Literary Review, the Beacon Best, and Language for a New Century. (Photo credit: Stephen Sullivan)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Lucille Clifton for The Terrible Stories
  • Robert Hass for Sun Under Wood
  • Alicia Suskin Ostriker for The Crack in Everything
  • Charles Simic for Walking the Black Cat

Poetry Judges that Year: Marilyn Chin, R.S. Gwynn, Marilyn Hacker, Yusef Komunyakaa,
William Matthews

The Year in Literature: The Dream of the Unified Field by Jorie Graham won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Hayden Carruth (1921-2008) was born in Woodbury, CT.
  • The poet Galway Kinnell has said of Carruth, “This is not a man who sits down to 'write a poem'; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being.”

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