The Mercy of Traffic is a masterful poetic memoir. These poems are steeped in a sense of place-- Carlisle was born in Florida and now lives in the Arkansas Ozarks. The collection is threaded with a series of poems she refers to as “Ozark Sonnets” and a single “Arkansas Sonnet.” But these poems are also about transience in America. This makes the title apropos as so many of the poems are about driving around, especially along Southern highways: in addition to Carlisle’s current and former abodes, she writes of Texas and Tennessee. A few references pop up to California and New York. But Carlisle is unequivocally a product of the South. As someone who lived for two years on the Gulf Coast, and the rest of my time in Missouri, which shares the Ozarks with Arkansas, these poems really spoke to me.
In the Southern poems, Carlisle confronts the stereotypes of rural America: poverty, corn pone, kudzu, cotton fields. There are covered dishes, trailers, cheap furniture, broken things, broken people. But there is also the rural beauty, mountains and birds, coyotes and deer, sultry summers and polka-dot fabric, comfort food and cleansing rains. These poems establish a sense of community, for good or ill. At funerals, people bring covered dishes to express sympathy and solidarity. People join the military in an attempt to escape their hardscrabble childhoods. But in Carlisle’s poetry, none of these things feel like stereotypes. The poems are affectionate but clear-eyed. She is fully aware of the places’ flaws, but loves them anyway. “On an Island” is an anti-pastoral, about the beauty of horses, hemmed in by barbed wire, plagued with flies and horseshit. “Against Moving to the Mountains” is a stunner, a celebration of the Ozarks’ beauty, as well as an indictment against its worst tendencies: “Just keep going,” Carlisle warns.
“Sly” was the word that kept coming to mind as I read these poems. Carlisle eviscerates so gently! This is fitting, as the title of the book comes from a line in “The Argument,” a poem about a fox who survives on cunning, but cunning only takes you so far when there are cars to dodge. In “What I Missed,” Carlisle gives a sublime description of grackles: “shining as spoiled meat.” Perfection. So many lines like this, that balance on the knife’s edge between terrible and beautiful, terrible because they’re so cruelly accurate and beautiful for the same. Somehow, in that poetic alchemy, the words and imagery seem to flow so effortlessly, so economically. (Only one poem exceeds a page.)
These are poems about homecoming. I’ve always felt that home isn’t a place, but a concept, like enlightenment. It’s something that must be achieved. It’s a state of being, not necessarily a physical place. Sometimes, it’s a person. Carlisle writes of the places that have imprinted themselves upon her. I imagine she carries them with her, the white Florida sand, the Ozark granite, the West Coast sage. They become components of the self. I like how the places jumble together in this book. They are all America, but such different Americas. Home is also the thing we turn and return to, even if it’s only in our minds. The mind is a homing pigeon, retreating to the familiar. So too, does memory jumble. It’s something we return to. The book flits back and forth between childhood and adulthood.
Carlisle is honest about the dubious nature of memory. What we don’t remember, we invent. Like all good memoirs, this collection has the elements we crave to read about: bad relationships, death, hard luck, which, again ties into Southern life, where poverty and limited job options are the reality. “The Real Night” addresses childhood with images of skeletons and bones, as if to underscore the idea that life’s most enduring lessons are hard and stark. In “Juke,” Carlisle depicts a woman who is down on her luck, which feels so different from men being down on their luck—perhaps because desperate women so often turn to prostitution, or accept a domestic abuse situation if it means a roof over their head. Likewise, “Say Yes” hints at abuse with its haunting final line, “In our bedroom I learned to say yes as if I meant it.” The poem “Once Upon a Time” is framed by objects, ending on blood and milk, quintessentially feminine symbols.
Sexuality from a woman’s perspective is another big theme in these poems. Carlisle speaks of the blame and shame women experience. In “Things Burn,” she says, “Because my hair was a red cape/the street filled with bulls.” In “Greed. Lust. Envy.” she offers a meditation on sin and absolution. She describes trying to look up her step-dad’s towel after he emerges from the shower. There are poems about bras and first kisses, modern takes on fairy tales such as “The Princess and the Frog” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Physiological terms pop up, like in the poem “Systole,” which skillfully employs the term to suggest the flex of muscles.
I can scarcely pick a favorite among these poems. As I go back over my reading notes, I keep finding titles with a star next to them, which means I loved them. I basically loved all of them, from start to finish. Usually, if a collection has a single poem that knocks my socks off, I’m happy. To find a collection where every poem feels like it’s speaking directly to you is a rare pleasure, one that I truly hope others get to experience for themselves.
The Mercy of Traffic (Unlikely Books) is available for purchase on Amazon.