Friday, August 06, 2010


Photo by Rochelle Kraut

To my knowledge, I never met Steve Carey, though you might think I would have. I borrowed the money to pay the minister for my first wedding in 1965 from Clifford Burke, who published Carey’s Smith Going Backward in 1968. Bill Berkson published Gentle Subsidy in 1975. Bernadette Mayer & Lewis Warsh published The California Papers in 1981, which includes as one of its sections a label from the Haight Street Pharmacy from May of 1966. That was where I went to have prescriptions filled that same summer.

Perhaps because he was published in journals like The World, Best & Company, The Paris Review, Angel Hair & Big Sky, I simply presumed that Carey was one of the younger poets – my age – who were part of the St. Marks scene, and perhaps for a while he was. But when his work stopped appearing in journals I read, I didn’t really notice.

I did not realize that Steve Carey had died in 1989 of a heart attack until I read it in The Selected Poems of Steve Carey, edited by Edmund Berrigan. Nor had I realized that he was at least as much a Californian as he ever had been a New Yorker, in spite of the fact that one of his books was entitled The California Papers, that both the Bay Area & what I take to be his hometown LA (he was born in DC in ’45) are palpable presences in the work & that Phil Whalen is as much an influence here as Ted Berrigan.

Edmund is in fact the second Berrigan to have edited Carey’s work (Ted did The Lily of St. Marks), and he’s done such a great job that I knew almost instantly that I had to read more. A couple of trips to and I have both volumes of The California Papers (the second of which is entitled AP), Smith Going Backward & Gentle Subsidy. 20 Poems & The Lily of St. Marks are still en route. Steve Carey is for me The Big News of 2010.

Berrigan Sr. & Phil Whalen were both masters of the I-did-this, I-did-that poem as linked journal & what excites me most about Carey is the degree to which he’s seen that point of connection & expands it with his own very distinct energy. Where you see it most clearly in the Selected is in the excerpt from AP, the first two passages from a total of 32. Here is the 32nd section from the 1984 volume:

One light or another,

none are mine for the moment


This is the other city


That is the other hill


What’s this?




I am not a visitor here,

I am a guest.

(Thank you, David and Phoebe.)

You can tell by the way

I’m sitting in this chair,

and the noise

two rooms down,

the visitors

two rooms down.

It wasn’t like this

when I was here before.




No more plans.

Only directions now

one of them, hopefully, with an address.


No more letters




Swarms of facts


all what happened next


(I am looking for some horrible consequence

for having no place to house it all.)








“Well . . .”

“ I told you so”




Up in the air,

where shall I put them?



How can I keep from waiting here?


And what has happened to the thrill

of being temporary?


Everything is the same

And nothing is like it was




























I mean it











Transit mathematics


It’s so hard to arrive and matter




What can you tell from here?

(assuming you knew what you were looking at, that is)


I don’t even know that I’m here




I’m here:

I know exactly (abstractly)

where I’m not




It’s a busy life in the absences

full of habits in other lights


questionnaire anticipations

imagination in the abstract




Oh       go       home





The home is in the head

BUT . . .




And more and more and more and more and more


Is it alive? all this? seemingly so without me?




The volume is dated 1967. Am I jealous that Steve Carey had these chops already this well-honed at the age of 22? You bet. Although at the time – ’67 was my period of Robert Kelly imitations – I might well have thought them not “serious enough.” Today I can read the evanescence for what it is, a poem written at the very rim of language, teetering as if it were apt to fall into silence.¹

The essence of such poetry is mindfulness, awareness to the minutest detail in one’s head, one’s world. Whalen had a conceptual frame for this in Zen while Berrigan one suspects came by it more intuitively. The third New American master of this poetic mode, Paul Blackburn, penned the first passages of his The Journals the same year that Carey wrote this.

But all good poetry is “about” mindfulness – it makes us more conscious as human beings. And Steve Carey at 22 still had half his life to live, with the most productive portions of it still ahead. Much of his later work will have that well-formed lyric capacity, as if David Shapiro & Ron Padgett have emerged as important to his way of seeing as Whalen & Berrigan.

That in some ways is the story that Selected Poems seems to tell. I write “seems” because it doesn’t appear that Berrigan fil edited the book in any strict chronological order – the excerpt from AP appears nearly halfway through the whole while “The California Papers” (in fact the final sequence from that volume) appears even later, although it almost certainly was composed before AP. What I’d love to know, but probably can’t get until we have a Collected Works, or at least Collected Books, is the sequence of it all. I really want to trace how all this evolved.

I want to close with a very different poem from the Selected, just to show the range Carey had, and just how good he was at it:

Mrs Murcheson

Her heart was the warmer
for she was lovely.
She as white like a sonnet
in evening gray not premature.

Unskilled at what she would confer
five afternoons, every moment matter snow.
Many men in services.
She gave them bright quiets
she felt you should,
quickly and surely, each humbly.
She practice, singing “two by two,”
ambled down a street,
gave it war-relief organization
where she looked. She had come
stopping, kept thanking, thanking.
Individually, the design, a uniform,
eked near, but the idea
was necessarily far. Still,
with a fuller shirt and a long friend maybe . . .
She stops fog’s halted then whistles.
Light’s on. Let’s go. Light’s on.

This almost has a Joe Ceravolo air to it, particularly the use of grammatical incompleteness – “she practice” – or those last two terrific lines. We lost something very precious when Steve Carey died. My salute to Edmund Berrigan for bringing him back to us.


¹ That section of implicit dialog – Thanks // Sorry // Hello etc. – with its short lines & multiple voices feels to me like an anticipation of Ted Greenwald.


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