Remains, a collection of prose poems by Tim Carter with interstitial art by his sister Clara Carter, is an incredibly intimate, painful, and life-affirming first book. Remains is both an elegy for Margaret Carter—the author’s mother, who died in a sudden car accident while the siblings were still children—and also the articulation of a new way of existence that the obsessive process of grief has made possible.
When I think about terrible things happening to the people I love, I am tempted to hold them so tightly as to never let go. Carter’s poems help me let go. They make me want to love better. Reading Carter’s poems, I feel that my life is clarified. I think other readers of Carter’s collection will feel this way too.
Carter’s poems blur bodies and things: in “Mother Figure,” Margaret “dips the hinge of her foot in the water” and has her head “pressed into the road’s shoulder.” In “Something French,” a poem where Margaret gets hit by a car before Tim has been born, it’s her bicycle that’s mangled beyond recognition; unhurt, she walks away.
Carter’s poems dissolve the limits of identity. A forenote explains that Remains was written using materials and interviews collected from the family and friends Margaret left behind, over twenty of which are named in genealogical trees before the poems begin. But Carter chooses not to distinguish between voices in poems. As a result, his voice expands to include us.
Death pushes at the very edge of what makes us human, what makes us alive. Closely witnessing its impact, even from long ago, can change us drastically. In “Burial Notes,” this change manifests as a blurring between the figurative and the literal:
To bury something can mean to forget or abandon that thing, as in, he buried his face in his hands. But to bury a seed is to nurture the seed, to shower it with kisses, to watch it grow from a distance.
is a burrow
Further in the same poem, Carter unwinds the logic of how remembering changes not only the rememberer but also the remembered:
We’re afraid that if we don’t remember the dead, then we’ll lose them a second time. So we catch and preserve and consume as much of the loved one as we can. Not to help this other person, but to help ourselves. Each attempt to remember the dead mutilates what we want to protect. And yet, grief provides us with something essential for our survival.
Carter uses the incantatory momentum of prose to create inertia: the desire of something in motion to continue its course. Skillfully, Carter does this in part to set up moments of sudden, jolting halting—unexpected line breaks or sudden changes of subject. In these miniature death acts, Carter breathes awareness of what was, and what was lost, into the poems.
Thus, when Carter writes, in “Burial Notes,” that “grief provides us with something essential for our survival,” he foregrounds the obsessive urgency underlying the collection: “burdens are anything which must be borne.” The inertia of remembering is foregrounded by the urgency of not forgetting, in “Meditation”:
you have something urgent to tell me, something you never got to say, words you hold in your mouth as you struggle to climb, lifting yourself up each step with both hands until you reach the top and run into the room with the drawn blinds, until you are right by the side of my bed, whispering in my ear, pulling at my wrist pink leaves on the end of a branch
There the poem transforms. Carter doesn’t get to know what Margaret wanted to say. The wrist—a branch. Their fingers—pink leaves. This is not a metaphor. This is the poem’s literal reality, a reality that both prevents Margaret from saying what she wanted to say and also manifests what she wanted to say.
Margaret’s work as an artist is also explored. In much the same way as Carter writes himself into this book, he describes how Margaret mixed, like paint, with her art. Writing about her art and her accident, Carter repeatedly returns to the frustrating difficulty of representation, as in “Turquoise Chevy Caprice”:
I’ve tried to write this down, and by writing, tried to overcome representation, but each time you’re nothing but an irritation on paper, an image pinned under the weight of a color. A nuance smeared on a hill.
This description reminds me of another being that finds it easier to reclaim than represent, to connect than define. Saprophytic fungi create new life out of death. As saprophytes grow through a log or a carcass, their mushrooms become sources of food for forest creatures. Are fungi themselves individuals or communities? More wonderful still, mycorrhizal fungi allow the plants they work with to trade resources and chemical information under the dirt, to act like collectives and individuals simultaneously. Fungi, like Carter’s poems, call into question the very notions of death and identity.
Carter decomposes and recomposes his source material, giving life to something new and total. And in the same way that some fungi connect plants (and, by extension, all the organisms those plants affect) in a “wood wide web”—Carter’s poems connect all the people in Margaret’s orbit (and by extension, anyone with grief) into an enormous, life-affirming web that deepens and stabilizes:
it’s possible there’s no authentic self, only constellations of selves.
(“Spheres of Influence”)
Clara Carter’s art is equally transformational—part collage, part erasure. Cut-outs of photographs blur the ideas of scrap and subject. In one of these pieces, the cut-out body of Margaret Carter is the central feature. In another artwork, the photo scraps this body was cut from become Clara Carter’s central subject.
Grief sustains us. Grief helps us love. Tim Carter writes:
You can see yourself in a different light. This light might slip through one window in the morning and another in the evening.
(“Spheres of Influence”)
Remains is one of my new favorite books of poetry. It will transform you if you let it, break you down and build you back up again, with an appreciation for the wholeness of the living world.
Remains. Carter, Tim and Carter, Clara. Charlottesville, VA: BOAAT Press, 2021. 130 pages. $15.00. Winner of the 2019 BOAAT Book Prize.