Prayer for the Misbegotten
by Julia Carlson
34 poems, 40 pages
ISBN 13: 978-1973723394
Publisher: Oddball Magazine Publishing, 2017
To order: Amazon
reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Poet and editor, Julia Carlson, earned a BA in Philosophy at Boston University and for a time lived in the South of France where she earned a Diploma in Linguistics from the University de Toulouse-Mirail. For a while, she was the Fiction Editor for The Wilderness House Literary Review and Editor of the Bagel Bards Anthology V. She is a recipient of the David Kidd Poetry Award (2001) and was awarded first place in the Poetry Kit Spring Competition (UK) in 2017. Her publications include two chapbooks: Turn of the Century (Cloudkeeper Press, 2008) and Drift (March Hare Press, 2012).
The last poem in this collection bears the title of the book and is a good place to start. Its threefold, Trinitarian opening first line, ‘Oh sky, oh earth oh sun,’ the ‘Amen’ refrain that occurs seven times throughout the text and the use of nouns such as ‘temple,’ ‘church’ and ‘sermon’ and verbs such as ‘save,’ ‘sing,’ and ‘set free’ are in keeping with the kind of vocabulary one would expect to see in such a piece. The word ‘misbegotten’ stands out though because it is not a word that is generally in common usage. Dictionaries define it as meaning ‘not deserving.’ The poem is a prayer for the wretched and the contemptible, and Carlson uses it to project an image of humans who are trapped like caged birds and long to be set free by their captor. In many ways this is the essence of what this collection is about.
‘What is True’ speaks of another kind of entrapment. This time it is of a more personal nature between one individual and another:
This is our time of despair
A time of falsehood, and deception.
We find ourselves locked inside.
Why do you look at me like that?
In both poems, Carlson writes with empathy and a keen sense of perception.
Carlson is not afraid to ask big questions. Some of them are to be found in strong opening lines: ‘October’ opens with the line ‘How are we made?’ and ‘She Asks’ opens with the lines ‘She asks about how to / Walk toward death.’ As she works through these issues her poems are populated with characters from the whole spectrum of society: a diva who ‘pouts like a child’ and ‘thinks she has it all,’ a homeless man in a Boston winter and a boy strung out on dope. The powerful poem ‘Found Notes’ asks many questions and does not provide any answers:
What if Jesus was a jumper?
His death was tragic
Would he have jumped?
or chosen cancer?
having cancer is hard too.
Did God make him a fall guy?
Was Jesus a warm blanket in a storm?
Death is tragic.
People without eyes.
No one sees.
Her poems journey through a kaleidoscope of changing emotions. She moves with ease through frank observation to irony and good humor. Her capacity to surprise the reader is one of her many strong points. In ‘Train Station, Villeneuve-Sur-Lot’ she paints a picture of an idyllic country scene but then sees a brass plaque on the station wall that states ‘From here, in 1943, 50,000 Jews / Were sent to prison camps.’ The sunflowers mentioned in the first half of the poem make their reappearance at the end framing a neat, terrifying symmetry:
There are no people here now
In 1943 the farms were few
With hectares between them
They say no one saw
And the not yet flowered sunflowers
Could not speak.
The elusive quality that is found in ‘Skating on Hammond Pond’ (are they dancers, lovers or fighters and is their foundation solid or are they skating on thin ice?) is also reflected in many of her other poems and gives them a richness all of their own.
In this collection, Carlson is concerned with the animal as much as the human world. In these poems a Buddha talks to mules, a wolf stalks a doe, and a turtle baits a dog through a knothole in a fence. Sparrows and crows fly through her lines. Like the humans who are caged birds, she writes about an Italian cow who ‘wants to get out of the barn, head to the green spring fields / where maybe she will frot her back against a tree’s rough bark / or lie down under it on the sun warmed ground.’ A powerful poem called ‘Welsh Ponies’ finds them in the firing line of a military exercise on Waun Rhydd Peak with horrific consequences.
Her poems give voice to the ‘misbegotten’ in our society, which turns out to be all of us, including the animals, but they also, in ‘To Go On’ express a certain dogged determination, an acceptance and a tenacity to cling on to that which we know to be true:
We go on when milk is spilled
Or the car won’t start or all the money’s been spent
And the job is lost. We still go on.