Back to the Water: A Review of Bill Carty’s Huge Cloudy

Huge Cloudy by Bill Carty. Octopus Books, 2019. 112 pages. $16.95.

Start with the water. At the end of A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words.” Those words might well be the poems in Huge Cloudy, Bill Carty’s terrific debut collection. Like Maclean, this book is haunted by waters. Poems take place in water, at the edge of water, driving over water, looking at pictures of water, waiting for rain, caught in the rain, waiting for a ferry to cross over water. 

Water is so omnipresent in this book that as I read I found myself thinking of water as God. That is, it becomes both a physical presence in the poems and an idea that permeates everything. The poems speak of water with a kind of reverence. Water sustains but it can also destroy; we quench our thirst or we sink. “I swim / through a garden of jellyfish blooms,” Carty writes. “I drown not knowing which way is up.” Elsewhere:

Despair becomes recurrent, a body
of water I sit beside, though not
an all-encircling moat. It is liquid
more vernal, some fluid settled
in the lowest region of the zone,
a depression shy to motion, a basin
I arrive at, thinking, this really is despair,

so much broader than it is long.

If not God, then perhaps water is poetry itself. Liquid and unmoldable, it slips through our fingers even as we grasp at it; it explains so much about the world: where we choose to live, the routes we take to travel anywhere. 

Huge Cloudy is a fun book. It’s full of strange, memorable images (“some weather forming on the glass— / is it star-spittle, or trick snow, / which changes as it falls”) and clever word play (“Better luck, I said. Next year, you said, / and didn’t elaborate. Better, better, better, / we said. We said, luck, luck, luck”). These poems invite you to read them aloud for the pleasure of their sound. One tongue-twister of a poem is titled “Ships vs. Shops,” and includes this delightful bit: 

When the net comes aboard it is mostly trash, mostly
small sharks fin-flapped, tails struggling
vis-à-vis our stratagem. The net is passed overhead,
litter-like. Stiff rope
and radio crackle. The light’s askew.

Just try saying “small sharks fin-flapped” five times fast. Carty’s voice manages to veer almost seamlessly between crafted and conversational:

the arrhythmic activity
of the interstate,a bollix birthed by
flaming Winnebago.
It’s a game day, so yeah,
there’s a game.

There’s such pleasure in the contrast, and such warmth in the connection created by the sense I have that a real human being lives on the other side of these lines, talking to me about things they think are important. 

Many of the poems here have very short lines, but the verse is never choppy or abrupt-feeling. Again, the feeling is that of invitation: slow down, spend some time with these words. In a long, multi-sectioned poem titled “Bounding Sphere,” Carty offers this elegiac moment:

                He read
my poem and said,
It’s about our brothers,
but he meant his.
When he died I was in the yard
reading Middlemarch.
So never again will I enter
the Black Bull Tavern.
I just want to walk around
this painting for a while.

That’s the feeling I have as a reader throughout the collection: I just want to walk around in this book for a while. The reward for doing so is a deeply felt tenderness and a sincere celebration of what it means to be a human being alive in this world. 

Back, then, to the water. We are born wet, as Carty points out, and to water we return. One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Ruth Foley’s book Abandon, another water-filled collection which is a meditation on loss and grief but also courage. In the moments of deepest danger and despair, when the danger of drowning is most immediate, Foley writes, “Almost always, someone has a boat.” The line takes my breath away for the way it is at once hopeful and honest about the truth that, yes, sometimes, in fact, we drown. 

Carty makes a move in “The Decisive Moment,” the final poem of Huge Cloudy, that makes me feel the same way as Foley’s line. At one point in the poem, the speaker describes himself this way:

For myself: a man midflight
above the puddle, rushing
to the train, his day ending
or beginning, his feet,
for the moment, dry while
everything else is wet.

I have a fondness for reading all poems as ars poetica, each poem in part an answer to the question of what is a poem. This excerpt, then, feels to me like a poet in the midst of writing a poem, both in and out of the world, frozen in time, waiting to see how things will turn out, not entirely in control of what happens next. The poem ends by coming back, of course, to water, and to that image in particular:

The world is mostly ocean.
So little left to reach for,
so much to get across.
It is exactly 12:20.
A man running home.
Two dancers on a poster.
Clouds circle the spire.
Small ripples in the puddle
where someone has laid
a ladder in the street.

Why is there a ladder in the street? Is it a gift, a blessing, a dry path across the inconvenient puddle? Is it a trap, a stumbling block, one more thing that might interrupt our journey toward home and our loved ones? Is it merely an incongruity, an oddity, an image out of place that asks us to supply our own meaning? Is it Foley’s boat, offered by someone in our moment of direst need? It is any of these things; it is all of them. The beauty of poetry — and of Carty’s book in particular — is that we can hold all of these possibilities in our mind at once and wonder.

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