Eleven months ago, it was my privilege to meet Mr. Carruth and his much younger wife, Joe-Ann. After reading Carruth’s Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies Across the Nacreous River at Twilight Toward the Distant Islands, my reading group thought it a wonderful idea to invite him to the Rochester area to read. We partnered with St. John Fisher College and the poetry organization of which I am currently vice-president, Just Poets, and offered him little more than expenses to venture to town in early April 2005. Carruth, whose agoraphobia, ill health and self-proclaimed misanthropy usually keep him homebound these days, eagerly accepted. Despite both of them being ill, Joe-Ann Laughlin, whose long, auburn tresses Carruth mentions so lovingly in Doctor Jazz, brought Carruth to us in questionable early spring Western New York weather, him with the oxygen tank on which his very life depends in tow. Carruth entertained us by reading selections chosen at the spur of the moment and, though he claims he doesn’t especially care to read, he read in a surprisingly strong voice for over an hour until we begged him to stop before fatigue would overtake him.
It is with this Carruth in mind that I read Doctor Jazz. It is unmistakably Carruth, but a crabbier, more self-centered Carruth who pens these poems. The collection is divided into six sections: “First Scrapbook,” “Martha,” “The Afterlife,” “Faxes,” “Bashō” and “Second Scrapbook.” The opening poem of the book and “First Scrapbook,” “The Half-Acre of Millet,” is reminiscent of Carruth at his best in Heron. The first stanza ends where the poem itself should, “And then a day or two late the cows went reluctantly / to their stanchions / Into the dark muttering and complaining//” Carruth, however, adds six more lines in a second stanza placing himself into the poem, “sickly and old.” Sadly, that is very much the subject of Doctor Jazz or, as Carruth has titled one of the other poems in this section, “Old Man Succumbing to Retrospection.”
“Martha,” Part II, is written from the viewpoint of a father writing letters to his daughter as he grieves on the first day of her death, quite factually based as Carruth’s daughter Martha died at 40. Carruth writes of the “strange, unnatural thing” it is “to outlive / one’s daughter.” The poet admits defeat in his attempts to express the immensity of this tragedy, “Language / like a dismasted hulk at sea is overwhelmed / and founders.”
In Part III, “The Afterlife,” Carruth writes to the living from the viewpoint of a deceased man in an afterlife, a curiosity since he has made no secret of his atheism. Poems found here include two letters addressed to Sam Hamill and two to Stephen Dobyns. Here, Carruth laments the use and effect of “Wonder Drugs,” what he refers to as psychotropic prescription medicines that leave him in the afterlife “a mere husk, if that, / scrambled forever.” Perhaps if that were the only afterlife to envision, I’d be an atheist too.
Carruth writes 54 poems addressed as faxes to William, presumably Shakespeare, in Part IV. In fax number Forty-Nine, the poet defends the monotony of his subject matter, “I always told my students to write / about what they know, and / tell me, William, what / the hell else do I know now?” Is this the fate of us all? To become self-absorbed curmudgeons, some of whose rants and complaints simply get a wider audience?
I found Part V, “Bashō” to be a most refreshing break from Carruth’s obsession with ageing. The poet writes in the style of haiku or senryu, utilizing the 5-7-5 syllable pattern for some of the poems. Here, we get to see him smirk, as in “Tea Ceremony,” “I wonder, can you / do it equally well with / vodka martinis?”
My favorite poem of this collection is found in Part VI, “Second Scrapbook.” In “Literary Note,” Carruth echoes why I personally find end rhyme repellent,
I remember a time in our moderate clime
When the anapest ruled supreme,
And a great many folk who would babble in rhyme
Used it until you could scream.
Sadly, this book should not have been titled Doctor Jazz. There is no jazz-like rhythm in these poems and the closest approach to addressing jazz that Carruth takes is a listing of “The Fantastic Names of Jazz,” what he considers a poem but is really just a list of 44 renowned and lesser known jazz artists. Perhaps he should have titled this book I’m Old and Have Earned the Right to Gripe, which is what any of us would be entitled to do should we reach Carruth's age.