Jenny Grassl on Robert Carr’s The Heavy of Human Clouds

Earth, Another Mother on Morphine

Robert Carr’s rapturously detailed poems sound a call to observe—toward keeping—(ob-, toward, and servare to keep). A memory of the melt of a mother’s butter-yellow suit, Bolognese sauce served with a sliver of finger, the hunt-plunge of a  red angel fox, and an abalone shell carved with the words ‘Remember Me” mark this journey through the frozen north into thaw and compost squirm. The transformation of elements, as in the creation of compost, recurs as magic in these poems, especially the human being’s unquiet and creative ferment. Stages of life of the speaker, a father, and a mother transpire in a panoply of the growth and changes found in nature— our way is divided between tree rings and marrow.

The essentials of survival

grow in dirt beneath my nails:

sacrificial radish, curled

tendrils of slicing cuke.

Have you searched compost

in your loneliness?

The book hums with mud and crystal. Garbage, mold, and worm move among losses: of people, birds, and maple. Loss: a shade of summer. The speaker of these poems engages with loved ones on a shared curve of this earth, shown as a precarious gift. 

In the freeze of winter, vision hardens into a lens of clarity, scrying: Augur through a foot of ice. Perceiving with more than eyes, Carr invites skin to go deep and viscera to surface in search of revelation. The book celebrates nature and the body, but also presents an elegy for their elusive safety as they contain each other. Apprehensions of the natural world permeate the psyche, illuminating uncertainty . The poem “From Away” begins with the speaker crushing spring snows, reminded that you may  hold on through winter. Then we are given a description of belonging to a northern place (asking who are you)? You’re from away? meaning:’ve come from nowhere, 

just passing through, and if your blood-

line splits a hundred cord of hardwood

into heat, unborn grandchildren

can call this place their country home

while you are growing on a hill.

Growing on a hill—A composting corpse so gently rendered recalls Walt Whitman’s grass: “the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” and Whitman’s line: “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” Poems about a mother show us how her power does not end when she is gone.  She shows up in orange juice. The frozen winters are a state the speaker passes through toward melt, like being from away. In cold and steam that was my skin comes ice. In the poem “Red Fox Hunting Magnetic North,” snow is a setting for a fox hunting a mouse three feet down. The fox’s hunger drives the hunt. The precision and passion of the fox’s method connect it to humanity and universal hunger, guided by a force as elemental as magnetic north. The poem flashes red—as fox color and blood— into existential shiver.

Snow lies on the ground, a tabula rasa. When written on, it may require editing. Ice arrests life, but can sustain it, as in a poem about a bald eagle taking a frozen pike out of the winter lake. In another poem Carr vividly paints the landscape, with “cobalt scream.” The beauty and terror of ice creates opportunity for art and mastery.

The yard below           becomes a home

where lazy sun

casts shadow    on packed ice


a landscape where I choose

what’s written

on this frozen page


I choose what to erase 

The poem “Ten for Two Faces” tells the story of human hunters who also have chosen prey, erasing life. The dried animal furs and skins of the Maine Trappers in Audette’s Hardware hang frozen in lives taken, leaving a preserved likeness. In a glimpsed moment of  empathy the speaker pets his dog who has a coyote gaze. As he pays ten (dollars) for two faces, a big guy explains: Thin strips of face make awesome flies for fishin. The freeze-death of foxes (made into fishing fly) can lure a fish, splashed onto the dock, to sustain life for a fisherman. The moving of food and its source in the food chain links to other sequences of change in the collection, such as the cycles of seasons. After poems of a trudge through unforgiving winter land, the book warms into the poem “Treading on Magnolias.” Yet even in spring a frost can destroy. Walking over petals rotted young because of an unusual cold snap, the speaker watches the flowers:

a scorched crow

landed in branches

and clutched the pink parrots.

Almost to a bird, they fell to earth

and died of fear

The parrot-flower fear is familiar to endangered members of The Anthropocene. The cold snaps have become something ominous. This fear lurks in pages that do not scream about climate change.  These are poems that quietly assume the presence of imminent loss, which is almost scarier. Two poems, “Something Taken, Something Left Behind,” and “Cairn — Mount Pisgah Summit” suggest our human over-consumption and feeble attempts at immortality. The Land Trust has noticed, perhaps, people marking their presence on a trail with cairns or just collecting rocks, and tries to regulate the positions of stones on its property with a sign: Leave all rocks exactly where you found them. This command is challenged by the speaker who skims a stone across a bed of oak leaves. This is a gesture of playfulness and a questioning of the human ability to ‘keep’ the earth or even loved ones. The Land Trust’s hope to stop human interference with and damage to the land by regulating the position of its stones reminds me of the last scene of the Lars von Trier film Melancholia. Everyone knows the earth will be destroyed in a few minutes, so a mother takes her boy into the woods and they build a house of sticks around them. She tells him they will be safe, just before the explosion— Carr writes:

I can’t touch a place 

without disturbing air.

 “Riptides Took Me Out” tells the story of an emergency—the speaker frantically waves to shore as he is swept away. His mother waves back, not comprehending the danger her son is in. The poem opens with a meditation on a scene where bottles drift on a sea “where nothing sinks and nothing opens.” The sea of plastic is urgent. People might watch, sun-screened on the beach, dreaming of the evening, without really knowing what it means. They do not plan to intervene in the scene just yet. Climate catastrophe and personal near-death cross-illuminate.

 Carr is a master of simple but powerful images that trigger little shocks of recognition, lyric sensory waves beyond what a lengthy narrative might accomplish. They appear and vanish, lingering in memory, motifs repeating, and slightly altered. This creates deep pleasure for the reader, witness to a masterful musical art. 

In poems about the speaker’s mother, the sequence is not linear in the sense of whether she is alive or has already passed. This allows a drifting in and out of memory with the speaker. The section begins with a memory:

The power 

of a mother’s secret


is sometimes found

in light through a small


glass of orange juice.

Breakfast on the table


long after she’s dead

The glass calls the crystal of ice in other poems back into awareness. The image of light in orange juice links effectively with a later image of the speaker imagining calling to the mother through a conch shell:

I’ll call you

vein, call you

light through


a child’s ear

The mother’s death is near in some of the poems. The coming bereavement dovetails with our sense of a fragile, beloved earth. Earth as another mother on morphine. In the writing about the mother’s world becoming dandelion, The later stages of that flower recall its former bloom. The speaker’s father comes to her and whispers that he is going to mow the lawn. Often nemesis to lawn keepers, at the least dandelions are victims to the mowing blade. Her response, I love the smell of cut grass. Living yellow, dying white, leaves chewed and raw, part of the green delicious smell of cut grass. Those dandelions are hard to get rid of. The mowing is fragrant, and they will rise again, toward keeping.

Carr writes in “Season of Lost Feather:” A crying eye perceives more brilliant sunsets. This brings to mind Emily Dickinson: “A wounded deer leaps highest.” In this poem the speaker claims: I celebrate the passing of dark hair. Both sad and celebratory, conscious of the aging self as “the molting man,” the speaker envisions his body as a henhouse, and describes a metamorphosis: 

The birds,

named for things


held close, Ruby, Sunshine, 

Rose, the return of ruff.


Slowly — quills emerge,

life roosting at my heart

The last poem: “I Contemplate a Passing Sky.” 

Everyone is going.

Ellipses of birds

cross a flat gray

sheet, the rumpled paper

sky. This isn’t sadness,

simply movement.

The poem can be read as an Ars poetica, a last glance at the book’s bigger theme of attempting reconciliation to losses and belonging. Not trying to reverse life cycles, but experiencing life toward keeping the movement, that which cannot be fully kept, the speaker departs, drifting on his back in a lake, legs wide. This image of the wide legs facets into versions of meanings as though viewed through crystal. A man floats, perhaps defiant and macho, but his pose is also vulnerable, curious and receptive to the currents of life. The image holds lake and sky that reflect inner as well as outer experience, an ob-servation that the going has company. It is what humans do, what nature does—drift, with a direction. In this poem, unsurprisingly, north.

Jenny Grassl lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems have appeared in Ocean State Review, Rogue Agent, and the Boston Review annual poetry contest, runner-up prize selected by Mary Jo Bang. She has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, Bennington Review, Lana Turner Journal, Inverted Syntax, Puerto Del Sol, Massachusetts Review, and many others, and she was a finalist for Radar Poetry’s annual contest. Her poetry was featured in a Best of American Poetry blog. Her manuscript DEER WOMAN IN THE DINING ROOM was runner-up for a Tupelo Press open reading. Her manuscript MAGICHOLIA will be published by 3: A Taos Press in 2024.