by Neil Carpathios
113 pages, Terrapin Books, 2016
Review by Jane Sellman
Growing older—turning twenty-one, thirty, fifty, or beyond—is a popular subject for writers, yet a tricky one. One is bound to get his or her poetic feet caught in clichés—the turmoil of youth—the contentment of middle age—the fear of old age and death. The writing can smack of whining or braggadocio. Neil Carpathios's Confessions of a Captured Angel, however, has rung fresh and funny, sometimes poignant and sad, insights out of the milestone of turning fifty.
Carpathios utilizes everyday language to celebrate the ordinary victories and defeats of life and elevates those experiences, no matter how mundane or personal. Some readers may find this and his plain-spokenness off-putting—where is the elevated language and complicated stanza and rhyme schemes? However, this is his strength; he is thoroughly accessible—these are poems that can be appreciated by poets and poetry lovers, but also by a casual reader or even one a trifle resistant to poetry. While I love traditional sonnets, villanelles, and the like, and clever use of language, I also enjoy being privy to a poet’s personal observations and emotions without having to refer to the OED or Brewer’s every few seconds. Somehow, Carpathios brings empathy and dignity to the unpleasant aspects of our lives.
I do not mean to leave readers with the impression that Carpathios does not use the tricks of the poetic trade. He does and to great effect. In “The Last Leaf,” a poem I like partly because it reminds me of the O. Henry story, he uses an autumn leaf to ponder mortality.
Who can blame it
for not wanting to let go?”
Days of sun on its face
Days of rain on its tongue.
Memory of another leaf’s skin
on its skin.
It is a familiar use of personification, but the thought of a leaf enjoying the sun or being refreshed in the rain makes the commentary touching. What is more innocent and unassuming than a leaf, coming to life in the early spring, showing green and rich in the summer, offering friendly shade, and beginning a glorious multi-colored aging in the fall—before floating, curled and brown, to the earth. Moreover, as we age we tend to value more the feel of rain or the touch of another’s skin. The distinctive sound and rhythm—the “s” sound of days, sun, face, leaf’s skin; the repetition of “days of”—offer the illusion of a leaf blowing lightly in a breeze.
Carpathios’ effective use of enjambment is on display in “I Drive Through a Blizzard for a Cup of Tea,” in which he skillfully depicts a frantic search for his son. The poem starts in the present. He is driving through snow to visit the boy, now a young man who has received his first stage role; then he recalls how he almost lost his son:
Our tents near a lake, dusk falling. His mother
cleaning dishes, me helping a fellow
camper pump his tires. Then blackness.
Where is he? Age four, did he wander off?
Was he snatched by some pervert? . . .
Is he in someone’s tent begging
not to be touched? Is he in someone’s car
heading to a seedy motel or dark alley?
Is he face-down, bobbing in the lake? . . .
Minutes like hours. Making deals
with God. . . . a park ranger
finds him a block away at the playground
swinging all alone.
The lines spit out in short bursts that pull readers into panic—even though we know from the beginning of the poem that the son did not disappear nor die. In the second part of the poem, the son is a young man and excited to have his first stage role. Carpathios travels in snow to visit him. Despite the hazardous conditions, his poetic voice is calm. He thinks of drinking tea, which he dislikes, just to be with his son.
He tells me about his first role,
This boy I almost lost forever.
We joke about the tights. This boy.
I sip the pale green liquid,
finish, ask for more.
On a larger and less personal stage, the poet takes on religion, always a perilous topic, but he smoothly mixes the divine with the awkward, unpleasant, or distasteful. In “How to Get to Heaven,” he finds a Christian pamphlet in a seemingly unlikely place: “in the restroom, strategically placed, / on top of the urinal…” Just the juxtaposition of religion with the word, “urinal,” is jarring. Of course, the placement is quite apt because a man using the urinal would have nowhere else to look, particularly if he is not alone. He is a captive audience. The pamphlet shows
the Devil dressed in black
holding what looks like a bottle
of top-shelf scotch in one hand
and also mentions the temptations of money and beautiful women. It then offers the image of God as “an old hippie with a beard.” However, the poet is not sure these temptations are evil—what if the scotch puts the man in a calm mood, he gives the money to the needy, or the woman teaches him how to accept love and loss. The poet leaves the pamphlet, washes his hands, and orders a double at the bar. Is he turning away from God or just acknowledging that it is not an either/or choice? The things that are temptations may not be evil in themselves—and do not make us pawns of the devil.
In addition to pondering good and evil, Carpathios’ speaker worries about shielding his child from the unpleasant realities of the world. “Sixth Birthday: The Transparent Model Man” employs a popular toy from the 1950s and 60s, The Visible Man (or The Visible Woman), as his personification of painful reality. (I received one of these for Christmas when I was eleven.) This toy displays the removable internal organs of a human being.
know the brain is spaghetti and the cranium
is the bowl. Or that the heart is not
a doily-trimmed valentine. . . .
Show the boy
how skin is a sack
holding us in. That without bones
we’d be puddles. That rivers
of blood wait to spill out.
Strangely enough, the very reality he fears is in the poem. The valentine becomes a river of blood, and the heart is hardly a doily-trimmed valentine. The actual toy is far less scary, but it had a high factor of queasiness for parents as their children unwrapped it and gleefully removed brain, heart, and intestines. We do not want children to deal with the possibility of illness, injury, or death, yet at the same time, they have to know that bodies are both resilient and fragile. The poet wants his son to see reality clearly and yet be able to romanticize it. In this poem, as in others, he explores the paradoxes that face all human beings. Though he has no problem discussing harsh facts or the inevitability of death, he also wants to keep us enveloped in a protective wrapping of metaphor and, sometimes humor, that makes it easier to see the beauty rather than the ugliness.
Jane Sellman is a writer, editor, and tutor in Maryland. She is currently becalmed in the suburbs but paddling toward a return to Baltimore, a location that has places to which one can walk. When she is not writing or tutoring or commuting, she likes to read, watch TV and movies, and commune with the squirrels and birds.