Rob Carney’s Story Problems

Carney, Rob. Story Problems. Sherperdstown: Somondoco Press, 2011.
By Haley A. Larsen 

Rob Carney’s newest collection of poetry, Story Problems, is inviting and bold, emerging thematically from both nature and mythical tales that are comfortingly familiar. Yet his unique gaze remains unpredictable, and engages readers throughout the work by encouraging them—at every turn—to take another look. Carney’s colloquial style opens the collection by earnestly and wittily addressing an elephant on a treadmill in “You Can’t Trade Africa for a Treadmill” (2). The bizarre “solution” of placing an elephant too big for her cage on a treadmill is revealed as the most practical answer to a humanity that has lost touch with itself, in fundamental ways. The poet’s dismay, “I mean, wow; I wouldn’t have thought of that,” places itself in an obvious contrast to the view he’s expected to take (2). The poet declares “Me, all I’m thinking right now is just how much that sucks” and describes the sky as an ocean he would swim in (2). This poetic perspective reflects a desire to return to the primitive truths of imagination and storytelling. An inflection of myth throughout an evolving narrative, with an eye for the blatantly unseen keeps Carney’s collection fresh, yet stunningly reassuring.

I read the collection on turbulent flights, in sticky airport chairs between strangers, and felt immediately transported. This poetry has the ability to raise the banality of a filthy airport terminal to the landscapes of forgotten imagination; to make the wings out the window grow feathers, and remind me that the sky is a canvas. A reader’s mind is similarly transformed by poems that don’t merely project themselves onto the higher sphere in which they are obviously working, but remain steadily grounded in the world we all live in—but seldom recognize with this kind of richness. In other words, this collection has no interest in leaving us behind, but rather in imploring us to come along. The world seen and heard through these poems is a world rarely glimpsed, and even more rarely articulated. For each poem affords a fleeting glance into a realm where language reaches into what we all know but have apparently forgotten.

Carney weaves together story and wonder in the poem of the same title as the book, “Story Problems.” This eight-problem poem asks a series of probing questions, following proposed “story problems” that adhere to the well-known mathematical formula. Yet answers are neither expected nor anticipated. For example, the assertion “On every day of my life but one, I didn’t see a moose” is followed by the poet’s description of the one time he did: “there it was. Like a weird brown firework,” a figure that is, interestingly, “a lot like we were, but also differently than we were: We were impressed” (97). The poet is searching, gazing into a moment worthy of becoming a story. The poem then ends by asking, “Why do we divide our lives into stories? And how come stories multiply our lives?” (98).

This is the question that weaves itself throughout the work, beckoning readers to continue, to turn the pages. Together, these poems evoke an elusively formalistic creativity; they simply belong side-by-side. Nature, earth, animals and sky beautifully contribute to the view Carney’s observations reveal. While a quiet, melancholy thread runs throughout the work, each poem illuminates an expanding universe of stories and secrets, of connections and unanswerable questions that pierce through that melancholy, and begin to offer hope. Moving seamlessly from page to page, these poems provide the potent insight of one who has newly awakened, and must reconsider his or her world. Memory leads to story and questions abound in a rhythmic movement readers will be hard-pressed to ignore.

Carney’s words refreshingly realign the obvious, and his declarations of love are as powerful as the forces they convey: “She’s Like the Sky. That Endlessly Beautiful” exudes the natural, great impulses of a love that feels like earthquakes (31). But it’s beyond the typical narrative that might portray love as overtly powerful and destructive; the poet wonders, “‘does she make you happy?’ Like asteroids and grapes” (31). This is a poem about love that reconciles nature and humanity—essentially the whole of one’s being. This love isn’t confined to the natural, nor is it too transcendent to speak of; this love is rendered in human experiences of beautiful and natural intensity.

In these powerful odes to love, one often catches a curious mythology grounded in universal father-mother motifs. Yet the way these myths become our individual stories—the way the universal is necessarily personal—is a careful movement Carney never leaves too far behind. He is a poet who understands that we compile our existences the way a poet, perhaps, compiles a collection: through an integration of our experiences into stories and a reintegration of those stories back into our lives. This collection is not simply a handful of good poems by a unique voice—though they are good poems, and his voice is mythically unique. This collection is a story in motion, whispering to us of the things we’ve forgotten, and reminding us of the collective beauty we simply need to see again. It’s a collection—not just of poetry—but of experiences rendered in a refreshing view of the world before us. This collection is at its core a reminder of the magic of poetry. It is a compelling and insightful story, delivered by the willing and engaging voice of a very gifted storyteller.

Story Problems encourages and invites, imploring us to understand that if we perhaps looked a little closer—stayed just a moment longer—we could see as the poet sees. With enough time spent in these words, we may even begin to utter stories ourselves, because this is the kind of collection that reminds us the whole world is a poem, that we are all a part of a fascinating story. What lasts, and what is at stake in Carney’s endeavor, is the power of stories—and the curious voice of people like him who wonder from whence it comes. Carney’s poetic voice imparts a certain knowledge, and quietly wishes that we will simply open our eyes and ask a few questions: “Why do we divide our lives into stories? And how come stories multiply our lives?”