Thursday Poems: Brown’s Odd Jobs & Carver’s Happiness

I’ve spent the last little while reading two poems over and over again, and ultimately, I couldn’t decide which to share–or rather, which I had the most to say about, so I’m going to talk about both of them. Let’s begin with Raymond Carver’s poem Happiness, in full:

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They have on caps and sweaters,
and the one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs palely over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

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It’s such a simple, lovely poem. Just two kids out delivering the paper, and in that moment–not thinking about anything beyond it, purely ensconced in the endless present of childhood–they are as happy as they’ll ever be, even if they don’t know it. It is the deep nostalgia of the narrator, of the man by his window, that makes this poem so deeply affecting. I’m typically against the overt naming of an emotion in poetry, I don’t want to be told so cheaply what is being felt, I want only to feel it, but Carver does it twice in this poem and I don’t care. For this poem, I could forgive just about anything–though I’ll admit I’d love to remove ‘palely’ from its line. It’s the one ugly mark on an otherwise gorgeous work, one which, as he says, goes beyond any talk about it really. It’s all there in the moment, the scene, the poem.

Now to Jericho Brown’s brilliant poem, Odd Jobs, which given its brevity, and how much I want to quote all of it, I’ll just put here too:

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

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I love that first line so fucking much, y’all. Why? Because fuck commas, that’s why, it does all the work it needs to do just by placement alone. The muscular economy of it, the way it resists you on first reading, is so damn good. You should study that opening line and look again at your own to see whether you accomplish even half so much with just seven words. The second line is equally good, and the rhythm is so damn tight, especially running off the alliteration-heavy ending of the first line, ‘cuss cutting grass’ is just ace. After that, Brown moves briskly to the heart of it: ‘the loneliest people have the earth to love/ and not one friend their own age.’

But here’s the thing, even with those excellent three lines I just mentioned, this might just have been an okay poem if not for the ending. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: poems are grenades and by the time they end, there ought to be an explosion. You ought to feel the blast. That doesn’t mean it has to be dramatic or violent, far from it–in fact, I’d say most often it involves an unexpected turn inward, which bursts open the poem and in so doing, sets off a similar impact within us. Brown absolutely nails it, again with breathtaking economy, undoing the earlier bitterness he evoked with his ugly sweating hard work, by adding a quiet touch of longing: I once had something to do with my hands.

In this, actually, there is a commonality between the two poems. Both Brown and Carver look to their childhoods, and both are talking about odd jobs, albeit one from a distance, with the other in the present before shifting forward. Both, I think, are also getting at the same point: our inability to enjoy our present circumstances. We bitch and we moan and we’re hateful and we’re struggling, as if there’s ever going to be a point where we’re not struggling–which simply isn’t true. The nature of the struggle simple changes, it adapts as you adapt, so it may be money now but if it ain’t that later, it’ll be something else. And something else. Until you might wind up one day thinking about something you used to hate, and say damn, I once had something to do with my hands. Then realise hell, happiness, it comes on unexpectedly.