Review by Caron Andregg

The Memory of Gills by Catherine Carter

The Memory of Gills by Catherine CarterTo dive into Catherine Carter’s, The Memory of Gills, is to dive headlong into an embryonic sea teaming with strange, desperate, yet also familiar creatures. Her poems are intensely alive in the way a swamp is alive: humid, fecund, raw, and dazzling. Most of them you can smell.

The book begins appropriately with tableau of life-from-death. In “Sunken Tanks, Bloodsworth Island,” derelict army tanks once used for offshore target practice decay to become a breeding ground: “Mussels and the spat / of oysters set there, where the wash / of tide runs fast and high; / incurious eels scroll / past numb controls, a water-shattered gauge.”

A tank evolving into a hatchery is just the first of many metamorphoses. Throughout, creatures of all kingdoms transform from and to more elemental states. In “The Last Good Water,” a human must first kneel and then crawl to drink: “You must be an animal here, / prostrate yourself. This spring will bear / no hand, no cup.” With every line, Carter reminds us that to be human is to be alive, and to be alive is to be intrinsically bound to all living things, crawling, swimming, slinking, soaring, or oozing. She will tolerate no illusions of special superiority from anyone or anything. In “The Ants and the Double Helix,” a minute flake of dead skin becomes the bridge between human and insect:

I scatter myself out,
becoming permeable to the world
that has a use for everything.
Ants nibble me cell by cell,
hoist me over antennae,
hurry me away underground.
They have me.
In synecdoche I am theirs
to feed upon, to curse, to bless.

She dismisses the notion of humans’ exclusive divinity when buzzards become black angels with the power to “see souls, going out on the wind— / squirrel-souls jerking their ethereal tails / deer-souls bounding the fields of air… / watching the oily, hairy souls pull free,” (“Evidence of Angels”).

Life demands its corollary, death, and death is ever-present in these poems. That being said, Carter presents some of the most energetic dead on—or under—the earth. They make phone calls on Thanksgiving day, ride the metro through the underground, fumble through cabinets in darkened bathrooms, and beat their desperate heads in vain against the black basements of misplaced buildings. Semele is “flash-fried like a sweet potato” by Zeus when love and death became one; but the same could happen to you (“Semele’s Story”). Persephone clarifies what it is to be married to death, and reminds the reader of what she’s really known all along, “you’re promised to him too, / and all at once, tonight’s the wedding night,” (“Persephone Underground”).

And Carter’s empathy seems universal. No one goes quiety. Even vegetable kitchen scraps raise their voices in supplication:

Don’t throw us away, they beg.
Don’t embalm us in the landfill
where everything stinks and seeps
together; we want
to be leaves again, and breathing
threads of roots. We want it all,
(“Hearing Things”)

In the evocative elegy, “A History of the Lost Colony,” mold pooling under the refrigerator laments its “poisoned children gone in the swipe of cloth,” and the cold indifference of the universe:

We do not know
why it happened….
Now when we think
of our new colony, on a tender island of potato
fallen between the wall and the toaster,
we are afraid. No one
is safe. The world is a desperate place.”

The Memory of Gills is an astonishing first book from a writer of great craftsmanship and profound depth.

The Memory of Gills by Catherine Carter (2006, Louisiana State University Press / $16.95, paper / ISBN: 978-0-8071-3176-3)

(originally published in Cider Press Review, Volume 8)