Poet of Imponderables Might Have Pondered Further
A Contrary review by Shaindel Beers

         “It’s been awhile since a young poet has badgered himself with as many imaginative questions as Neil Carpathios,” Thomas Sayers Ellis writes of Carpathios’ collection, At the Axis of Imponderables. Ellis is right, and this is probably why the collection, Carpathios’ second full-length volume, won Quercus Review Press’s Annual Book Award for 2006. Carpathios appears to have an enviable imagination. He writes about those things that poets are told to write about but often neglect—from a doll’s head abandoned on the side of the road to the odd characters we encounter in our neighborhoods. As one reads the volume, it becomes obvious what Carpathios is doing—the writing-class exercise of carrying a pocket-sized notebook and writing about anything, everything, as soon as the idea comes. The downfall of the collection, unfortunately, is that too often Carpathios leaves his poems at the notebook stage.
         “And Where Oh Where Is the Oily Residue of God’s Invisible Fingers?” is based on the email forward “Strange Facts,” which every literate on-the-grid adult has received at least twice. You know, the one that informs you that a duck’s quack doesn’t echo and that pigs have thirty-minute orgasms. What Carpathios does right is ponder the irony that:

… pigs have orgasms
lasting thirty minutes,
though it’s physically impossible
for them to look up
at the sky.  

His meditation on this irony is worthy of poetry:  

. . . Would I rather
look up and see the vast blue,
 clouds, birds, stars, or spasm
in my body for thirty minutes,
my wife’s hot skin, lips, thighs,
long nails digging in my back?

but then two clunky lines intrude, “Are all pigs asked this in the pig / pre-birth place by God?” and the poem never recovers, despite the insightful admission, “Why do I suddenly love all pigs? / Is it because I’d make the same choice?” Certainly, Carpathios could have honed those two lines or even just the phrase “pig pre-birth place” and had a respectable poem. 
The component of imagination that Carpathios seems to lack is empathy—imagining enough to directly feel the emotions of another—and he is most off base when he explores the female perspective and gets it wrong. Carpathios explores a woman who writes strictly about breasts in “Write About What You Know,” but he slips into the male perspective of “She can’t afford an operation, / so sings and calls herself the Walt Whitman / of breasts.” The woman in the poem isn’t the type who would want “an operation”; she states “’I wear my stretch marks like tattoos.’”
Similarly, Carpathios mars “Street Prophet,” a poem with great potential, in the same way. The poem describes a “bald girl dragging a Barbie / on a chain screaming, ‘Beauty is dead!’” At first, Carpathios “gets it.” He writes that the girl, “has had it with toothpick models, / airbrushed cheekbones on magazine covers”; then, carelessly, he refers to Barbie as “The miniature version of the perfect female” when the point of the poem is that Barbie isn’t “the miniature version of the perfect female.” Then, instead of exploring the psychology of the “street prophet,” he glosses over her, “She’s heroic, or loony, or both, / I’m not sure,” and ends the poem with a “little boy” who says, “Hey, Mommy, look, that lady has a pet doll / on a leash, she’s giving it a walk!”        
        Neil Carpathios is a talented poet, and there are poems in this collection that are beautiful. One of these, “The Bored Baby,” begins:
         The bored baby wallpapering his mother’s womb
	doesn’t know outside
	a man’s ear presses against the curved belly
	trying to hear what he imagines
	is a smaller version of himself doing calisthenics
	in preparation of fighting his way out.

But even this poem illustrates Carpathios’ downfall—not doing the poet’s duty of imagining himself as others, but doing the opposite—imagining others as himself.
        Carpathios does “badger himself” with such questions as—How do we spend our time before we’re born? Can angels commit suicide? His world is ripe with ideas, but he leaves them at the notebook stage. He seldom connects with his subject matter enough to make readers feel it—or to feel it accurately himself. When he does accomplish imagination thoroughly, magic takes place, as in “The Bored Baby,” “At This Moment (II),” and a few of the better poems in the collection. When he doesn’t, however, two lessons on poetry come to mind. One is Robert Frost’s quote, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” and the second is former poet laureate Donald Hall’s rant “Poetry and Ambition,” in which he bashes what he calls “McPoems,” churned out the way McDonald’s churns out burgers—billions served, but at what quality. Carpathios needs to spend more time with his poems. If he takes his ideas to fruition, he will he surprise himself—and us. He is capable of writing gourmet poems; there may just be fewer of them—but isn’t that what he (and each of us) would rather be remembered for?

Shaindel Beers is the poetry editor of Contrary.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
At the Axis of Imponderables
Neil Carpathios
2007,  Quercus Review Press

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