Paul Nelson, Carbon has Laid down

Rosemary Bailey, Char 3


Carbon has Laid down

so I slowly drag him to light and carry him into the kitchen and put him
down on the braided rug where I think he belongs because I cannot
bear my suffering or the idea that he can let me go because he is an animal
for whom the end of life is no mystery more than any day’s events

Maybe I don’t even confuse him as he gives in to my use of force
as he would weather weather’s leash the vet coming with two needles
one to make him calm as if he were needy and the other to stop his heart

not the way he might have wanted there on the dirt and leaves in gloom
beneath the Gravenstein where he has always buried bones to gather
character for another day were there to be another day.

Paul Nelson


Review by Ed Harkness

In “Carbon has Laid down,” the speaker’s dog—mentioned briefly in “Coyote” (perhaps to suggest that our pet dogs are domesticated versions of that scorned creature)—has come to the end of its life and has laid down “on the braided rug where I think he belongs because I cannot bear my suffering,” to await “the vet coming with two needles.”

I use the word “heartfelt” with reluctance in describing these two poems, but that’s where I feel them—in my heart. Both of Nelson’s poems edge close to the line between sentiment, i.e. deep emotion, and sentimental, i.e. unearned, exaggerated, or false emotion. They edge close, but thanks to Nelson’s care with detail and his control of tone, these clear and intimate statements about two fellow creatures do not cross that line. 


Review by Dave Mehler

I received a submission from a high schooler who due to the death of a family pet was inspired to turn to poetry to try to capture and process his grief. It wasn’t a bad effort, but not publishable by TCR (or this editor’s) standards. Moments like these in our lives, however, can and sometimes will form the impetus to move us to poetry even the lives of non-poets who otherwise would never be moved to sit and attempt to write. In the hands of a poet with Nelson’s skill, or say Updike’s in composing “Dog’s Death,” or Christopher Smart say writing about his cat, Jeoffry, we get to see a master at work with what might be a tired topic.

First of all, we note the dog’s name is Carbon. Second, the poem begins in media res, with the animal going out to die alone away from family, but the poet insists on a better, more humane death for his beloved dog, which the poet admits is partly selfish because he cannot bear his suffering: the dog’s or his own is not made clear, so I assume both. The longish lines and prosaic style suit the sort of journal entry like confessional mode. Sometimes autobiography (or even merely the illusion of it) can bring the power of the actual and the now to bear, something along the lines of “I’m not making this up. These events and feelings are real.” Or the poem becomes a commemoration and not simply an artifact. I don’t doubt for a moment that these are not autobiographical, actually lived experiences, partly due to the detail of the name of the dog. We are not dealing with personas or imagined situations here, but this is authentic, artifice-stripped notes from the lived and actual, and the dying—and yet where the skill and artifice is present is in the observation, the brevity and the telling choices of description and the self-interrogation.

What I told the budding poet who sent me probably his first attempt at writing a poem was a list of writing tips on how to dig deeper, look closer, say something newer or better than what had been done before and write about a topic, situation or idea in a way that would surprise even himself, and lastly to seek out and read good models by others who have gone before. Paul’s piece here would be such a poem to regard as a model, in all of its poignance, idiosyncrasy (which says: Paul Nelson), detail of observation, transience/temporality, and love. It’s interesting to me too to see the way these two poems weave together so well as a pair, with the same cast of characters, and with Carbon and the apple tree playing such a pivotal role in both.


Review by Roger Mitchell

My wife and I lost our dog of fourteen years this past December, so I was drawn to this poem immediately. We kept trying to understand why this loss was so great. Huge as a loss, but huge in mysterious ways, much of which I think Paul’s poem gets to.

To begin, the dog was named for one of life’s basic elements. Carbon is one of which we’re made and is undoubtedly one we pass on in dying. Right away, I notice the poem’s rhythm, named in the first line as a slow dragging. The line in this poem is a long, slow moving thing that imitates nicely its gathering insight. The slow drag named is the act of the speaker, bringing the dying dog into the house and its light from the dirt under the apple tree it preferred. It’s the act of a caretaker, a human one, who instinctively thinks the dog would be more comfortable in what has been the dog’s house for years. Right away, the speaker begins to learn that what he is taking care of is not just the dog but his own suffering, “the idea that he can let me go” so easily, compounded by the implications of the dog’s preference—”the end of life is no mystery more than any day’s events”—stuns him out of his first feeling, abandonment.

What follows becomes a rethinking of death and its close relationship to life, just another, if the last, mystery of a life filled with mysteries. “Weather’s leash” is a remarkably good metaphor for this poem. It puts us right where we are in this life, at the end of a long invisible rope being dragged between light and dark (“gloom” is the poem’s word), rain and sun, winter and summer, always at the mercy of weather. All of the inventions we have come up with to distance death from us, obscure it, deny it, prevent us from feeling it, are plain failures, but as the poem hints strongly, they are also failures of character, failures to accept what is.

To bend Wordsworth’s famous image only slightly, the dog in this poem becomes “father to the man.” It wants to die on the dirt under the apple tree (and is Genesis winking out at us here?), where it no doubt ate a great many fallen apples and, as implied, the limbs and bone fragments of many animals, where it experienced much of its greatest joy, eating. In something like thanks, it buried the bones to save for later gnawing and, as implied, it intends to lay its own dead bones in the same place . Here is where Paul finds language for the dog’s great dignity. The dog buries the bones to “gather character for another day.” We (or I) begin thinking about this not very specific thing, character, we have to have or find or make, and daily re-assemble, to deserve the life we’re given.


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