by Joey Phoenix
Related Reading: “Beasts Walk Among Us in Carey’s Murder in the Marsh”
Kevin Carey’s (He/him/his) most recent book of poetry, Set in Stone, is like salt. The salt of the briney ocean leaking into the Revere marsh, the dripping sweat and shoe squeak of a basketball court in a middle school gymnasium, the grounded salt-of-the earthiness of family ties and what it means to be a father, a son, a coach, a friend, an ally living in Greater Boston.
Set in Stone does a lot of things, and some of them really well. There’s a mirrored time link between Kevin’s relationship with his own father (The dedication to the work is, simply, “For Dad”) and the one that he shares with his own son. In the former, there is a twinge of solitude and regret, and it’s unclear whether or not the feelings through the years are based in Carey’s anxiety about never quite measuring up, and the need for him to provide a safe space to land for his own son who, for Carey, is enough just by existing.
In “Learning to Talk:”
I breathe 1 -2 -3, resist
The urge to lecture. He doesn’t understand
That I understand, or maybe I don’t…
There is also a distinct feeling of isolation, of being on the outside looking in, of watching oneself live one’s own life and being resigned to the ebbing and flowing of human experience.
The title poem “Set in Stone” hits hard:
the markers of a life
the small worthwhile pieces
that rattle around in my pockets
The lines seemingly ask what to do with the ephemera, the memories, the stuff of being a person on this planet. For Carey, it seems transposing them into words on a page is the key. He stretches us with this, makes us join him in his introspective, and gives us reason to wonder if we ought to take a look at our own history and explore the gaps that exist within ourselves.
But perhaps the biggest theme of the book next to fatherhood, however, is basketball. As a player and eventually as a coach, Carey is smitten with the sport and dedicates several poems to the subject including “House Call,” “Stopping and Starting,” “Coach,” and “Why I Love Basketball,” and mentioning it in many others. For Carey, it reads like a lifeline, a rope thrown to a working-class Irish Catholic kid from Revere who is hanging over the edge of something impossible to grapple with.
In “Stopping and Starting” he writes:
But I never stopped playing
the game I loved, never lost
those days on the playground
when I felt whole,
when I had a purpose.
Whether you are a fan of basketball or not, there are general questions Carey addresses in the work that will easily reach everybody: What are the things which give humans purpose and identity? Are these things occupations, family roles, where we’re from, who we believe ourselves to be?
He looks at many of them directly in this work. Asking: does him retiring from his role as the Middle School Basketball coach mean that he’ll never hear the title again? When his son graduates from high school or college will he still be as needed in the same way as a parent? Or, when contemplating death in “The Last Party,” will he go in the same way that his father did, and what will that mean for his future dignity?
But perhaps the biggest hit of the book – and I suspect that he knew this the whole time – is the final poem: “Another Ending” that begins: I heard a story on the news – that encapsulates the losses of 2020 on a single page in such a way that it alone is reason to buy the book and read it front to back immediately. Which is something you should absolutely do.
Set in Stone is like salt. And we could all use a bit of that right now.
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is an interdisciplinary artist and the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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