At a glance, Thirst presents as an obvious metaphor—need, desire, the quest to find answers—as the speaker in this collection explores the complicated urge to understand his spiritual, familial, social, and historical place in the world. This list of abstractions is quickly illustrated and given form in the first few poems. As the collection progresses, though, Carrington shows us that negotiating the dynamics of need and desire demands that we explore the reality beyond the appearance of our lives; ultimately, our lives are more obscure and mysterious to ourselves than to any stranger.
“Learning History in Nursery School,” the opening poem, establishes a series of issues fueling the pervasive tension that dominates the collection.
For a month, rain slid down on silk ropes
like a spider was wrapping us
in a sad and sturdy home. On the way
to pre-school my son asked if we
might have to hold umbrellas forever.
Through the window, I watched him build
a day of his own with fingerpaints.
He didn’t repeat the world’s mistakes.
He made the sun yellow, the sky as blue
as a new boy. He was giving
the stick figures smiles and beach balls
just as a rainbow climbed into the mist
over the huge clock on city hall.
It was as blurry as puddled gasoline.
The sky was copying him, siphoning
off the street some long forgotten oils.
The poem inherently questions the nature of creation as we watch the interaction between a father and son unfold. Creation, in the context of this poem, means having hope in the next generation. This lean toward optimism is present throughout the collection, though in many ways it is never fully realized. In “Finding the Sound of Oak,” for instance, a poem where the father/son narrative is reversed, Carrington feeds uncertainty and clouds the optimism of “Learning History in Nursery School.” The second half of “Finding the Sound of Oak” reads:
The dead come back. Do they
ever leave at all? Maybe
it’s a trick, slipping to dirt
like a root. No matter if
he’s resting now or hiding,
it was easy to forget
the tree. Shameful
it took me so long to know
it deserved better,
that in a truer world
it would not have blurred
into the others
as if it were just the same. I
lost it long ago to the ax
of my neglect, like the pictures
of a man I passed from frame
to scrapbook to shoebox
and locked in a closet
like a skeleton. I return
to these woods with no tongue
and barefoot. To walk quietly,
listening for his risen bones.
Thirst becomes a collective longing for connections—not just from a person to his son or father but to a history that is personal and has a definitive past and a certain future. The speaker is searching for a sense of himself along an intergenerational timeline. He’s from someplace specific, and he’s headed in a particular direction. The title poem adds depth to this tension.
Carrington enacts need and desire in “Thirst” with the physical experience of drought, depression, and famine. We see the harshness in “Thirst” from the perspective and experiences of the suffering person and the helpless observer almost simultaneously, and what we learn is that the need for the spiritual, the need for a connection to others, the need to know where the speaker is from and where he will end up (both physically and spiritually) is a vast nightmarish “dustbowl” where people “hold out their cupped hands/for water/that drips from your raincoat.”
“Some Bad Moon” manifests this dry, withered feeling, along with evidence of existence as the quest for self-understanding progresses: “In the cracked ground there’s a footprint/pressed in hard like a fossil. A boy’s perhaps, or the man grown from him.” We’re presented in this poem with factual evidence of presence (the footprint) and evidence of change (in the question over whether it’s the print of a boy or a man).
For Carrington, meaning exists in opposition, in the differences between things. As readers, it is our responsibility to follow Carrington’s lead and look for the contradictions between historical lineage and the present person, between optimism and negativity, between despair and spiritual salvation. “The Taste of Apples Underground” imposes biblical reference on Central Park. Everything in this poem becomes part of Eden, part of the church, part of a universe-sized cathedral. In keeping with Carrington’s interest in contradiction, the closer he brings us to holiness, to his spiritual realization, the seedier the scene becomes. This poem, which overtly announces the thirst for spiritual understanding, is the beginning of a dark slide into shadows: as Carrington moves us closer to the political by exploring social issues like homelessness and violence, he pulls away from the spiritual by turning inward. As we travel through “Upstairs at O’Reilly’s,” “Relearning Our Shadows,” and “The Logic of Improving Neighborhoods,” we see that religion and spirituality (which are not the same thing in this collection) become a new point of comparison. “The Logic of Improving Neighborhoods” highlights Carrington’s sarcastic humor—“Putting a sweater on a dog/is like topping off the ocean with a hose.” And by the time we reach “The Information Age,” it’s clear that people are poor reflections of the “lord”. In the final poems of Thirst, there is little discovery and change for the speaker beyond this realization.
Thirst might not be tangible, necessarily, but it is always present, looming in the subway, in the memory of climbing an oak tree, in watching a child finger paint. And, along with the other transformations and juxtapositions in this collection, thirst takes a new meaning. It isn’t simply desire for spiritual, familial, social, and historical awareness. Thirst becomes process, exploration, curiosity, and risk. In the quest for understanding, for God, for family, for a sense of self; we learn that answers aren’t as important as finding our own approach to solving the problem of who we are. In this way, the collection’s initial optimism is more felt than realized as we’re confronted by the possibility of being surrounded by the holy without the holy knowing it. And the reason is clear: It’s not about the holy, unholy, or the many in between. The overarching “thirst” in this collection is for knowing ourselves and gaining an understanding of the nature of the world and our place in it.