Robert Carr Carries the Weight of Being in The Heavy of Human Clouds

Cover of The Heavy of Human Clouds: A thin, pale, shirtless boy wearing jeans stands with his arms at his sides. White spheres surround his head. Black background.

The Heavy of Human Clouds by Robert Carr

3: A Taos Press, 2023

113 pages, $26

Review by Nancy Lynée Woo

The Heavy of Human Clouds, by Robert Carr, invites us to walk the line between our human bodies and nature. Set in pastoral Maine, this collection of poems de-centers the individual and focuses on ecosystems—animals and plants within a landscape and humans within family systems. 

Carr starts by drawing out the relationships between scarabs, marigolds, roses, and beetles in  the opening poem—setting us up for the interplay of creatures from the outset. From naming the  horse-shaped boulder outside his window to watering snapdragons as a lost swallow flies into the  home gym, it’s clear that the poet pays special attention to his environment. In one poem, Carr  writes “not much happens here,” but so much happens in each of these poems. You might miss it if  you move too fast, and this seems to be part of the point—that there is a profound depth to sitting  and being as the clouds move, or the horses stomp, or the hens cuddle. Carr gives us the gift of his enthrallment with the natural world, allowing us to follow the trail of his poetic eye. These are poems that should be read slowly. 

Each poem contains smooth, tightly packed lyricism. Written in free verse, these stanzas abound with sound play, replete with masterful alliteration and rhyme at unexpected times, such as in the lines “knotted, mottle-skinned, / the tree stares back in blight.” Carr shows us the beauty that  surrounds him in compelling, full lines that swing effortlessly onto the next. We encounter so much richness, even in compost with “acorns resurrected, aching / heads of red peppers, / and  underneath, a culture / of collapsing tomatoes, / civilized worms.” We are given the gift of details  such as “the white meat of magnolia blossom” and “ceaseless trees, / bark and needle in the light /  of lengthening days.” The characters presented to us are very much alive with their own being-ness as the poet drifts among them.  

Hardly a human appears in the first of the three sections, but in the second section, we are  introduced to the poet’s parents. As human characters enter the mix, a strong sense of embodiment is still felt on every page, and we don’t lose the immediacy of the environment. We smell the mother’s recipe of “Bolognese, fresh / onion split, tears inhaled, / spoonful of oil, root bulb rings.”  Every line is a mouthful of flavor. We sense a great tenderness for the mother, as we meet her in the last moments of her life before she “softly cast[s] off / her bone chamber.” Before she goes, she gives her best friend her blessing to “get together” with her husband. When we meet him, the father is 94 years old and is in fact with the friend who is losing her mind to dementia. Still, none of it is sentimental; these poems are sober, experiential, focused on the physicality of living in a concrete world. Even the adored husband is shown to us by his smell; even in romantic love, Carr generally refrains from trading the material world for abstraction. 

The objects in this book have real density, so the lightness with which they land is surprising and rewarding. The endings of these poems mirror the title, containing a real weight, while seeming to float away into the next moment. Endings such as, “the beeping of a truck / moving in reverse,” “underwater eyes / in wood grain haunt me,” and “I can’t touch a place / without disturbing air,” convey a feeling of open ended-ness, as if the ending of a poem is just a pause before the next  graceful moment. The ending of the book itself is the ultimate un-anchoring, as the poet floats “beside a fall flared leaf, / legs wide, / drifting North.” Death is a natural part of life, as we see in moments like when the poet buries his dog, or says goodbye to his mother, or watches the compost decompose. We feel the ephemeral and how fleeting life can be. “We all die / as birds swallow  dragonflies,” the poet reminds us. There is a sense of deep acceptance in these pages, a careful  rendering of the world even as time rolls on toward the end. 

The whole collection is exceptionally gorgeous, and every poem is grounded in observational ecology, with humans going about their business just as the flies and cypress do. The reader is invited to slow down and blend into the landscape as Carr does. This is a book that can be picked  up and read again and again with renewed pleasure from each delectable line.

Nancy Lynée Woo, an Asian-American woman with brown hair smiling, with a pink scarf around her neck, and a background of sunlit trees.

Nancy Lynée Woo is an eco-centric poet based in southern California who harbors a wild love for the natural world. She has released a full-length poetry book entitled I’d Rather Be Lightning from Gasher Press, as well as two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Radar Poetry, Stirring, West Trade Review, Cathexis Northwest Press, and others. Nancy has received fellowships from PEN America, California Creative Corps, Artists at Work, Arts Council for Long Beach, and Idyllwild Writers Week. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She has an MFA from Antioch University.