The Pursuit of Happiness: A Review of David Allan Evans’ the Carnival, the Life

America is too large a country to have a national poet. So vast and diverse is the land and its people between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that it is all but impossible to speak universally for the nation. Frost, no matter how much academia tries to tell us he embodied the common man, was a New England farmer. Natasha Trethewey’s potency comes when she engages her southern heritage. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks speak for an African American voice, deconstructing stereotypical white Americana while being rooted in New York and Chicago respectively. Arguably, only Whitman and Sandburg have achieved this feat, but Whitman’s America was far smaller than our America, and Sandburg, despite writing “The People, Yes,” will forever be grounded in and linked to Chicago. No human poet, by his very nature of being an individual, can therefore speak universally for an entire people.
Thus, American poets often become poets of regions. Kinnell and Oliver love and inquire after their New England woods. Kevin Young swoons in Dixieland jazz-bars. Spaar relishes life in Virginia, and Kooser savors the Midwest’s simplicity. David Allan Evans’ most recent collection, the Carnival, the Life, reaffirms his status as a poet of the Midwest. He finds beauty and joy in this place, and through his words he allows us to share in his revelry of what many consider boring, flat, unremarkable America. By ruminating on his own existence, looking to his surroundings and memories to provide him with meaning, Evans becomes a poet of unnoticed America, describing for us the beauty of an average American life. Evans’ America is the America we see every day, the America we normally ignore. Evans' verse finds its strength here.
The collection’s first poem, “Pelicans on Lake Oakwood," provides us with Evans’ ethos. Building on the Loren Eisley quote which begins his collection - “One does not meet oneself until one catches / the reflection from an eye other than human,” - Evans looks beyond himself to nature to find purpose. In his commencing poem, Evans provides a romantic image of pelicans feeding and mating, free from the constraints of modern society and time, who “lift off / with an awkward grace back to / the other world they’re at home in”(12). These pelicans embody an ideal existence, living in a community where they travel “as white ships with breastbones / as prows,” (12) helping each other to fish and mate. Nothing interferes with them; they can peacefully, unselfconsciously, and awkwardly continue “eating, contending, mating” (12). They are free to be who they are, transplanted (for what Lake Oakwood has indigenous pelicans?), to act as if they were on the seaside, gliding not through the air, but across the water. These creatures become transcendent. The poem’s final two lines provide a heavenly image: “yielding their whiteness to the whiteness of clouds” (12). By existing in harmony with nature, the pelicans enter a divine state at peace with the world. They become noble beasts, despite, if not because of their awkwardness. By living outside of our modern society, they truly become one with the world – Evans’ ideal life.
Evans relates to and desires this transcendent life of “eating, contending, mating” (12) in a community free from “a teacher, a calendar, or a clock” (12). The collection’s title aptly fits. Evans shows us life as a carnival of animals, a tent of monkeys, often comically attempting to survive as the fittest while trying to evolve into some manner of transcendent being, seeking grace amongst the clouds.
Endeavoring to justify this tension between the natural and the divine, Evans looks to Darwin, spring-boarding off of the naturalist’s statement: “Origin of man now proved. He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” In his poem “Darwinism”, Evans attempts to understand two baboons: the jungle’s furry biped and himself, taking Darwin to task to discover some metaphysical truth. The answer Evans finds sounds quintessentially American, if also disturbingly narcissistic:
          As with our closest kin, the chimpanzees,
          but also baboons, wolverines, and catfish,
          we spend our days mainly looking out for
          number one. (22)
The self-reflecting heart quickly recognizes Evans' statement as true. Both culturally and personally, we do spend our lives being self-obsessed. It takes an intentional, arguably other-worldly thought to consider the other, to put another’s needs before our own. Without this thought, we are no different from the animals, our closest kin, as Evans puts them. Without reason, we are biped chimps, goofy baboons, vicious wolverines, and bottom-feeding catfish.
Evans does not turn towards reason, but instead affirms that the human condition is at best natural. We remain no different than the pelicans with their “eating, contending, mating” (12). After asserting that all we do is “look out for/number one,” (22) Evans acknowledges our discomfort with this idea, arguing that our tension with this statement comes not from its validity, but from our cowardice. “And yet, we’re not exactly in the habit of admitting/ we’re selfish,” he says. According to the poem, this narcissism drives the world; we do things out of preference, what suits us best. Men choose a mate, not out of love, but for what appeals to their sexual desire (“Men prefer women with a 0.7/ hip to waist ratio [22]). Women, likewise, are sexual, choosing a mate on evidenced potency, not compensating accoutrements (women will generally pick/ a dad over a cad [22]).
Evans acknowledges the rational criticism, arguing for how such ideas are themselves affirmations of our selfishness:
          We like to think we are an unanimal
          look at us, we say: we can think (but so can crows);
          or, we can even think about thinking
          (but so can rats). (22)
What we do, and what the animals do, is the same thing. We do what we must to survive, identified here as getting ahead socially. So total is this selfish permeation throughout the human condition that even forgiveness is affected. The personal acquisition of power becomes the motivation for the highest of human actions:
          Jonathan Swift said it well: “A brave man thinks no one
          his superior who does him an injury, for he has it then
          in his power to make himself superior to the other,
          by forgiving it.” (22)
Under the guise of the survival of the fittest, Evans sees human forgiveness as the means whereby strength is achieved and contentions won. Though difficult to call mercy a vice, Evans' view of it becomes solely pragmatic. Forgiveness is beneficial because of how it strengthens and benefits the forgiver. If anything, it weakens the offender, rendering him less potent in the struggle to eat, contest, mate – survive.
With grace apparently stripped from the world, humanity must simply do what survival requires, identified by Evans as social advancement. Despite the epigraph of “Darwinian” and its desire to discover some metaphysical truth, this worldview can only end in materialism. Evans admits as much in his final stanza:
          at work, we keep track of who is on which rung of
          the ladder on the way to the top, who goes out for a beer
          with the boss after hours, who has the newest SUV,
          or the house with the most square feet and bathrooms. (23)
‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ becomes life’s meaning. A social stumble elucidates weakness, and therefore a failure at existence. Someone else could take advantage of this compromised situation. Thus, to prevent personal demise, the social ladder is considered, the boss’s friends are observed, the extent of one’s possessions are evaluated. All these things become comforts, as they prove one’s potency. Their lack, however, renders life terrifying, leaving one at the mercy of others: the more ambitious, the greater favored, the richly blessed. Though professing naturalism, it is not surprising that Evans desires the carefree life of pelicans that he explores in “Pelicans on Lake Oakwood," one without “a teacher, a calendar,/ or a clock,” (12) upon considering such a hazardous existence.
Evans' poetry is not brutal, however. Up until now, he has survived in life; he has not been overrun. To understand this success, this potency, Evans, from his Darwinian and therefore evolutionary understanding of the world, considers the environment from where he came. He wonders about those who begat him. The book’s most moving section, its second movement, meditates on Evans’ childhood in Iowa, his parents influence on his life, and his courtship with his wife (he writes about the current state of this relationship with this woman later) (34-46). We learn how Evans would watch his father, a journalist, write articles in the basement, the young poet imagining writing in the future himself (34). Later, his father’s press-office antics which revolved around leaping into the air to leave an ink-stain on a doorframe, lead Evans to leap metaphorically after this dream of becoming a writer, leaving ink-stains of his own as high as he can (36-37). These are the collection’s most enjoyable poems, as they struck me as the most human, especially after the tenderness of poems recalling Evans’ mother’s advice and wisdom are considered (38). When these poems are combined with works recounting Evans' courtship with his wife, from their desperate attempts at returning home before curfew to their first experience of intercourse, Evans paints an innocent, if nostalgic, picture of small town America many would find compelling (45-46). Here the American dream, the ability to work and attain those things which one desires, becomes instilled in Evans.
The remainder of this collection tells of various ways in which Evans succeeds in attaining his dreams, most commonly recounted in the achievement of beauty (often in the form of physical intimacy with his wife - although pretty young things distract his eyes [if only his eyes] throughout the collection). Despite these successes, the graceless terror of Darwinism remains. Evans' father, that successful writer who demonstrated his potency by siring Evans, continues to cast a shadow over the second half of the collection, even as Evans turns 70. We see this most overtly in the comedic, if sad, poem “Keeping the Balance." The piece begins with a quote from Evans’ father, “Find something in your life to be good at,” and the poet admits, “not long after my 70th birthday,” that he is “still stuck under the thumb/ of his admonition” (72). His father’s words remain stronger than Evans will; the poet cannot escape from his teacher’s lesson. To eclipse this “admonition,” Evans ponders various things he could be good at, activities which might achieve his father’s praise, the hallmark of triumph. As he contests with this oppression, Evans attempts to undercut this command by trivializing it. The poem’s second stanza wonders if his father would appreciate a man “who rides his unicycle/ to work every day except in rain or snow” (72). Evans needs this belittlement, for his accomplishment in old age is far less dramatic: he puts a sock on “by balancing on one leg/at a time, completely free from any support” (72). This achievement does prove Evans’ strength, as he can do it “free from any support,” but it is difficult to not see it as lackluster. Evans even admits that:
          My father was not easily impressed,
          so I don’t know if my modest endeavor
          would qualify, in his eyes – though I think
          the unicycle riding would – as something
          to be good at. (72)
To counter this failure to impress, Evans utilizes the power of definition, demonstrating himself as a stronger wordsmith than his journalist father, to reinstate himself on top of the social ladder. He writes: “But it doesn’t matter/ It works for me… and I’m a lot better now/ than when I started.”
Evans is not finished though. He has struggled with the world, but like the awkward pelicans, he does not truly enjoy this rhetorically contentious habitat. Instead, he would much rather paddle around on the water, eating and mating with the woman he loves. In the poem’s second movement, the poet briefly recounts a trip to the Isle of Man, pointing out how they traveled on the Irish Sea to reach their destination. On this journey, he purchases an ancient coin that:
          Shows three lithe acrobat legs
          Connected to one another, in a circle –
          Which means, if you fall, you’ll always
          Land upright. (73)
Life turns carefree at the end. The life Evans ultimately desires is one without failure, without weakness, without defeat. One can simply enjoy having acrobat legs, skilled limbs capable of accomplishment and entertainment that never fail. One can simply exist. The poem concludes “So far for us, so good./May you too be lucky” (73).
Though I disagree with much of Evans’ philosophy, his poetry does speak truthfully to the human condition. We do, so often, place ourselves first in this world, and especially in America, we fight desperately to come out ahead. His writing appears highly attuned to the basic element of humanity – that desire to be good at something. Evans' poetry could be defined by the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” My frustration comes from where Evans finds happiness – it seems small to me. This, however, is not a fault of Evans' work, but a tension within my own personal romantic sensibilities. Evans finds joy and beauty in the simple things of this world; I desire to find them in the complex things of a transcendent being. That, however, is a difference of taste. Evans’ poetry excels by revealing this basic desire to succeed within the American experience. He provides the average life of an American man from flyover country, complete with its fears and desires. the Carnival, the Life therefore encapsulates, if not in entirety, in part, an often unheard American voice – a fine literary achievement.

Works by David Allan Evans

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