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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book Review: Wolfgang Carstens Enjoy Oblivion. Epic Rites Press, 2015 (53 pages).

Enjoy Oblivion was originally slotted to be published by Rusty Truck Press and later Concrete Meat Press but due to extensive delays, Carstens decided to publish the book in an expanded edition through his own publishing company, Epic Rites Press. This collection consists of 33 poems, up from the original 17. Carstens’ long-time collaborator, Janne Karlsson, the Swedish artist, provides 14 full-page complimentary illustrations.

Most of the newly added material to the collection comprise the first 11 poems. These poems are united in Carstens’ favourite topic: death. Death is just around the corner but people like ‘Danny’ think they are “invincible” or like John Ritter in ‘despite’, money & fame will never be able to save you when “your number is up.”

In ‘we’ Carstens pays a tribute to Joseph Conrad who once brilliantly wrote that the sum total of human endeavour could be written on a cigarette paper: “We are born. We suffer. We die.” Although Carstens sees life as “essentially meaningless” he ends the poem with a dirge of hope:

and funerals


is in between
should be

Also notable is the poem ‘today’ in which the speaker, presumably Carstens, contemplates “the hour” of his end. He wonders whether our lives “were more/ than meat/ and bone.”

The remainder of the collection are essentially poems of hate towards Carstens’ father.  Many are directly addressed to the old man who messed around with other women & fucked off when Carstens was a young boy. This part of the collection telescopes Carstens’ thoughts from when he first heard his father was dying, to his eventual death & later his various bitter reflections on his passing. Carstens grieves intensely but not for the old man, but rather for the relationship with his dad he never had & for the grief his father had inflicted on his family.

‘I just heard’ sets a caustic tone for this section. The speaker discovers that his father is on his death-bed and is asking for him. The old bastard “has nobody” else and is belatedly trying to reconcile with his son to perhaps relieve his guilt before he dies. Carstens, understandably, cannot forgive his father for being abandoned as a child & is totally contemptuous of him. All he can utter is a trite, dismissive: “Goodbye Dad.”

In ‘if you go’ someone warns the speaker that his father’s body is so swollen that he ‘probably/ won’t recognise him.’ He tersely adds, “I hardly/ remember/ what he/ looked like/ before.”

In one of the stronger poems in the collection ‘you never’, the speaker furthers this idea of estrangement in a simple but deeply personal way by directly speaking to his deceased father. Carstens expresses how damaged he is inside and how his father’s own acts of irresponsibility have also had unseen consequences in the upbringing of his own family:

you never

taught me
how to shoot a puck,
talk to girls,
make friends,
handle peer pressure,
or fight

you never once
helped me
with my homework.

the only lesson
you ever taught me
was accidental.


i learned
how not
to be

(The poem has been published with the permission of the author)

Karlsson’s subdued, simple caricatures in this collection often represent Carstens as a lonely child staring blankly at a ball or puck. Others show the old man pissed-off, guzzling beer, or as in the illustration for the poem ‘I was’, he indifferently kicks the boy’s soccer ball away as he cuddles his girlfriend, Wolf & his mother look on from the distance. Karlsson’s drawings are unique & add a curious layer of existential ennui to Carstens’ work.

The latter part of the collection reveals Carstens’ response to the news that his father has died. In ‘driving home’ when he learns of his father’s death, he sees a rat in the street and scathingly says to him, “it/reminded/ me/ of/ you.” In the title poem ‘no’ the poet writes contently that his father has not been given a funeral nor a burial plot and has been justly banished from the family forever:




cemetery plot.


how you


In Carstens’ world, less is certainly more and the longer he writes, the more savagely he pares back his language to the bone. In his deceptively simple use of language in ENJOY OBLIVION, he shares with us a huge range of intense human emotions which have impacted upon him as a young child: hatred, regret, grief, rage.

Yet his parting shot in ‘death’ the last poem in the collection is again a positive one. Despite it’s brevity:

sure was
while it

wasn’t it?