JAMES EARL CARTER, JR.

by Scott Garson

 

It is Saturday, the fourth of August, 1979. Three months to the day before embassy staff will be seized in the Iranian capitol — and so one year and three months to the day before Jimmy Carter will lose at the polls. Tonight Carter is troubled. Out of his trouble he has been thinking to craft some expression but has written no words, has rather let the sharp lead of his pencil serve as seismograph, exposing, in graphic abstraction, the honed forms of an inner life. Carter sits in an armchair (dating to Eisenhower, he knows) in the White House Screening Room, the house lights still half dimmed. He has just seen a film, a new film, as he does, to relax, often — a few times a week. Perhaps on account of the poem at its end—Brando quoting Eliot — he is taking the measure of words in his mind, in fact thinking of drafting a poem. Not like Eliot; Carter prefers Thomas. A darkness in the weather of the eye / is half its light. Why that? Why now? A mystery, Carter believes. In the old sense: revelation. As the bones of his hand conduct shapes on the page, he thinks once more of Coppola’s film — the poor boy’s death on the deck of the boat as the tape of his mother’s voice played. Carter had been moved. A word arrives: agony. This is the word he placed on the subject of the war of years past in last month’s speech, and this is surely the most honest word for the mother, gauging the chasm dividing her voice, the homely love of it, from what could be seen on the screen. Carter writes, Chasm. A trick of the hour? Perhaps, but the word sings implication. Distance: between mother and soldier son. Between boy and the architects of that war. Between Americans: himself and those passing in cars, and them and the man asleep by the statue of Jackson in Lafayette Park. Our failures, he thinks without certainty, are somewhat less than our own. They are failures of form. They express themselves through us. They are not chosen. Yet they can be checked. Carter hears breathing — his own — and shifts in the chair, recalling the happy astonishment of the day he arranged for the limousine driver to stop so that he might take the route of the inaugural parade on foot. He recalls the sun’s brightness, the cold, himself right there amongst the thousands of people. His lifted-out glove. On the page, Carter’s pencil is at rest. But then it swings: he thinks of a verse that he chose not to use in his address on the pavilion that day, and he chooses it — now. II Chronicles 7:14. In his trim diagonal script, he records it, then passes his fingertips over its trail of minute impressions. If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. It is late, he understands. He lets his eyes scale the groove of the folds of the long white drapes. He blinks, thinks to rise. But his pencil has whispered again, this time in more billowing figures. What Carter remembers, if this is a memory: the sky, as it might look to a swaddled child in his family’s care. As it might feel. A helpless magnitude. Carter straightens himself. He begins writing. Not weakness, the eye that gives itself / to a sky of falling blossom. It is a poem. It’s the start of the poem that he sought. It’s one, he senses, even now, that will not find completion.

 

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Scott Garson’s first full-length collection of stories — Is That You, John Wayne? — is forthcoming from Queen’s Ferry Press. He’s the author of a collection of microfictions, American Gymnopédies (Lit Pub Books). He edits Wigleaf.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.

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