Book Review: ‘What’s Left’ by Tate Lewis-Carroll

What’s Left (Finishing Line Press) builds its atmosphere immediately — the cover and epigraph synching an ambiance by opening with a formally stylized Nirvana quote followed by a transcription of a sparse voice message from the author’s father (the cover is a cardboard box with the top folded shut, it’s labeled in permanent marker with the title). The foundation indicates elegy — and the book is an elegy — but the scaffolding suggests renaissance, too.

I have been around death a lot and often find art surrounding it either flatly grim or trite. Tate Lewis-Carroll’s poems are neither. They stick to your ribs and wind around your ankles, weighty and precise. While the speaker grieves their father’s death, they take the reader’s hand and offer us the room to grieve, too. We watch the father from a child’s point-of-view, awe-struck, in the opening poem, “Shell Collecting,” a father and child digging for shells: “like the right word for a poem: precious wentletrap, / lettered olive, moon snail. He’d recall their names / as if he were the one who’d lost them.”

The first poem introduces the cancer the father will eventually die from, but slowly, after we witness the relationship between father and child change and strain. Interspersed between poems that indulge difficult memories are six poems titled “At My Father’s Wake,” each with a parenthetical subtitle that could be funny, but mostly hit close to home (I feel confident anyone who has ever been family of the deceased knows this experience) including: “An Exhibit Where Strangers Stick Their Fingers in My Cage to Feed Me Their Opinions Disguised as Pieties” and “A Causeway Toll for which Passersby must Scrounge for Spare Remarks In Order to Leave the Island” and “An Arcade With Only Whac-A-Mole Machines.”

This exploration of death and grief is, like all explorations of death, also an investigation into what it means to be alive — and to live with death. This painful duality is expressed in “Another Cherry Tree,” with a line that resonated with me enough to cause me pause, “Their bodies / will / sprout up / all around you like thistles / And like thistles / they will cling to your socks / and leave little splinters in your fingers, / which will linger all day / when you try to pull them off.”

There are many more excerpts I marked to quote here, dizzying concrete poems and clever uses of form (haiku and sestina!), but I would be remiss not to mention the bright color photos that act as section dividers. Given the attention they deserve, they are another powerful illustration of life in stages.

This collection provided me with great catharsis, a feeling of being seen. After many times bereaved and having no language to express it, this book is a gift. It conjures words from our most vulnerable moments — “And what a jealous god / it is, always taking, taking. / With a jealous god come commands, / come severed limbs, come rivers / of blood, comes seeing the devil’s hand (from “The Anatomical Man”)” — and gives us something to do with them. There’s an annoying stereotype that says that pain is a catalyst for art. I have found that untrue, but with this book came a reprieve. This book made me want to create.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.