A Review of Carrie Oeding’s Our List of Solutions

Carrie Oeding Our List of SolutionsA Review of Carrie Oeding’s Our List of Solutions

by Angie Mazakis

In a January 2010 blog post at HTMLGIANT, Elisa Gabbert, with the help of Mike Young*, cataloged popular “moves” in contemporary poetry, and the list, which is singular and far-reaching, is veracious in its deconstruction of the recent (and nearly-recent) ways in which poets’ work has attempted a unique voice. The list was undoubtedly welcomed by poetry’s readers and writers, corroborating our suspicions that certain repeated current devices may have become gimmick, especially if they are vulnerable to a collection of several examples and labeled as “moves.” At the same time, the list is somewhat dispiriting―all our word tricks exposed in one bill of misfare. (See #34 on Gabbert’s list: “Clipping or altering a cliché.”)

Carrie Oeding’s poems in Our List of Solutions, winner of the inaugural 42 Miles Press Poetry Award, transcend reliance on any of the devices delineated in Gabbert’s list, which, even to a minor extent, can be found in most current poetry. Oeding has achieved an exceptionally distinct voice that stands out among the assemblage of blossoming contemporary camps and persuasions by creating personae in her poems that illuminate the incidental, that offer hyper-awareness through witty, appealingly and truly unique voices. Oeding’s poems are a refreshing shift from imposture or imitation.

Though readers may find the speakers in Our List of Solutions alone on a dance floor or navigating a barbeque in a way that is more meditative and remote than social, they aren’t easily categorized as the standard introvert and socially isolated ingenues they may seem to represent at first glance; they belong to a social category of cool outside observers that has transcended the vagrant cynic; they’ve replaced aloofness with sensitive observation, have deflected incuriosity with perspicacity. They’re appealing because readers will want to participate in their unique perceptions, in the exclusivity of their rare appreciations (their own nice ears, for example). We feel their anxiety and envy it for its accuracy.

Their intimations of detachment often seem either accepted or self-invoked–they know too much about social normalcy (“Don’t wait for me to point out how people work”; “They all do what they’re only made to”). They are furtive and unbending at once, deliberate introverts who make directive statements while retaining their vulnerability. They are the solitary who do not want/need to be found (“Someone find someone who wants to find anyone/ and tell them no one wants to be found”). They are speakers who’ve resolutely jilted the stars (“Sandy Says No More! To Just About Everything”). They seem less anxious about their aloneness than they do about their advertent observations of the world and the people living in it. In “Sandy’s Beauty,” the speaker’s exposure of the social obligation of flattery creates a response that is both hilarious and touching at once:

One of my neighbors said, You’re beautiful!
As if she discovered Beautiful for me…

Hello Beautiful.
What do you like? It’s almost winter.

Frankly Beautiful,
I have always had a feeling about myself.

Sandy personifies the superfluous “beauty,” sits it down and deconstructs and talks to it, having been given something she already had.

Despite the shy authority of these voices, the solitary inwardness of many of the speakers does not lose its moving, heartbreaking quality:

and I’ll make my own table too.
Better, without chairs.

—from “Amy Wears Blue Shirts Every Day, Too”

The voice of “we” weaves in and out of the book, dispensing instruction or exerting a warning (“We all know what happened to Dean”) or acting as a collective speaker of the poem (“Do you whisper, I can do this better,/ Susanna? Funny how we knew that. / We’ve already done better.”) Though it seems that the voice of “we” in Oeding’s poems is caricatured, the collective voice has desires or tastes that act so singularly readers will feel as though the we’s assertion is something they should have already felt or considered along with them. The voice is so convincing that we’re left wishing we were part of the group. It is also another avenue through which humor is used in the collection. (“We’re going to stop. We have a date. You understand.”)

When we think Oeding’s speakers are going to indulge in “description by negation,” (number 36 in Gabbert’s list of “moves”), even then they surprise by turning the negation further, so that there is still something unexpected around a corner we hadn’t anticipated.

After six whiskeys he can’t tell which neighbor can see through him.
Without seven he can’t tell the night what he doesn’t see.

—from “His List of Solutions”

Oeding does this another time as a kind of hyperbolic way of criticizing a prescriptive approach to finding love:

Don’t just like the lack of choice
in who you could really love, like all the choices
you could make to avoid love in hopes of finding love.

—from “We Like Steve and Louise’s Love”

The line break after “choices” creates an unexpected turn in the directive as well as in the negative indicators don’t, lack, and avoid, which oppose the positive could, could, and in hopes. This works to create surprise and subversion while deconstructing the meaning of the word “choice” and considering the various possibilities of choices.

Another way that Oeding impresses through the unexpected is by asking an ordinary question and then asking the relevant question readers likely wouldn’t think to ask—one that, in the following lines, makes up an inquiry concerning fundamental desire that beautifully, achingly resonates:

I wish it wasn’t dancing that gave me joy—

Can’t there be something besides dancing?
or maybe can’t there be something besides joy?
Oh, can’t there be something besides joy?

—from “Joy”

Another technical way Oeding uses language inventively is when she returns to a minor word, phrase, or idea soon after it has escaped the reader’s attention in a pleasing and unexpected reintroduction. This is done in a way that makes the reader surprised at the technique and surprised that he or she didn’t expect it. In “Storm’s A’Comin’,” we’re told there’s “a story about Dean and one about a funny hat, a favorite hat flying off in the wind.” Two lines later, when the wind seems to have ordinarily passed, “Someone’s mom has gout or goat―it’s hard to hear above the wind.” The phrase “asking for trouble” comes up again, wearing a new layer of meaning, as well as “pineapple”―just when we thought the case on the pineapple was closed.

One of the delights of Our List of Solutions is in the way that Oeding illuminates the minutiae. In “Lullaby for a Barrette,” the single act of pulling back hair is illuminated and examined, as is the act of sending a package in “Packages Under Our Control,” but illumination of the seemingly negligible and forgotten is a quiet strength throughout each of the poems, whether for its own sake or to create the rare, exquisite impressions that singularize unforgettable speakers. Carrie Oeding exposes the hidden sides―the felt but unexpressed, the loudly perceived but unsaid, and in the act of saying illuminates them, “each sequin getting its moment to be seen.”

Carrie Oeding, Our List of Solutions. 42 Mile Press, 2012: $14.25

*Correction: This review originally misattributed Elisa Gabbert’s article as being primarily written by Mike Young.


Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken BoatNew Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.


“Morning Glories Sensing Noon Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester” By Angie Mazakis


Morning Glories Sensing Noon

Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester

By Angie Mazakis


Before class, already you know that you are going to teach how the complications of humor and death in this story—the writer’s careful balance of these disparate emotional territories—make good writing, and you want to point out the specific piercing details too, you will go through and point out every metaphor (“they are all drawing their mouths in, bluish and tight—morning glories sensing noon,” the rhythm of “morning glories sensing noon”—three trochees—sang in your head all weekend), and then right before class, you’re in the bathroom three minutes before, and a student comes in and says, “I had to find you,” and you laugh because, it’s three minutes before class, and you were just in your office for three-and-a-half hours, and Couldn’t you have just waited until I got there is what your laugh is saying, but it’s also forgiving, because either way questions in the bathroom are funny, and you like every student in this class, you already know it is one of those classes you will remember—your one laugh is saying all that, and she laughs a tiny nervous laugh in response, and says, “You know A           in our class, who sits by me? He died.” And you cover your mouth in shock, because your student, a student in the class you are going to teach in three, now two, minutes died and will not be sitting at his desk, and she starts to cry, and says, “I just had to find you and tell you, because I couldn’t bear to hear you call out his name.” Couldn’t bear is what she said, and you’ve never heard anything more fragile, perforating right through you, from a student in any of your classes ever, not even in writing, let alone out loud to you in the bathroom in her sweet voice and tears, and you precipitously cry for her, with her, for just a minute, because it’s time for class, and all crying should now stop, and the short walk to class with her gives you time to feel transiently embarrassed about how facilely and involuntarily your tears materialize, and you go teach the Lorrie Moore story that is really in the end about death, but saturated with humor, and you meant to defend that humor, because in the other classes students thought that the humor was inappropriate in a story about children and death, but that’s “how I would respond as well” with that same dark wit in the face of death, you know (think) you would, at least ostensibly (you think later), and also you had already planned to read this passage, so you read it very slowly, because your voice could break at any one of the words, even though you didn’t even really know this kid, it’s only been three weeks, you barely knew him, but you had already planned to read it, particularly for how devastating, and therefore beautiful it is, but now with devastating being a reality in the room, the beautiful doesn’t seem as beautiful or beauty actually doesn’t seem relevant at all, or seems kind of very beside the point, but still, you read to them, “…he begins to cry, but cry silently, without motion or noise. She has never seen a baby cry without motion or noise. It is the crying of an old person; silent, beyond opinion, shattered.” You can barely get out the word “shattered,” which seemed to fall apart on its own. But you do. And then after class, the female student who stopped you in the bathroom is the last one after everyone has left, and you say, “This wasn’t the easiest story to talk about today,” and she says, “Actually, it helped,” and you are profoundly puzzled, one, that anything could help so immediately in class and not years from now when an image or a line comes to a student arbitrarily at the grocery store or while picking up their kids from school, but also that this story is so darkly humorous, and most students don’t seem to embrace its complications even when those complications seem eclipsed by the unequivocalness of  a death that just happened, but she says, “because there’s the part where the narrator is talking to the ‘manager’ and he says (and she quotes it exactly without looking at it, here in the third week of class; she’s brilliant), ‘To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine.’” And then you frantically look for that portion of the story, because you just taught it—three times today—but you didn’t go over that part in class, and you don’t even remember that part, and you read what continues, “What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. …There might be things people get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.” And you can’t believe you have a student so smart that she can apply the very literature we are reading today in class so instantaneously to the very consequential event that has so spontaneously happened, and has literature ever been so functional? You don’t think it has, and she should probably teach this class instead of you. And all you know about teaching is how you’ve been taught to teach or what you’ve learned from what others teach, and this kid who died, of course he is the kid who stayed after the first class to ask you more questions about yourself, of course, and was looking right at you eagerly or smiling every time you looked up in the few classes you’ve had so far this semester, and of course no one ever said, “When your student dies during the semester…” or explained how to maybe wait one more week (you’d already waited two weeks for all the drops and adds) to write their names into the grade book in ink, because now you’ll have to mark the absence forever.


About the Author: Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken BoatNew Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.