Wendy Klein’s poem, Taking Carrie Up, is so well written that as you travel through the nicely judged couplets you feel yourself become part of the racially divided culture of post-slavery North America whose prejudices Carrie the maid and her employer are challenging by this upward ride together in the lift.
One of the many things I admire in this poem is the delicacy of Wendy Klein’s way of achieving this. In the opening couplet, the deft little moment of Carrie’s way of seeing and saying things – ‘the white folks’ lift’ – tells us that this building contains another lift, not lined in velvet and chrome, for use by black people. Later on, in the fourth couplet, through the eloquent italics, we actually hear white Mrs Astor’s unvoiced thought that she is ‘not about to step in next to /Grandpas’s negro maid.’
As well as having an excellent aural imagination, Wendy Klein has a storyteller’s talent for providing the small details which, when used as sparingly as they are here, can say so much. Carrie is reluctant to use the lift so her employer has to give her elbow ‘a little push.’ Mr Vanderbilt gropes for a silk hanky to mop his brow. (My italics.)
But for me the greatest pleasure in Taking Carrie Up is the way we realise, in the final couplet, that there was another level of meaning in the poem and in the title all along. Carrie is being ‘taken up’ in spirit and confidence, as well as in body by this journey. From the diffident person who is nervous about using the ‘white folks’ lift’, she has become the woman who can ‘float’ blissfully out when they reach the 20th floor. The final words, that joyful repetition of the word ‘red’, are surely Carrie’s own as she describes this experience later.
This is a wonderfully life-affirming poem (as well as a deeply political one) and I am delighted that Wendy Klein will be coming from Reading on Saturday 26th September to read it at the competition event in the Elwin Room.