In the brief period between the publication of Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995) and the milestone book Glass, Irony, and God, with its centerpiece “The Glass Essay” (1995), Anne Carson reached an uncommon level of critical appreciation. With this reputation in tow, each succeeding new work will be held up to high expectations, with comparisons to other writers (such as Ann Lauterbach, Medbh McGuckian, and Henri Michaux) as well as backward glances to her own earlier efforts. This position forces artists to push the boundaries of past glories; to move up from such a precarious perch, creative minds must use the themes and techniques that built their reputations while expanding their scope and substance.
If such comparisons within a fairly young canon cannot be avoided, it is helpful to trace the steps that led up to a new artistic contribution to that canon. Throughout Plainwater and Glass, Irony, and God, Carson’s themes and techniques merged her classical scholarship and innovative experiments with structure. This far-reaching fusion gave her the distinctive voice of individuality steeped in academia and deeply fought personal soul seeking. Poems such as “The Glass Essay” reached and challenged readers on a variety of levels, because Carson successfully interwove three elements: personal reflections on identity, references to literary influences, and visions of the nature of poetry. Her use of visuals in “The Glass Essay” clearly prefigured similar techniques in Autobiography of Red, in which much of her style is based on line structure and layout for the eye while using colors, light, and dark juxtapositions as her scaffolding for images and metaphors.
This complexity has made her work as interesting to the poetic technician as to the reader, and such virtuosity has led to high praise in critical commentaries. But Carson’s sometimes top- heavy gamesmanship and use of obscure, esoteric allusions have proved distracting and defeating, notably when she is not writing from her personal experience. These faults will trouble some readers of Autobiography of Red, as they troubled readers of Carson’s previous four books.
This fifth exercise in the avant-garde is challenging, inviting comparisons with two of her cited mentors, Homer and Gertrude Stein. From Homer, Carson takes a mythos of personalities and reworks ancient narratives into a postmodern parable. From Stein, she derives a playful wordplay, a deceptively simple tone that helps make her complexity readable.
Carson is far more than a synthesizer of influences. More important, she is a synthesizer of techniques, perhaps the most interesting creator of new images in the modern poetic scene, and a pioneer in the usage of white space on the printed page.
Autobiography of Red is not an autobiography of her protagonist, Geryon, the mythological winged monster who lives in a red world of red shadows tending red cattle trapped “in a bad apple.” Nor is she retelling the story of Geryon as originally spun by Greek poet Stesichorus, whose epic had the red monster killed by Herakles in the fulfillment of one of his mythological labors. Rather, Geryon lives in a modern world, is molested as a child, and is betrayed in a love affair with Herakles. Layered onto this plot diversion, echoing “The Glass Essay,” the narrative is partially about the writing of Geryon’s autobiography of artistic discovery. At its deepest level, the book is about the search for understandable meaning in a world of words, words so complex and ambiguous that Geryon must find expression and focus without them. Geryon’s search for this discovery, as in all epics, forces him to move from childhood to mature uncertainty, from one confusion to another. This trope parallels the search for identity in “The Glass Essay”; again, it is a masterful weaving of major ideas appropriate to Carson’s newly expanded novel-length scope.
At the beginning of the poetic...
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