Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours is challenging and exciting, and if it does not have quite the emotional pull of her last book, Autobiography of Red (1998), it teases and invigorates. Carson’s work invariably pushes the envelope; there are no boundaries she respects, and a part of the appeal of her work is in the odd juxtapositions and minglings that combine prose and poetry, ancient and modern, exalted and trivial, abstract and concrete. She is a true practitioner of bricolage, building surprising structures from the most unlikely materials.
The poetry books of Anne Carson, a teacher of classics at McGill University in Montreal, include Plainwater (1995), Glass, Irony, and God(1995), and Autobiography of Red. She has received a Lannan Literary Award as well as other awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship, and has written in other genres besides poetry—indeed, Men in the Off Hours is not all poetry.
Carson’s previous book, Autobiography of Red, tells the story of the minor character Geryon from fragments of Stesichorus’s work that she herself had translated. She gives Geryon center stage and makes him a troubled youth whose sexual coming of age is strange and poignant. The reader finds in Geryon’s freakishness and self-consciousness a painful reminder of acute adolescence. The “novel in verse” has the excitement and suspense of a novel—knowing what happened to Geryon in the Greek myth does not mean one knows what this Geryon’s fate is—and it also has the linguistic richness and precision characteristic of good poetry.
Men in the Off Hours is more a treat for the mind; its mingling of poetry and prose essay challenges the reader’s expectations and provides intriguing insights. Carson wrenches characters out of history and places them in other contexts. In a very basic way this can be seen as a book about time—how time is experienced and what history means. The odd pairings force a reconsideration of time and the implications of historicizing. The book examines the questions of how different eras might hold dialogue and what such dialogue might reveal. Together with the sense of time’s irrevocable passing, there is also the presence of elegy—for historical periods, persons, and places that are either gone or vanishing.
What Carson does with elegy is astounding. For instance, the very brief poem “Epitaph: Europe” has an uncanny sense of rightness as well as a nod to Paul Celan in the language:
Once live X-rays stalked the hills as if they were Trees. Bones stay now And their Lent stays with them, black on the nail. Tattering on the daywall.
The poem seems in four lines to encapsulate an elegy for the war dead, for the Christianity of the past, perhaps even for Celan himself. Other moving elegies are a strong presence in the collection.
This book is even more of a mixture than Carson’s other work, and the disparity of its contents is more evident. There are brief elegiac poems, sequences of poems on a figure, essays, and reflections. The collection is longer than most single collections, and the essay that provides much of the extra length may hold less appeal than the poems for some readers.
This long essay is a lot like the criticism of some of the French essentialists, particularly perhaps Hélène Cixous, and, although it is quite interesting and the writer often hides successfully behind her words, it takes a different kind of attention from the poetry. It may be a requirement of the postmodern sensibility to have no expectations, to be ready to be led at any time in a new direction, but for many readers this essay is something very different and possibly distracting. Called “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity,” it appears to provide a theory of male/female wet/dry, overflowing of female boundaries, and so forth, and as such to be in line with work of other theorists, but questions of possible irony and multiple meaning arise as the reader attempts to look at the essay in the same light as the poetry. The essay is somewhat frustrating, and many will return happily to the translucent layers of the poems, which are rewarding at whatever depth the reader enters.
An intellectually intriguing sequence is “TV Men,” in which the characters Sappho, Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, Lazarus, Antigone, Anna Akhmatova, and Thucydides—the last in conversation with Virginia Woolf—are represented in quick little glimpses as though for a television spot. Apparently Carson herself put together a series for public television about the history of Nobel...
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