Anne Carson

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Guy Davenport (review date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Davenport, Guy. Review of Eros the Bittersweet, by Anne Carson. Grand Street 6, no. 3 (spring 1987): 184-91.

[In the following review, Davenport asserts that Eros the Bittersweet is a “brilliant essay” and observes that Carson's writing “teaches us ancient verities in a bright new way.”]

Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's artist named for an artificer who wore wings, a symbol of transcendence, escape and freedom, says in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using words whose meanings were shaped by Aristotle, Scholasticism and modern science, “The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the aesthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like that to the cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley's, called the enchantment of the heart.” Shelley's phrase, in A Defence of Poetry, is “… the mind in creation is as a fading coal.” (Charcoal, Shelley means, radiant if blown upon, otherwise black but burning.) “… a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”

Galvani enchanted the hearts and legs of dead frogs by running an electrical current through muscles. That's the word Galvani used: enchantment, incantésimo. Or, as we might say in English, he besonged it, he magicked it with a spell, a charm. Shaped words perhaps began as magic spells, charms.Lovely sounds is what cearm means in Old English, and by Chaucer's time we were saying bird charm for bird song, and were saying as well that church bells are charming the hour. That literacy was kin to casting spells with words can be seen in the fact that glamour, the power of beauty to enchant, is grammar misheard and mispronounced. Rhymes that bite and accuse—satire—were thought in ancient Rome to be so disruptive of social order that laws proscribed them.

Critics faced with talking about charm quickly find themselves at a loss. Mikhail Bakhtin liked to quote the Kantian Hermann Cohen in noting that there is nothing in us that needs a work of art, and nothing in a work of art that compels our presence before it. But Bakhtin went on to say that art arranges for understanding and communication among us powerful enough to cancel the gaps of loneliness which divide us, and beguiling enough to bind us in social harmonies.

How, then, does art charm? That is the subject of the classicist Anne Carson's “essay” Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton University Press), a work of great charm in itself, an intellectual exercise that dazzles (frequentative of daze) without stunning, flashes without blinding, and concludes leaving us brighter and smarter. I've put “essay” in quotes to indicate both that the word is being used in its old sense of exploration and try-out and that the modern sense of the word is charmingly taxed: this is a book, and a long book compressed by elegance of style and a rigorous terseness.

Like a good teacher enticing us, Carson (formerly an instructor at Princeton) begins with a fable from Kafka (the one about the philosopher who spun tops) to indicate that this book is about kinesis and balance, about things spinning, moving, fluttering (like Sappho's heart, Eros' wings, Daedalus' wings, vibrances of air which we call music, poetry, talk), colliding frequencies of meaning which sometimes dance together (as in metaphor and simile) after their collision, and sometimes remain opposed but joined, like Sappho's word

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Like a good teacher enticing us, Carson (formerly an instructor at Princeton) begins with a fable from Kafka (the one about the philosopher who spun tops) to indicate that this book is about kinesis and balance, about things spinning, moving, fluttering (like Sappho's heart, Eros' wings, Daedalus' wings, vibrances of air which we call music, poetry, talk), colliding frequencies of meaning which sometimes dance together (as in metaphor and simile) after their collision, and sometimes remain opposed but joined, like Sappho's wordbittersweet, or as the Greek has it, sweetbitter. What's bittersweet is Eros, the god of falling in love (being in love is another matter, involving other, wiser gods). Gods and states of mind are contiguous in Greek thought; eros is the Greek for that giddy, happy, all too often frustrated conviction that another human being, its returned affection and equal longing for you, are all that's lacking to make life a perfect happiness. The word does not occur in the New Testament, which uses another Greek word instead, agape, which also means love. The tension between these two words has filled many books and caused much grief down through history, as well as much comedy.

Eros when we first see him (in Anacreon, I think) was a naked stripling with a red ball. The ball later became a bow with erotic arrows, and Eros acquired (or always had) a sister named Peitho, both children whose mother was Aphrodite.

Carson begins the real work of her essay by inspecting a poem of Sappho's, Fragment 31 as classicists know it, in which Eros has bagged a handsome man, a beautiful girl, and an onlooker who speaks the poem. Sappho, if you will, is the onlooker, though I like to deromanticize the matter and imagine that Sappho wrote songs for people to sing; that is, to give definitive words for universal emotions. Poetry is the voice of the commune.

The poem translates: “The man sitting facing you looks like one of the gods listening carefully to what you're saying, and to your lovely laughter. [This sight] makes my heart beat its wings [like a fluttering bird], for every time I look I lose my breath, my tongue won't work, a fire burns under my skin, my eyes go out of focus, my ears ring, cold sweat breaks out, and I shake with fever. I'm greener than grass, and exist somewhere between living and dead.”

We have the Greek text of this poem because an anonymous critic (once thought to be Longinus) thought it a masterpiece, though we would have had its sense in Catulus's translation. Byron, tongue in cheek, lists it among the classical works that abetted the corruption of Don Juan's morals (“Although Longinus tells us there is no hymn / Where the sublime soars forth on wings more ample”). Trust Byron to pick up the imagery of wings. What interests Anne Carson is the triangle: the geometry of the poem. She will build this triangle into the structure that concludes her work. Boy, girl, observing poet. In his late etchings of erotic subjects, Picasso habitually includes what Freudians call a voyeur, who often looks like Picasso himself. Our century is nervous about the geometry of this poem because we are terrified of embodying Freudian sins and have been taught by the popular broth of Freudian odds and ends that we should not watch, but do.

Yet Sappho is eloquently in the vulnerable angle of the figure, the Tonio Kröger embarrassed displacement of the artist. T. S. Eliot remarked (and demonstrated with the figure of Tiresias in The Waste Land) that in our time we know far too much about the erotic life of the opposite sex. Do we? And if we do, why is this poem of Sappho's so difficult for us to understand? Is it about jealousy? Is Sappho in love with the girl and suffering the bitterness of exclusion? Is Sappho happy for the lovers, in an ecstasy of observing, feeling that happiness? Let us say that she includes herself, visibly, in the business because all artists are there, at that point of observation, or the subject would not exist as a poem. No photographer, no photograph. Poe must send a visitor to the house of Usher, or that story would be Berkeley's silent-movie tree falling without noise.

Later in the book Anne Carson develops this theme of triangulation, using Plato's Phaedrus, the dialogue in which Socrates argues that desire (Eros) moves the mind to learn as well as to love. To get to Plato, Carson goes by way of the peculiar genius of the Greek language and its alphabet (the perfection of graphing sounds that had begun with the Phoenicians), Velásquez's Las Meninas, and the birth of the novel. Las Meninas is a trick painting; Foucault (whose disciple Anne Carson would seem to be) has made much of it. The painting is of the royal children in Velásquez's studio to have their portraits done. The king and queen look on: their presence can be inferred from their dim reflection in a mirror deep in the picture's background. Velásquez, at his easel, gazes out at us; that is, at the king and queen, who are (in the logic of the thing) standing where we are—we, buttermilk-fed back-packing Danes, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge from Kansas City, an Italian dentist and his brood—we must stand in the ghostly space also occupied by Felipe and Mariana.

This imaginary space, the presence of an absence, is desire's pivot, the lack that love aches to supply a presence for, the ache to know. As Anne Carson disarmingly says halfway through her discourse, to prepare us for its conclusion, “There would seem to be some resemblance between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker.” To possess in the act of love (and be possessed), to know. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children.

Eros is a transient, irresponsible, mischievous god. He weakens our knees (said Archilochus), melts us, drives us mad. The acquisition of knowledge is without limit; there is always more to know. Both activities, loving and learning, gather momentum the more one pursues them. Their delights are exquisite; grasped, they melt in the hand like ice, freezing and burning all at once. Every lover knows that love is a sweet misery (“a form of madness,” Aristotle said) that makes one feel completely alive; every scholar knows a kind of lechery in finding facts, in fitting them together. Which is the more sensual, Leonardo's notebooks or Hokusai's erotic drawings?

Socrates conflated seduction and education in a living metaphor, and we are confused, we moderns, that he was a chaste family man who did not consummate his desire for the charming boys he delighted to teach. What Anne Carson's book makes us understand is that Socrates' living metaphor used the imagery of eros as Kafka's professor the spinning top. It is the kinetics of desire that creates the euphoria of loving and of learning, of being alive. We are largely ignorant of satisfied desire as the ancient Greeks understood it. Humanity is humanity; satisfied desire is a fulfillment of some kind, and as a subject belongs to housekeeping, child rearing, reverie; that is, to the world of order. Desire and learning are by their nature disorderly, disruptive, agonizing: bittersweet.

It is no wonder that the Greek erotic imagination invented the ritual game in which it is shameful and unmanly for the beloved to submit to his lover. Greek pederasty was a courtship with no ensuing marriage. The beloved got educated in manners, military science and the code of the tribe. His desirability ended when his beard appeared (“they are for Zeus to love,” says a poem); he married, begat a family, fulfilled himself as scholar, statesman or soldier, and chased boys. Modern liberals miss the whole Greek point; they want to legalize (in the name of freedom) what the Greeks thought slightly absurd, and to repress wholly (in the name of psychology) the Greek erotic game of loving children. Refracted through Western history's second erotic game, courtly love (where again the beloved must not give in to her suppliant), the spectrum of Greek desire has flip-flopped. They chose wives sanely and soberly, with a regard for tribal connections, while Eros spun them giddily in the gymnasium and marketplace.

Anne Carson's subject is not Greek sexuality but Greek thought and poetry. One wishes she had folded in their graphic and plastic arts, where Eros is as vivid as in poetry and philosophy. The lesson she has to teach us is one of aesthetic geometry. Art happens in an act of attention (James's “point of view”) which is to be transferred, after being made into an intelligible shape, to other minds. We forget that this is a miracle, a metaphysical unlikelihood. Poplars along the river Epte, Monet painting them, us seeing them a hundred years later. The process is always triangular, even if no work of art gets made. To remember those poplars, if one has seen them, requires a psychological triangulation all in one brain. Event, memory storage and curiously having to find for oneself a vantage in memory, to observe oneself remembering.

This nonexistent, impossible place and its definition form the invisible center of Anne Carson's brilliant essay. She calls it the blind spot. It is where we are when we desire (in a state of lacking) and when we accrue knowledge by experiencing a page of a book. In doing both we are motivated by desire. We want to nibble our beloved's ear, to master the Pythagorean theorem; what we are really doing is defying entropy and moving into the mind's capacity for synergy. The lover's world is a new one to him; he sees whereas before he was blind; things long thought to be dull are suddenly interesting; a sense of wonder lost since childhood returns. Scholars, artists, craftsmen who love their work forget to eat. Their work is not labor. “A thinking mind,” Anne Carson writes, “is not swallowed up by what it comes to know.”

Eros the god belonged to a world we can scarcely imagine. It becomes visible to us with the alphabet itself (hence a chapter to it, one of the most beautifully written in a beautiful book), which comes from the Greek sense of edges, limits, meticulous definition. Greek can delineate a word in another language: a leap forward: Egyptian hieroglyphs could not graph “Socrates,” Greek could graph “Osiris.” Anne Carson sees in the metallic beveling of Greek, its sharp edges and sinuous contours, a paradigm of Greek sensibilities. It is a Mozartian language. Sappho's poems were written for the barbitos, an instrument something like our zither or autoharp. Her meters are fast, decisive; some sound like Mother Goose, or Hopkins at his most chiming.

Persuasive as Anne Carson is, we still need an anthropology of sentiment and a grasp of history to appreciate the dramatic account she gives of the Greek fusion of biological desire and intellectual quest. Greek history in perspective seems to be an adolescence, growing splendidly but never arriving at a maturity. The Romans came and imposed one on them, not quite with success. Their prose and their poetry remained youthful, relentlessly inquiring. A page of Plutarch is somehow younger than a page of Herodotus. Socrates with his daimon and his students, his bare feet and his irony would not last a semester in an American university. The Roman police would have scooped him up along with Musonius. On the other hand, ancient Athenians would have liked Anne Carson. Barbarian, yes, but she speaks our language.

We no longer teach Greek and Latin to university students as a requirement for Bachelor of Arts. What we do teach (in history and survey and art classes) amounts to a feeble exposition. A book like Carson's is all the more welcome in that it derives from Greek ideas and has a measure of Greek wit (along with a measure of French style). It is easy to toss about words like Greek and Roman without giving (or having) any sense of what they imply, the charm of the one, the plain goodness of the other. Plutarch, who had seen the Roman senate (let's say that if you and I were to see it we might describe it as the American senate with garlic, uncomfortably serious, its oratory windy and undulant), has occasion to describe Alcibiades speaking to an Athenian council. Spoiled charge of Pericles, handsome favorite of Socrates, scapegrace, a Byron before Byron, the fast sporting set's ideal of a real Athenian, he was nevertheless an aspirant statesman and man of affairs. He had brought his pet partridge with him to stroke as he orated. The partridge got loose. The Athenians were delighted They dove and fell over each other to catch the partridge and return it to Alcibiades, who, his pet secure under his arm, continued his speech, which concerned the gravest civic matters. We cannot imagine this in the Roman senate, nor a Roman historian recording it. It is, as we must say, “very Greek.” Why, we can't say, just as we can't say why Sappho's song or Socrates' fusion of desire and philosophy is Greek: gone forever, nonrecurring.

Anne Carson asks us to imagine a city without desire, where philosophers do not run after tops, no poems are written, no novels. For without desire the imagination would atrophy. And without imagination, the mind itself would atrophy, preferring regularity to turbulence, habit to risk, prejudice to reason, sameness to variety. It would be a city that had ostracized Eros. No such city could exist (boredom is lethal); we need, however, a charmingly percipient philosopher like Anne Carson to teach us ancient verities in a bright new way.


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Anne Carson 1950-

Canadian poet, essayist, novelist, librettist, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Carson's career through 2003.

Carson is regarded by many critics—particularly in her home country of Canada—as one of the greatest English-language poets to emerge in the late twentieth century. Her works are experiments in genre, blurring the lines between verse and prose, fiction and nonfiction. As a classics scholar, Carson draws on her knowledge of ancient history and mythology in much of her poetry, making frequent allusions to classical literature, music, art, and philosophy. Among Carson's most successful works are her book-length “verse novels,” Autobiography of Red (1998) and The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001), and the poetry and prose collection Glass, Irony and God (1995). Carson has received numerous literary grants, awards, and fellowships for her poetry, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2000, and the 2001 T. S. Eliot Prize for The Beauty of the Husband.

Biographical Information

Carson was born on June 21, 1950, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She studied Greek and Latin in high school, which contributed to her life-long fascination with classical literature. Enrolling at the University of Toronto, Carson earned a B.A. and later returned to obtain a M.A. and Ph.D. in classics, graduating in 1980. She also studied Greek metrics for a year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1980 she began teaching classics at Princeton University, serving as a professor there until 1987. Carson has also taught classical languages and literature at Emory University, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, the Humanities Institute at the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley. While teaching as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1999, Carson collaborated with her students to create the libretto for an installation-opera titled The Mirror of Simple Souls. In 2002 Carson became a professor of classics in the Department of History at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. While best known for her poetry, Carson has also published a number of scholarly essays in the field of classics as well as translations of classical texts—such as Electra (2001) and If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2002). In addition to the MacArthur Grant and T. S. Eliot Prize, Carson has received several other awards for her work, including the Lannan Literary Award for poetry in 1996 and the QSPELL Poetry Award in 1998. She was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography of Red and a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for The Beauty of the Husband.

Major Works

Carson's works of verse and prose are characterized by several unique formal and stylistic qualities. Most notably, Carson blurs traditional categories of genre, constructing hybrids of the essay, the autobiography, the novel, the verse poem, and the prose poem. Carson's background as a classics scholar colors all of her writings, which feature frequent references to Greek mythology and such ancient poets, philosophers, and historians as Sappho, Plato, and Homer. She routinely renders elements of history and mythology in contemporary terms and modern settings, often conceptually closing the distance between the past and the present. Her verse places references to modern popular culture, such as film and television, side by side with references to ancient Greek culture. Her pastiche approach to genre, form, and subject matter, as well as the strong element of irony that pervades much of her work, have earned her the designation as a postmodern or post-structuralist writer, although the terms metaphysical, surrealist, and magical realist have also been applied to her work. Her book-length essay Eros the Bittersweet (1986) is derived from a line by the ancient poet Sappho. Carson's essay draws upon the poetry of Sappho, the philosophy of Socrates and Plato, and the fables of Franz Kafka to explore the relationship between knowledge, desire, and the imagination. Her volume Short Talks (1992) is a collection of miniature essays, ranging in length from a single sentence to a paragraph, that reflect the formal qualities of prose poetry. These “Short Talks”—as Carson labels them—cover such topics as the Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Brigitte Bardot. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (1999) is a dense and complicated series of essays on loss, absence, and death, which has little in common with Carson's previous works except for its primary method—juxtaposing the classical and the contemporary. Originally delivered as lectures in the Martin Classical Lectures series at Oberlin College, Economy of the Unlost places the fifth-century B.C. Greek poet Simonides in conversation with Paul Celan, a twentieth-century German poet who committed suicide.

Carson has published several collections of poetry, such as Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995), Glass, Irony and God, and Men in the Off Hours (2000). Plainwater includes the long poem “Canicula di Anna,” which is sometimes referred to as a verse novel. “Canicula di Anna” is comprised of a series of fifty-three numbered poems, interweaving the events of a modern-day academic phenomenology conference with the story of a fifteenth-century painter. The modern events are described from the perspective of an artist who has been commissioned to paint a group portrait of the scholars at the conference. Glass, Irony and God presents five poetry sequences and an essay. In “The Glass Essay,” an extended poetry sequence, Carson draws on the life of Emily Brontë as she attempts to make sense of her own failed relationship with a man. “The Glass Essay” also includes a visit to the narrator's mother and father (who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease), sessions with her psychotherapist, and an encounter with her former lover. In the collection's only essay, “The Gender of Sound,” Carson provides a gender analysis of speech, arguing that women's voices have been repressed throughout history. Men in the Off Hours, which derives its title from a quote by Virginia Woolf, is a volume of Carson's writings in a variety of forms—short poems, epitaphs, eulogies, love poems, and essays in verse. A series of poems, under the collective title “TV Men,” presents hypothetical television scripts featuring a cast of literary, historical, and mythical figures including Sappho, Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, Lazarus, Antigone, and Anna Akhmatova. In one of the “TV Men” sequences, Hektor, Socrates, Sappho, and Artaud come together during the filming of a television version of The Iliad in Death Valley, California.

Carson's novels in verse, among her most recognized works, include Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband.Autobiography of Red retells a story from the legend of Hercules in a modern setting—Carson uses “Herakles,” the traditional Greek spelling of the name. Carson transforms the ancient myth, in which Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged monster, and steals his magical red cattle, into a modern day parable in which Herakles breaks Geryon's heart and steals his innocence. In Carson's version, Herakles and Geryon meet while attending high school. Herakles is portrayed as a rough but attractive rebel, while Geryon, who is red and has wings, is characterized as a quiet, sensitive boy. The two become romantically involved, but Herakles insensitively breaks off the relationship, unable accept Geryon's absolute love for him. Several years later, the two encounter one another in Buenos Aires, whereupon Geryon becomes entangled in a love triangle with Herakles and his boyfriend, Ancash. Autobiography of Red is written in a verse form that resembles prose, alternating long lines with short lines. The work opens with an essay on the ancient poet Stesichoros, on whose poetry fragments Carson's narrative is based, and ends with a fictional interview with Stesichoros. The Beauty of the Husband, subtitled A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, narrates the breakdown of a marriage primarily from the perspective of a middle-aged woman. As the subtitle suggests, the volume is broken into twenty-nine sections—named “tangos” after the complex and evocative Latin American dance—and Carson intersperses each section with quotations from the poetry of John Keats. Throughout The Beauty of the Husband, Carson experiments with shifting perspective, alternating between the empathetic voices of both the husband and wife.

Critical Reception

Though Carson's work failed to receive considerable critical attention until the publication of Glass, Irony and God and Plainwater, she has since become one of Canada's most lauded modern poets, receiving praise from such noted critics and authors as Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, and Guy Davenport. Gail Wronsky has stated that Glass, Irony and God is “one of the most daring and significant and original books to appear in decades.” Jeff Hamilton, commenting on Carson's inventive use of form in Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God, has asserted that both volumes “accomplish the enormous task of reimagining the border between the meditative lyric and the autobiographical narrative poem.” Reviewers have commended the erudition and ambitious scope of Carson's verse, consistently describing her poetry as inventive, visionary, and highly original. Carson's utilization of the “verse novel” format in several of her works has also been praised by academics impressed with Carson's stylistic innovation and mastery of form. Several scholars have discussed the influence of Carson's academic background on her poetry, with many arguing that the poet's frequent classical allusions bring a wealth of texture and depth to her writing. Roger Gilbert has noted that, “Carson is a professor of classics, but unlike many academic poets she deploys her scholarly voice as a dramatic instrument whose expressive power lies partly in its fragility.” However, some have objected to Carson's tendency to cite obscure historical sources, faulting her for overindulging in esoteric textual references. Such critics have claimed that Carson's dense subject material often detracts from the emotional impact of her poems. Regardless, Carson has developed a reputation among scholars and audiences alike as one of the dominant writers in Canada's poetic canon.

Barbara K. Gold (review date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Gold, Barbara K. Review of Eros the Bittersweet, by Anne Carson. American Journal of Philology 111, no. 3 (fall 1990): 400-03.

[In the following review, Gold comments that Carson neglects to draw on relevant feminist criticism while formulating her central argument in Eros the Bittersweet.]

“Eros makes every man a poet” claims Plato in the Symposium, and indeed he might have been describing the author of Eros the Bittersweet. Carson, like Eros, is a mythoplokos, a weaver of tales to delight, amuse and perplex the reader, and her book is a trove of wordplay, puns, teasing titles, semantic games and epigrammatic twists. Carson's book, first published in 1986 and now reissued in paperback (1988), is an exploration of the characteristic properties of Eros and the relationship between desire, writing, reading and the structure of thought. Her 34 chapters, one of them as short as a single page, are cleverly titled so as to tantalize and mystify the reader: “Gone,” “Finding the Edge,” “Losing the Edge,” “My Page Makes Love,” “Ice-Pleasure,” “What a Difference a Wing Makes.” The wordplay that is immediately obvious from a perusal of the table of contents is an indication of Carson's preoccupation with the post-structuralist ideas that are the underpinnings of her book.

Carson's purpose is to explore the identity of Eros in order “to see what the passion of love has to teach us about reality” (121). Her primary thesis is that Eros is a lack, a searching for an object of desire which must forever recede into the distance in order for Eros to maintain its identity. If an object is known or possessed, it ceases to be an object of desire. Thus Eros, by definition, can never be fulfilled. This, of course, is not a new idea; authors from Sappho to Calvino have explored the fascinating paradox and made it familiar to us. But Carson traces the paradoxical nature of Eros from Sappho's famous definition of it as γλυχύπιχρϱον in LP 130 to its importance in the later novels of Achilles Tatius, Chariton, Heliodorus, Longus and Xenophon, and she attempts to show that Desire, or what she calls the erotic ruse is fundamental to the very structure of human thought (I have used boldface type throughout my review for the key words that Carson uses to explain her theory).

According to Carson, even the earliest Greek texts draw an analogy between the pursuit of love and the pursuit of knowledge, as seen in the verb μνάομαι, which can mean as far back as Homer “to direct one's attention to” and “to woo, court.” The activities of knowing and of desiring are linked by an act of reaching across the abyss from the actual / known / present to the desired / unknown / lacking. Bridging this gap is as impossible as unravelling the paradox inherent in the word γλυχύπιχρϱον or the combination of pleasure and pain inherent in the word Eros and in the phenomenon it attempts to describe. But Eros is the act of imagination through which we try to make these connections. Eros is, according to Aristotle, a kinesis of the soul (Rh. 1369b19), a movement, a verb. Through logos we try to make impossible links while simultaneously keeping visible a difference between the oppositions; this difference is the erotic space.

Lovers and thinkers are positioned at a blind point from which they watch the object of their desire disappear into itself. It is impossible for a thinker to think about her own thinking or a lover to feel his own desire. But Eros provides the space or difference or movement between the thinker / thought or lover / beloved, and lovers or thinkers (or writers or readers) bring this erotic space to life with ruses and metaphors that help to accomplish the impossible goal of collection (synagoge) and division (diaeresis). The main subterfuge employed toward this end is stereoscopy, a projecting of sameness onto difference. When the mind reaches out to know, or the lover reaches out to love, a space of desire opens up, and this subterfuge is set in operation through an act of fiction.

This is, in summary, Carson's argument. She explores the structure of desire in language and thought by examining mainly lyric poetry, the ancient novel and Plato's Phaedrus. According to Carson, the novelists institutionalize the ruse of Eros by a process of triangulation already familiar in Sappho and her contemporaries (LP 31, Фαίνεταί μοι). In order for a novel to be successful, the erotic adventure must continue and the object of desire be kept from the lover. Various ingenious but stock ruses (including letters, which themselves triangulate since they never reach the lover directly but are usually read by a third party) ensure that the reach of desire continues and that the paradox is sustained until the happy conclusion. The reader too stands in a triangulated relationship to the author and the characters and provides another space in which the erotic ruse can operate.

Plato's Phaedrus is a particularly important locus for a definition of Eros and emphasizes two other important components of Eros: time and control. Plato draws a direct link between eros and logos, which operate in much the same way, through peitho; Socrates' description of himself as a “lover of logos” (τῶν λόγων ἐραστοΰ, Phdr. 228c) all but identifies the two terms as one. Just as the lover wishes to control his beloved and to control time (Phdr. 239e-240a), so the reader or writer wishes to control discourse by fixing words in time and space. Time and change are essential both to the wisdom inherent in logos and to successful, healthy love affairs; only a bad writer and a bad lover will try to stop time or to live outside of time like the cicadas, who live constantly in the “now” of their desire. In such static enterprises, Eros or movement is lacking. Socrates, by identifying himself as a lover (ἐραστής) of the process of coming to know (Phdr. 266b), highlights the necessity of Eros (movement, change) for both eros and logos. Maximus of Tyre underscores this close relationship by pairing Sappho and Socrates who respectively call Eros a σοфιστής and μυθοπλόχος (18.9).

Carson's book is a wide-ranging exploration of the importance of Eros as an act of the imagination in love, writing, reading and speech. Her broad survey of texts, some more widely known, others little known, makes clear how deeply the paradoxical nature of desire has affected great writers from antiquity to the present. One of the strong points of the book is Carson's acquaintance not only with ancient texts from many genres and periods, but also with such disparate authors as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Weil, Emily Dickinson, Leo Tolstoy and Yasunari Kawabata. Eros the Bittersweet will remind the reader of the novels and essays of Italo Calvino—both give us the pleasure of making the acquaintance of so many known, forgotten or altogether unknown writers and entice us with the author's sheer delight in playing with language. Strong points of the book are her acute observations about language and the advent of writing (41ff.), her remarks about the real object of love poetry (the lover, who is seeking the missing part of herself in her beloved, 30ff.), and her discussion of Sappho's use of metrical effects to underscore the character of Eros (27-29; a later discussion of meter on 160ff. is not as convincing).

As is often the case with books that try to cover so much territory and to combine different methods, there are some points with which readers might disagree. First, on a purely formal level, Carson's writing is extremely self-conscious and too frequently calls attention to itself. She sometimes detracts from the serious nature of her topic by succumbing to the temptation to stretch metaphors (9, 13) and engage in puns and verbal surprises. The whole book is cast as a ring composition with the final line (173) recalling the philosopher running after tops in the Preface (xii). In fact, the book in its entirety seems to be intended as an extended exemplum of just the erotic ruse Carson is discussing: the reader stands at a blind point, the definition of Eros keeps vanishing out of our reach, two word sentences dangle tantalizingly before us (17), and the book ends with a question (“And who is not?,” 173).

All of this makes it clear that Carson has been influenced by post-structuralist ideas which sometimes illuminate her exposition of Eros, but often are not fully integrated into her work and sit on the surface as an uncomfortable and somewhat predictable overlay. Such concepts as deferred readings and absent presences (or present absences) are by now so familiar from Jacques Derrida and his followers that it is not enough simply to use them as a vehicle for textual interpretation.

More serious a problem is that Carson ignores the current feminist scholarship that might have illuminated so much here as well as the recent discussions of the connection between feminism and deconstruction. While the partnership is sometimes an uneasy one, many scholars now dealing with critical theory have made the two compatible in ways that would have made Carson's book even more interesting. For example, Derrida has argued for the subversion of binary oppositions, for “the thing that is in-between,” which he calls différance. This principle can also be applied to grammatical discourse, to the middle voice, in which subject and object are sometimes the same, the distance between the two is abolished and “in which a distinct erotic component is present” (see Frances Bartkowski's article on feminism and deconstruction in Enclitic 4 [1980]). French feminist theorists such as Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous see this voice as a specifically feminine language (for important discussions of women's language see Cixous' famous essay “The Laugh of the Medusa” and two essays by Irigaray, “When Our Lips Speak Together” and “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other”; all three essays are in Signs). According to them, female-constituted desire is very different in nature from male-constituted desire. Their project is to recover for women a positive identity so that they will no longer be characterized by lack and be perceived as passive objects of desire. Such a positive identity would assign to women a language characterized by plurality and indeterminacy.

Since Carson is using contemporary criticism to define Eros, the inclusion of feminist theory would have been a welcome addition to the book. Nowhere does Carson explore the possible difference between, for example, Sappho's articulation of Eros and her male counterparts' descriptions of Desire, and her seeming approbation of the seductive powers of language (97) might also have changed in the light of feminist theory. I applaud Carson's attempts to shed new light on ancient texts and ideas by applying contemporary theoretical approaches, but I also think that attention to feminist theory would have strengthened her work considerably.

Carson's book is nicely produced; I have found only two typos. The bibliography is amusing to peruse: Lacan falls next to Mabel Lang, Keats before Kenyon, Knox after Kierkegaard, and Eudora Welty before Martin West. Although René Girard's book Deceit, Desire and the Novel is mentioned in the bibliography, he is cited only once in the text. I find this odd since his book was the fundamental study of this topic and seems to underlie many of Carson's ideas. I would also have expected more attention in the bibliography to the considerable work done on Eros in Plato's Symposium. There is a helpful index of Passages Discussed, which would have been even more useful if the major rubrics (e.g., Socrates) had been subdivided into smaller headings.

Principal Works

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Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (essays) 1986; revised edition, 1998

Short Talks (essays and poetry) 1992

Glass, Irony and God (essays and poetry) 1995

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (essays and poetry) 1995

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (novel) 1998

Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (essays) 1999

*The Mirror of Simple Souls (libretto) 1999

Men in the Off Hours (prose and poetry) 2000

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (poetry) 2001

Electra [translator; from the drama by Sophocles] (drama) 2001

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho [translator; from the poetry of Sappho] (poetry) 2002

*The Mirror of Simple Souls was written collaboratively between Carson and her students at the University of Michigan.

Judith Kitchen (review date fall 1993)

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SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Skating on Paper.” Georgia Review 47, no. 3 (fall 1993): 578-95.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen asserts that the pieces in Short Talks function more successfully as essays than poems.]

“Poetry in motion!”—the announcer bursts forth with the old cliché as soon as the skaters hit the ice. I am instantly on the defensive. But, resist as I will, the skaters win. Three hours of Brian Boitano, of Mark Mitchell or Lu Chen, of the dancers Klimova and Ponomarenko, the Duchesnays, Torvill and Dean, three hours of the electric Viktor Petrenko and I am convinced that I know the source of the cliché and that, as is often the case, the source resides in what is most true.

The spotlight catches one figure dressed completely in black, including a hooded mask. Faceless, he is all body—tall and fluid. Through the sound system: the odd beat of a drum, an occasional rasp of flute, a tinkle, a shimmer—nothing that could be called a tune. Against this “music,” the body jerks into syncopated motion, begins a wide sweep, a truncated spin. The skates resist the ice, making a sound. Shhhkk. And the ice resists the body, stops it midmovement. Forces it back on itself. The flashing strobe light momentarily illuminates, then conceals, segmenting motion into separate frames. Faceless, the body reveals the way each jump or spin is made up of a specific sequence of individual moves. Watching this, I understand how those moves go together to make a completed figure. I have felt the shape of the line.

The faceless figure turns out to have a name—Gary Beacom of Canada. He returns in white pants, turquoise shirt, yellow tie. His face is expressive; the skating is seamless once more. But I'm haunted by the body that is no longer before me, the skeletal shape that revealed the poem. It's Beacom, not Petrenko, who has taken me to the secret of Petrenko's most amazing leap: the presence of a vision. Petrenko knows what he's reaching for; his face relaxes even before he lands, flashes a quick smile. This is choreography: each line by itself displays amazing skill, yet each is essential to the construction of a whole. The poem has been set in motion.

Too much contemporary poetry is pyrotechnics, manner, attitude. It displays skill—even, in bursts, imagination—yet is lacking in any sense of a whole, a sustaining purpose which gives meaning to the skill displayed. This is not a simple matter. I am convinced that it is possible to learn to write a poem in the same way it is possible to learn to skate, by practicing the individual moves over and over. I am also convinced that the result will look like, even act like, a poem. But it will not be a poem until it is impelled by something beyond the desire to have written a poem. I'd name it yearning except that a friend's anecdote comes so quickly to mind: A graduate student said a poem had moved him. “Moved?” said the professor. “That word has no place in our discussion.” But why not refute the professors who refuse to begin the discussion with emotion? Why not look for poems that embody the need to fly?

Looking over the many books sent to me to consider for this review, I see that they fall essentially into two categories: those where the line is predominant (that is, the line seems to drive the poem and creates the tone or cadence, even the meaning) and those where the overall vision seems to determine the line and the way it will function in the poem. Of course the reader cannot know exactly how a poem came into being, but this latter category consists of poems which could be described as those whose shape was felt before the act of articulation began. Some poems, explicitly or implicitly, raise the question of line versus vision; it becomes part of the drama in reading. It's similar to the way a spectator at an ice show can be involved in moment-to-moment risks the performer takes—will she make it? will he fall?—all the while building toward the hoped-for recognition of a perfectly completed shape. We watch poets bend and extend their lines in interesting ways and we may go with them for the moment, even admire the daring or subtlety, but in the end we need to see that the flashes of brilliance have been in the service of something more complex.

At any rate, that's the sort of concern I bring with me as a reader to six new books of poetry. The line is extremely personal to the poet. It orchestrates individual voice, and poets today are feeling quite free to experiment with how best to capture this personal element. I'm going to pay attention not only to the characteristic line of each poet, but to what that line does, how it serves the articulation of the larger vision.

… And now, a “short talk” on Short Talks by Anne Carson—tiny prose pieces that blur all genre distinctions. These could be called essays (they were classified as such for Best American Essays 1993), but in this collection they are presented to us as poems. Never longer than a paragraph, sometimes only one or two sentences, they range from the abstract (“Short Talk: On Hedonism”) to the concrete (“Short Talk: On Orchids”) to the unexpected (“Short Talk: On the Sensation of Aeroplane Takeoff,” “Short Talk: On Walking Backwards”), with talks on Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, van Gogh, and Brigitte Bardot thrown in for good measure.

In her introduction, Carson writes “I will do anything to avoid boredom.” If these were meant to fend off boredom, she should ask whose boredom matters most—hers or the reader's. There is nothing more boring than something too clever, too amusing, too contrived. As is the case for most prose poems, these pieces either fly or fall flat.

One that works well is “Short Talk: On The Mona Lisa”:

Every day he poured his question into her, as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back. Don't tell me he was painting his mother, lust, etc. There is a moment when the water is not in one vessel nor in the other—what a thirst it was, and he supposed that when the canvas became completely empty he would stop. But women are strong. She knew vessels, she knew water, she knew mortal thirst.

It succeeds because it sheds new light on an old subject, moves from what we know of the painting to what we know of human nature, extends that to the concept of “mortal thirst.” The artist's mortality is instantly set against the longevity of the art. And the piece has managed to establish an intimate speaking voice, one that is not afraid to be didactic. When the pieces work in this way, they disclose a strong sense of play and a lively imagination. They are, quite simply, fun.

When the pieces fail, they do so miserably—and in a variety of ways. Often they lack substance or become too fanciful. Sometimes they simply don't “connect.” In other instances, the worldview presented makes a kind of deliberate nonsense. One such piece is “Short Talk: On the Youth at Night”:

The youth at night would have himself driven around the scream. It lay in the middle of the city gazing back at him with its heat and rosepools of flesh. Terrific lava shone on his soul. He would ride and stare.

The problem here is that the piece relies too heavily on the techniques of poetry without having any of the essence of poetry. It does not temper the strange with the familiar; the surreal scene is given no justification and the similes come from left field. This isn't even fun. It sounds too much like the author's note: “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living. She spends most of her time otherwise painting volcanoes.”

Occasionally, as in “Short Talk: On Sylvia Plath,” Carson resorts to the syntactic flexibility of Faulkner or Joyce, running her sentences together until they eventually break down. In “Plath,” Carson moves from external observation (a restatement of Plath's mother's perspective) to internal awareness (where she virtually begins to speak for Plath)—all within one unruly, inconsistently punctuated unit. The point seems to be that Carson “gets” what Plath's mother missed about the violence of her daughter's inner life. Such irony is both too easy and too self-congratulatory; it offers neither exploration nor explanation.

Carson's short talks rely wholly on her angle of vision; the line plays no role at all as these pieces unfold. They are organized by the sentence, and any shift in tone or image takes place within that period. Neither the eye nor the ear is invited to take note of or stop at a line end. Most prose is utilitarian in this way; it wants to get its “message” across. Carson's message (though sometimes obscure) is the whole point. She plays with idea, trying on and discarding stance after stance. In the end, she's playing with her audience, too, refusing to engage her sometimes-intriguing attitudes the way a full creative essay might, and pulling back from the glimpses of personal disclosure with which she only teases us—but which a poet, using the full materials of poetry, might develop powerfully. It is an old truth that commitment to the means of the art—in poetry, to the full range of craft—allows a writer to go anywhere (to the very imaginative or to the very personal) without losing the reader's interest or confidence.

Ah, here's the rub: when the pieces are considered as “essays,” a greater percentage of them are successful than when they are read as “poems.” Carson has inadvertently defined the importance of the poetic line—the tangible thing that Wayne Dodd calls a “visual demarcation” of the music. Confronted with its absence, we suddenly realize the myriad ways in which the line is integral to how we read a poem. It is the poet's signature. It displays the energy or the grace of the skater. It leaves its telltale mark long after the lights are out.

Further Reading

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Allen, Danielle. Review of Economy of the Unlost, by Anne Carson. Chicago Review 46, no. 1 (2000): 162-64.

Allen discusses the themes of loss, absence, and death in Economy of the Unlost, applauding Carson's significant accomplishment of drawing connections between two poets so removed from one another both historically and culturally.

Carnell, Simon. “Epigrams from a Soul Trapped in Fire.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4980 (11 September 1998): 24.

Carnell praises Carson for her inventive creation of a hybrid genre of literature in Glass, Irony and God.

Carson, Anne, and John D'Agata. “An Interview with Anne Carson.” Iowa Review 27, no. 2 (summer 1997): 1-22.

Carson discusses her educational background, her writing process, and the relationship between her scholarly work and her poetry.

Hainley, Bruce. “Monster Heart.” Nation 266, no. 20 (1 June 1998): 32-4.

Hainley applauds Autobiography of Red as a brilliant novel, calling Carson “a philosopher of heartbreak.”

Halliday, Mark. “Carson: Mind and Heart.” Chicago Review 45, no. 2 (1999): 121-27.

Halliday comments that Carson effectively combines both romanticism and erudition in Autobiography of Red, but criticizes the novel for its ineffective use of verse and anti-climactic ending.

McDowell, Robert. “Expansive Poetry.” Hudson Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1999): 792-802.

McDowell describes Autobiography of Red as a “modern coming-of-age fable of urban angst and gay love.”

Reynolds, Oliver. “After Homer, Before Stein.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5044 (3 December 1999): 24.

Reynolds commends Carson's effective blending of thought and feeling in Autobiography of Red, but notes that the work is not entirely successful as a “novel in verse.”

Taylor, John. Review of Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson. Poetry 173, no. 2 (December 1998): 181-82.

Taylor praises Carson for her effective rendering of “authentic emotions struggling to arise, in a general atmosphere of inauthenticity” in Autobiography of Red.

Additional coverage of Carson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 12; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 203; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 193; Literature Resource Center; and Poetry for Students, Vol. 18.

Alexander M. Forbes (review date spring 1995)

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SOURCE: Forbes, Alexander M. “Transformations.” Canadian Literature, no. 144 (spring 1995): 177-79.

[In the following review, Forbes discusses the theme of transformation in Short Talks and notes that Carson's narrative style varies between standard prose, essays, and prose poems.]

In Forests of the Medieval World, Don Coles records ordered transformations. In these transformations, human beings, as individuals and as members of society, grow toward the achievement of a potential within themselves: there is an “honourable link” between the past and the future (“Basketball Player and Friends”). Aristotle is never mentioned in Forests of the Medieval World, but he does not need to be, for nothing medieval can grow without him. For Coles, the ideas of potentiality and entelechy, introduced by Aristotle, remain important concepts for understanding the growth of human beings. People develop as forests do, from previously encoded seeds.

In “Remembering Henty,” Coles identifies the contribution of unconscious promptings to the unfolding of potential pattern: “they're gesturing in a direction I might never have looked / without them”; it is “inside, of course, this room of the immortal images, / which even before I can guess who they are / stir, and wake” and “bear me home.” Also important are external causes, which cooperate with internal ones to shape any given outcome. The speaker, in his youth, “faced a world full of images” which would eventually help to “fill” him.

Internal and external causes again cooperate in “Princesse Lointaine,” as a man “taps the adjectives and verbs of love” onto a computer screen. The words “infiltrate / The green and faintly glowing ground”—“Arriving not from below / Or either side or above” but “as if the've been sown here long ago, / These tiny, darkfaced seeds of self.” These seeds have had “to wait / During quite a few years,” but behind the words on “the verdurous screen” is the presence of the one to whom the love poem is written: the immediate “cause” of love, and of the green growth of the poem on the screen.

Both external and internal factors can, of course, make outcomes unpredictable. The poems of Coles have long been associated with photography, and in “Basketball Player and Friends” a photograph suggests the complexity of transformation. The faces in the picture await “what's coming”: the “still-unmet intimate faces of their long lives.” The faces fail, however, to understand where they are going; the photograph shows its subjects “watching” with their “unprophetic eyes.” And external and internal factors can also hinder growth as well as promote it. In “I Walk by this Shore,” every “face shows / something beyond what it will / ever reach.” Although “the becoming-something” is everywhere in evidence (“those adventures, which we were sure / were waiting for us, really / happened” and “We have all become / something”), everyone in the poem decides, nevertheless, “to go in”: “it must have / been as far as any of us / wanted to come.”

Whether potential is realised or checked, there is always a releasing of emotion, and Coles draws upon this emotion. In “I Walk by this Shore,” the landscape itself is invested with emotion as Coles elicits, in an expressionist impulse, the “hidden extensions” between human “cries” and nature. A similar impulse is felt in the title poem of the collection, when images of medieval forests express the speaker's fears.

The expressionist tendencies of such poems achieve their own fulfilment in the conclusion of the collection, “The Edvard Munch Poems.” (It is important to stress “tendencies” here, for just as Munch did not systematically “anticipate” expressionism, Coles is not a thoroughgoing post-expressionist.) In depicting the ways in which the unfolding, or the suppressing, of encoded patterns is capable of generating the strongest emotional effects, these poems not only extend earlier poems, but offer an important critical analysis of Munch.

Most of the poems are based (as their titles indicate) upon Munch's paintings, although some are based upon his diaries. In “Sick Child” Coles shows Munch reflecting upon his obsessive repainting of Sophie, the sister whose death haunted him. Munch recalls her unfinished pattern, as she “haemorrhaged all the images” she “meant to grow towards.” “Summer Evening by the Lake” shows Munch driven, aesthetically and emotionally, by an archetypal influence: the anima, projected as “the unknown woman I long for.” And the girl who is the subject of “Puberty” is “one who is only a little part of the idea / she will become.” Her “incompleteness” flows towards the speaker, like “the outflowings / of art.”

Anne Carson, in Short Talks, is also intensely interested in transformations. Carson's relationship to Aristotle is, however, different from that of Coles. “Aristotle talks about probability and necessity, but … what good is a story that does not contain poison dragons” (“Introduction”). If the transformations of Coles owe much to Aristotle, those of Carson owe more to the unexpected (although not undetermined) metamorphoses of surrealist poetry, and to the not dissimilar metamorphoses of Ovid and of Kafka.

At times, Carson does come close to Coles. Trout (usually) complete the encoded life cycles of their species (“Short Talk: On Trout”); matter has “its forms” (“Short Talk: On the End”). In other poems, however, any similarities to Coles are counterbalanced by significant differences. While a “Short Talk: On the Youth at Night” is, for example, reminiscent of Coles (and of Munch) in its expressionist “outflowings,” its description of a scream, which lies “in the middle of the city” and gazes back “with its heat and rosepools of flesh” at the youth who is “driven around” it, ultimately owes more to surrealist transformation than expressionist. Similarly, it is Ovid, rather than Aristotle, who is responsible for the transformation of Brigitte Bardot into a Circe figure (in “Short Talk: On Brigitte Bardot”), and Kafka who is responsible for his own transformation into a confined and muted being (in “Short Talk: On Rectification”).

If Short Talks transforms its subjects, it also transforms the prose paragraphs which comprise it. In Carson's hands the prose paragraph sometimes becomes a prose poem (“Short Talk: On Autism”), and sometimes an essay (“Short Talk: On the Rules of Perspective”). Significant transformations regularly occur, as well, within the paragraphs, so that what begins as conceptualist stage direction can become, for example, short story (“Short Talk: On Housing”). Stories infiltrate most of the paragraphs, in fact, whatever form they take, and these stories themselves take several forms: many are surrealist narratives (“Short Talk: On Hopes,” for example), but others are realist (“Short Talk: On Disappointments in Music”) or postmodernist (“Short Talk: On Ovid”). And the stories that are told usually prove, furthermore, to be “parables and paradoxes,” whether explicitly Kafkaesque or not. At every level, the Short Talks record unexpected transformations.

Brain Evenson (review date fall 1995)

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SOURCE: Evenson, Brain. Review of Plainwater, by Anne Carson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 15, no. 3 (fall 1995): 253-54.

[In the following review, Evenson asserts that the poetry and essays in Plainwater are sensitive, visionary, and erudite without becoming obscure.]

Anne Carson's poetry and essays are such that often it is difficult to tell which is which—the essays have a near perfect command of the rhythms and sounds of sentences. The poetry as well often exhibits an astuteness common in excellent scholars and prose writers, but does so without sacrificing the poetic line.

At her best, Carson's imagination is so vivid and the links she makes so unexpected that her images are revelatory, skirting the very edge of madness. At her worst, which is seldom, a pretentiousness can creep into her style. “Short Talks”—tiny prose poems on discrete subjects that somehow bind into a larger web—works very well indeed. Some of the short essays on a father's madness [in Plainwater] are superb in the way by very simple means they strip the whole world bare. “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings” are translations, essays, and interviews that play in intriguing ways with the Mimnermos fragments we have extant—as a translator Carson seems the heir of Pound, walking a strange line between faithfulness and unfaithfulness that gives real power. She has the same erudition without obscurity, and knows how far her readers are willing to go with her.

“The Life of Towns,” which takes a single means of disruption syntax and repeats it over and over, is something of a one-trick pony, though there are strengths to these poems as well. “Canicula di Anna” is a long poem about painter Pietro Vannucci and phenomenology, in which past and present seem to become interwoven. “Kinds of Water” is a long travel essay on a journey to Compostela. “Just for the Thrill” is a pilgrimage of a different sort—a man and a woman traveling cross-country, sleeping in campsites, meandering their way to Los Angeles. These works are less radical than some of the other pieces, but are very strong still and all notable for the writer's control and sensitivity. Beautifully designed inside and out, Plainwater is anything but plain—it is, rather, visionary throughout.

Sandra M. Gilbert (review date August 1996)

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SOURCE: Gilbert, Sandra M. “Looks of Memory and Desire.” Poetry 168, no. 5 (August 1996): 281-302.

[In the following excerpt, Gilbert offers high praise for Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God, commenting on the recurring themes of memory and desire in both volumes.]

As T. S. Eliot would probably have been the first to admit, memory and desire are not just troublesome by-products of April, the Waste Land's infamously “cruelest month”; they are also, every month of the year, the stuff of poetry. Arguably, indeed, contemporary American verse has for some decades now oscillated between these two poles, with memory shaping the retrospective narratives and meditations of, for example, “confessional” poetry, and desire framing the experimentations and estrangements of, say, “language” poetry. Of course it isn't possible to make absolute distinctions between two schools—poets of memory, on the one hand, and poets of desire, on the other. To point to several artists who might seem easy to categorize but really aren't, the so-called language poet Lyn Hejinian has produced autobiographical reminiscences in My Life while the supposedly confessional poet Anne Sexton yearns throughout her oeuvre for an otherness that is new and strange. Nonetheless, from the richly memoiristic works of Julia Alvarez, Joy Harjo, and Naomi Shihab Nye to the tenderly nostalgic lyrics of Margaret Atwood, Janet Lewis, and Linda Pastan to the fantastic imaginings of Alice Fulton and Anne Carson, the nine new collections under review here can be at least roughly ranged along a kind of memory-desire continuum that reveals a good deal about the relationship of their authors to current aesthetic assumptions.

To be sure, all these writers look at memory and desire very differently—and their poems look strikingly different too. It's interesting, in fact, to consider how much we can learn about the poetic personality students are usually taught to call a poet's “persona” by just staring at the shapes verses make on paper. Linda Pastan's lyrics come in tidy one-page packets, for example, while Joy Harjo's mythic texts leap extravagantly toward margins and Alice Fulton's often complex themes-and-variations experiment with space as exuberantly as with language. Janet Lewis and Julia Alvarez are usually shapely, even decorous; Margaret Atwood and Naomi Shihab Nye are relatively unpredictable, sometimes producing neat blocks of lines, sometimes pelting out words in splurts, splashes, splatters. And Anne Carson is perhaps the most uncategorizable of all, moving with startling ease from great swatches of prose to Dantesque triplets to lean sentences floating in bare white space.

… If Alice Fulton proves in “Industrial Lace” and a few other poems that despite embarrassment she really can yield to feeling, Anne Carson's two stunning collections reveal that she is a kind of radiantly fluent Alice Fulton-with-a-heart. That said, I should add that despite such an effort at definition, Carson's astonishing range and ambition make her extraordinarily difficult to categorize. A classicist by training, she has produced a significant body of scholarship, including, Guy Davenport tells us in his (appropriately) admiring introduction to Glass, Irony and God, a study entitled Eros the Bittersweet (1986), as well as an essay entitled “Echo with No Door on Her Mouth: A Notional Refraction through Sophokles, Plato, and Defoe,” which may well be a precursor of the brilliant (and also very scholarly) feminist meditation on “The Gender of Sound” that she appends to Glass, Irony and God. Yet this comparatively familiar intellectual background would seem to have predicted very little about the utter originality with which Carson both sees and says the postclassical world we now inhabit.

To be sure, Carson's poems in both prose and verse are haunted by “Eros the Bittersweet” in recognizable ways. The compelling sequence entitled “The Glass Essay,” with which she opens Glass, Irony and God, encompasses all three of the title topoi to juxtapose a meditation on the life and death of Emily Brontë with a searing, evidently autobiographical investigation of the ways in which memory and desire haunt the aftermath of a failed love affair. And though Davenport argues that it “is a boldly new kind of poem,” this work actually makes use of common contemporary narrative devices (dreams, memories, family portraits, quotations from Brontë's letters and diary papers) to tell an equally common—and commonly traumatic—tale of love an loss. Similarly, “The Gender of Sound” really is a standard discussion of the kinds of imagery through which the female body and female speech have historically been represented; while the section of Plainwater entitled “Short Talks” is a sequence of prose poems that looks like many other comparable sequences we have all read.

Yet both the sensibility that filters the perceptions recorded in these pieces and the imagination that shapes them are almost breathtakingly original, by turns quirkily sardonic and grandly liberated from conventional presuppositions about how and how not to phrase experience. “I will do anything to avoid boredom,” Carson explains modestly in an “Introduction” to Short Talks, adding, “It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.” And clearly she has sought throughout both these volumes to know, work, use, impede, and leave in just such a manner.

Sometimes, of course, the results of Carson's experimentation are almost willfully bizarre: portions of the sequences in Glass, Irony and God entitled “TV Men” and “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller's Guide” seem unnecessarily opaque or mannered, and like some of Alice Fulton's weaker works, the parodic interviews with “Mimnermos,” a “poet of the seventh century B.C.,” that appear in Plainwater deploy a few too many facile wisecracks (e.g., “I: Moss is the name of my analyst / M: In New York / I: Yes / M: Is he smart / I: She yes very smart sees right through me / M: In my day we valued blindness rather more”). For the most part, however, whether she produces essayistic prose, minimalist verse or some hybrid of the two, her work crackles with discovery. Almost every page of her Short Talks, for instance, proffers flashes of mordant insight: “Rembrandt wakens you just in time to see matter stumble out of its forms” (“On the End”) and “Did you see [Sylvia Plath's] mother on television? She said plain, burned things. She said I thought it an excellent poem but it hurt me. She did not say jungle fear” (“On Sylvia Plath”).

More impressive still, Carson's efforts to “avoid boredom” by working hard and using “the infinitives and participles oddly enough” pay off richly in the always freshly—often indeed extravagantly—formulated seriousness with which she explores memory and desire throughout these two volumes. Plainwater, for example, includes two brilliantly innovative sequences entitled “The Life of Towns” and “The Anthropology of Water” which offer one exemplary passage after another. “Apostle Town,” from the first, grieves ambitiously while—and by—estranging syntax (as do other poems in this series) through eccentric punctuation:

After your death.
It was windy every day.
Every day.
Opposed us like a wall.
We went.
Shouting sideways at one another.
Along the road it was useless.
The spaces between.
Us got hard they are.
Empty spaces and yet they.
Are solid and black.
And grievous as gaps.
Between the teeth.
Of an old woman you.
Knew years ago.
When she was.
Beautiful the nerves pouring around in her
          like palace fire.

“El Burgo Ranero,” a prose poem from the second that is cast as a journal entry, can stand as just one sample of the prose comments through which the poet chronicles a woman's passionate pilgrimage with a man she calls “My Cid”:

It would be an almost perfect love affair, wouldn't it? that between the pilgrim and the road. No mistake, it is a beautiful thing, the camino. It stretches away from you. It leads to real gold: Look at the way it shines. And it asks only one thing. Which happens to be the one thing you long to give. You step forward. You shiver in the light. Nothing is left in you but desire for that perfect economy of action, using up the whole heart, no residue, no mistake: camino. It would be as simple as water, wouldn't it? If there were any such thing as simple action for animals like us.

Pilgrims were people glad to take off their clothing, which was on fire.

“I wonder if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside,” Carson muses in the essay on “The Gender of Sound” that closes Glass, Irony and God. Her speculation usefully illuminates the aesthetic underlying the startling and invigorating art she has produced in these two volumes, an art that manages, as strong art must, to be as bleak as the darkest memory, as radiant as gratified desire. “Chaos overshadows us. / Unsheltered sorrow shuts upon us. / We are strangled by bitter light. / Our bones shake like sticks,” lament the speakers of “God's Beloveds Remain True,” in the bitter sequence “The Truth about God,” but they continue in their wretchedness, like Beckett protagonists:

We know nothing.
We can not answer.
We will speak no more.
For we are the beloveds.
We have been instructed to call this His love.

Yet the absorbingly agonized “Glass Essay” concludes with a serene and literally luminous vision of a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh
          was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind
was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman's body, it was the
          body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

Like bone or light, such a vision, born from a struggle out of the pain of the past toward the enigmatic difference of the future, is itself “silver and necessary.”

Adam Phillips (review date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Adam. “Fickle Contracts: The Poetry of Anne Carson.” Raritan 16, no. 2 (fall 1996): 112-19.

[In the following review, Phillips applauds Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God as ambitious and exhilarating collections, noting that Carson's influences include Greek mythology, psychoanalysis, and the modernist writings of Gertrude Stein.]

When an interviewer for the Village Voice asked Anne Carson how often she wrote—not always the most interesting question—Carson also told him where she wrote: “anywhere all the time in the margins of anything to hand. Everyday yes regardless.” If “yes” here is a moment's hesitation in her Beckettian sentence, the sense is that almost nothing stops her. Writing in the margins, whether that entails squeezing oneself in, or randomly expanding a text, shows a certain regard for boundaries and for bodies—if only of words—the twin preoccupations of all Carson's writing and about which she is unfailingly interesting. She makes the formal considerations of writing—where you do it, in essays, or poems, or on the margins of other peoples's words—seem as urgent as bodily needs. Even if you are all over the place, you have to have a place to be all over; and in language that place is form. The poems, essays, and quirky enigmatic parables that make up these two books are enquiries into the nature of profusion.

There is, though, no visionary gush about Carson's witty writing, obsessed as it is by overflow, and a complementary sense that all our notions of tempering excess are a mere tribute to something that may have been pictured all wrong. Concluding the essay “The Gender of Sound,” the brilliant coda to Glass, Irony and God, she writes:

Lately, I have begun to question the Greek word sophrosyne. I wonder about this concept of self-control and whether it really is, as the Greeks believed, an answer to most questions of human goodness and dilemmas of civility. I wonder if there might be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside. Or indeed another human essence than self.

It is not easy to wonder these days about such things without sounding cute or disingenuous. But the assurance of her tone, and the pacing of her curiosity, convince the reader that he is in on the beginning of something and that we are, indeed can only be, amateurs in our frank wish to appraise the big questions. It is as though we are overhearing someone being intrigued. One of the many exhilarating things about Carson as a writer is the sheer enigma and momentum of her ambition, if only to herself. Her questions bemuse her, but because she is the least knowing or supercilious of writers—one of the very few writers who can be ironic without sounding arch—she seems to collapse the distinction between innocence and experience. If these are both topical and perennial issues that she is wondering about—what must we be assuming a self to be if we use words like self-control—then her handling of them in her poetry and poetic fictions is both dramatic and puzzling.

It is as if the continual risk (and temptation) of self-exposure is made bewildering by the possibility that there may be “another human essence than self.” This is the mystery that the heroes and heroines and narrators of her poems are always being initiated into. They are always discovering something in themselves that doesn't seem quite human, that leaves them on edge, teetering at the limits of the available stories. Sometimes she calls this an ahuman quality of experience, the sacred; and sometimes we know what she means (that, say, the uncanny is that which we could never be canny enough about; or that language is merely an attempted cure for the demonic). “What is so terrible,” she asks in Plainwater, as though it was a mock dare, “about stepping off the end of a story?” Because for Carson ends are always edges, there is no closure; there is only translation, or flight. The stories she tends to step off the edge of are, in various unusual combinations, Greek myths (and their ethos), psychoanalysis, and the prodigal modernism of Gertrude Stein. But stories, essentially for Carson, are for stepping off. That, for better and for worse, is what we can't help doing with them. “Shapes of life,” she writes in “The Anthropology of Water” (in Plainwater), “change as we look at them, change us for looking.”

Carson's first book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986) is like a primer of erotic paradoxes, a work, in one sense, of traditional classical scholarship, but staged as thirty-four brief essays or excursions with titles like “Gardening for Fun and Profit,” “Then Ends Where Now Begins,” and “The Sidestep.” Immensely informed and wacky, like its hero, the book straddles its necessary contradictions with logic and verve. “Desire then,” Carson writes, laying it out for us, “is neither inhabitant nor ally of the desirer.” Foreign to her will, it forces itself irresistibly upon her from without. “Eros is an enemy. Its bitterness must be the taste of enmity. That would be hate.” This is itself irresistible; it has the inevitability of a proof, but it describes a phenomenon that Carson insists is fundamentally unintelligible. In this book, Eros makes distinctions—here, between love and hate—only to blur them. Paradoxically, Eros, by putting us in a terrible muddle, also shows us the difference between the familiar and the strange. You knew who you were; you fall in love; it ruins what you thought was your life. Everything may now be a mess, but that mess is the new, or the unknown. Carson seems both to relish these erotic zigzags, and to be terrorized by them. Indeed, how could it be otherwise given both the subject matter, and what Carson seems to be doing to and with the whole notion of traditional, classical scholarship by exposing a certain Olympian earnestness. The book, in other words, seems to be written by both Eros and one of his victims, and then edited by a serious scholar. Carson is nowhere more tricky or difficult to place than in her singular amusements. And in this extraordinary book she introduces us to a sensibility—of both the author and her subject—that is essentially a sense of humor.

But Carson was not, in this book, a happy (i.e. convinced) irrationalist; neither a Nietzschean nor a glamorizer of Woman as a dark continent, positions more similar than they at first seem. So she could celebrate, in Eros, Socrates' wisdom as “a power to see the difference between what is known and what is unknown.” For Carson this is Eros in action, the power of love as a craving for something—knowledge, a person, or the knowledge that another person exists—that makes a difference visible and by doing so intimates the possible infinity of such differences, the sheer horror and exhilaration of how different we can be from ourselves. This is the trauma, the weird rationality of Eros, that love is a ridiculous disfiguring. Its logic is the breaking of forms.

With its calculated attentiveness to etymologies, the really very idiosyncratic classical scholarship that informs virtually all Carson's work is of a piece with her appetite for formal constraints. She is attracted to what form itself is used to do—to make formlessness both possible and invidious, to give a kind of shape to shape—one that makes it thereby intelligible. “Rembrandt wakens you,” she writes in one of her dazzling “Short Talks” in Plainwater, “just in time to see matter stumble out of its forms.” If this is apparently unthinkable, it is also an emblematic possibility that haunts Carson's writing, a glimpse of a new kind of birth (the “Short Talk” is entitled “On the End,” and is a brief commentary on Rembrandt's The Three Crosses). “Matter” here is a creature, and it is the stumbling that Carson wants to get at, to articulate. She is continually staging situations in which we are faced with the unimaginable, in which old familiar selves won't work, and something else has to come into play. “Think what it means,” she writes in “The Fall of Rome: A Travellers Guide” (in Glass, Irony and God), “to be a stranger / and to walk into the word ‘Live!’” In Carson's writing people are characteristically in shock. They've been interrupted. They've been woken up just in time to see something that doesn't make sense.

Her figures for the inevitable turbulence of form are Eros, Woman, and the Journey as heroic quest or pilgrimage. The traditional gravity and permanence of forms—and these just mentioned figures in particular—is insisted upon because, to use one of Carson's winning words, forms are “leaky”; the quest makes the hero promiscuous. What we are prepared for is not what we end up having to deal with. All our means of containing ideas turn out to be preemptive strikes. In a fascinating essay not included in these books, “Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt and Desire,” Carson writes of women being, for the ancient Greeks, “intimate with formlessness and the unbounded in their alliance with the wet, the wild and raw nature.” So ancient wedding rites were “contrived to bring the inviolate bride into contact with her bridegroom, to touch what was untouchable, to veil and seal what was an exposed pore, to civilize and purify what was wild and polluted.” These desperate measures, in Carson's view, are a means of insulation at all costs. The world is a wedding for Carson, but the wedding is a momentary and inadequate means of averting catastrophe. The ancient marriage rites she describes with such homey, scarifying wit in this essay are a kind of working model or blueprint for the peril and necessity of literary (among other) forms. The characters in Carson's writing are continually sealing themselves up and then finding themselves unsealed. For Carson this is a virtual definition of relationship. So the essays, enigmatic parables, and weirdly luminous poems in these books are about form as damage-limitation, and about relationships between people as quite starkly the violation of forms. (“To touch across boundaries means serious, dangerous leakage.”) Carson is not melancholic, not staving off emotional entropy, but rather, fascinated by leakage. And because leakage is everywhere—in the offing, as it were—we are always overexposed, always giving ourselves away in the joke we call language. Carson is a Freudian, if only in her sense that all language is the language of love, the language of self-betrayal.

Because she is so adept at exposing exposure—“TV is made of light, like shame”—she is unusually alert to hidden complicities. So there is often a connection or a distinction, a link, that her narrators are trying to clarify, as though they were involved in some ongoing translation. (“Translating ancient Greek,” Carson says in her Village Voice interview, “is a process of lustration that I couldn't do without.”) Because she is both chatty and incisively literary, she can make the most plangent distinctions sound almost wry. “Is this a law?” she writes in her poem “TV Man: Sappho.” “No, a talent. To step obliquely / where stones are sharp. / Vice is also sharp. / There are laws against vice. / But the Shock stays with you.” You make necessary, literary, tactful distinctions when you do something as ordinary as walk over sharp stones; but the difference between a law and a tale, and a law and a virtue, can be a difference of kind, not of degree—the kind of difference scandals can be made of. The law—like Carson's ancient marriage rite—is there to remind you of everything it can't do: It can't stop bad things from happening, nor the shock after they have happened. It leaks. It has a secret, and secretive affinity with all it pretends to control. It is underwritten by its own impossibility. “And the first rule is,” she writes in “The Life of Towns” (Plainwater), “The love of chance.” A rule is a form of love, but a love for an intermediate object. Rules are broken to be made.

In Carson, all the rituals of form are first and foremost an expression of their own limitations, the sign of what leaks out of them. She's often interested, as a result, in what people are trying not to be, how their acts depend upon how they clean up their acts—are the way they clean up their acts. In one of her “Short Talks” in Plainwater called “On Sylvia Plath,” she dramatizes this as an excerpt of what Plath's mother could not, or was not able to say about her daughter's poetry:

Did you see her mother on television? She said plain, burned things. She said I thought it an excellent poem but it hurt me. She did not say jungle fear. She did not say jungle hatred wild jungle weeping chop it back chop it. She said self-government she said end of the road. She did not say humming in the middle of the air what you came for chop.

Plain burned things are the raw things that have been overcooked. The mother is sensible, engages our sympathy, but the unspoken voice of the mother is genuinely incoherent, speaking a cartooned madness, at one with her daughter's disarray. For the mother to speak like that, to expose that voice on television, would have implicated her in the artful savage dismay of her daughter's poetry. It is the disavowal of involvement, the refusal or rupture of implication that Carson closes in on. The mother seals up the daughter in the language of commonplace sentiment (“it hurt me”). If every writer has the scene of a crime to which they keep returning, this is Carson's: the moment when one person imposes upon another the specious civility of distance. She writes with a terrible lucidity about these scenes of disentanglement, in which people reassert, or insist upon their purity:

                                                                                Not enough spin on it,
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces
which floated apart. By now I was so cold
it was like burning. I put out my hand
to touch his. He moved back.
I don't want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.
Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.
He moved onto me.
Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself
thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
There was no area of my mind
not appalled by this action, no part of my body
that could have done otherwise.

(from “The Glass Essay”)

Like Mrs. Plath, the man here, whom Carson calls “Law,” uses a casual throwaway formula (“not enough spin on it”) to remove himself from the scene. If Carson shows us the devastations of too-ordinary language, she also shows us how the couple begin to impersonate their own impersonality. His cheerful, sporty cliché prompts her, as if by magic, to turn into another thing. Naked would have been very different from nude, as would my back be different from the back, making you wonder, as it does, what exactly he likes the back of, or wants to see the back of. There is the horror here of impossible redress, and the sheer bafflement of what looks like shame but what Carson sees as quite other than self-exposure. The poem continues:

But to talk of mind and body begs the question.
Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between
                              body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.
Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.

Not a vale of soul-making but a mill of soul-making. One's fate is as irresistible and perverse as a perfect seduction—“no part of my body … / could have done otherwise”—but one is not ground down but ground out. Carson's staunch, visionary commitment to “another human essence than self” frees her from the bad faith, the bad poetry of pathologizing her actions.

Without a self there is nothing to confess, but there may be more daunting things to describe. The artful, tenacious voices of Carson's writing continually astonish by what she dares to consider. “You can learn to seem rational,” she writes in “The Anthropology of Water,” ruefully perhaps. Her writing makes us wonder how we learn to be irrational, or whether we just are.

Elisabeth Frost (review date November 1996)

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SOURCE: Frost, Elisabeth. “Disharmonies of Desire.” Women's Review of Books 14, no. 2 (November 1996): 24-5.

[In the following review, Frost discusses the themes of desire and loss in Glass, Irony and God, calling the volume ambitious and “strikingly original.”]

If love is among the themes women writers have traditionally embraced, outright passion is far riskier. But these three poets explore not fulfilled desire but spiritual and erotic absence—home life gone awry, prayers unanswered. Unweaving the fabric of the domestic, each one testifies to a profound disharmony between self and other that only the act of writing can quell.

Like much of Louise Glück's work, Meadowlands, the first volume since the poet won the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris, is rooted in the contests of love and power that permeate Greek myth. Here The Odyssey supplies the story. Like Ararat and The Wild Iris,Meadowlands is a sequence; its poems are skillful digressions that parallel Odysseus' meanderings. The “meadowlands” of the title suggests a nostalgic pastoral mode, as well as a contemporary setting: in a deflation of classical grandeur, Giants Stadium symbolizes the field of contest between the lovers. Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus and Circe all tell their versions in these pages, interspersed with a series of “Parables.” Along the way, Glück gives us neither the patient Penelope of Homer nor the resourceful Penelope of feminist revisions. Her heroine is both long-suffering and self-punishing; her partner taunts and torments her.

It's little wonder, then, that this couple's narrative marches steadily toward separation. In Glück's rendition, it's divorce, not reunion, that ends the story. Toward the close of the sequence, a rare moment of tenderness in “Reunion” (“And as he speaks, ah, / tenderly he touches her forearm”) is followed by “The Dream,” which opens: “I had the weirdest dream. I dreamed we were married again.” Glück has always been a poet of tragic suffering, and here she jettisons the epic's happy ending to expose a long history of inflicting pain. “Butterfly” is emblematic of this contemporary Odysseus' clear-eyed cruelty:

Look, a butterfly. Did you make a
          You don't wish on butterflies.
You do so. Did you make one?
It doesn't count.

(p. 44)

With its child-like syntax, this exchange captures the tug-of-war lurking on the other side of intimacy. But while Glück's Odysseus often plays the villain, the female poet gets the last word. In “The Wish,” the husband wonders what his wife wished for “The time I lied to you / about the butterfly.” He expects to hear that she hoped “we'd somehow be together in the end.” But she comes back with a different account of her desires: “I wished for what I always wish for. / I wished for another poem.”

Other exchanges between husband and wife, cast in accessible, colloquial language, show Glück at her best—questioning the unlikely prospect of sustained affection. It's usually the husband who doles out accusations, as in “Void”: “I'll tell you what's wrong with you,” he says, “you're not / gregarious. … / You should take one of those chemicals, / maybe you'd write more.” But there is also extremely funny repartee as the partners spar. “Ceremony” is perhaps the most poignantly comic:

I hate that you refuse
to have people at the house. Flaubert
had more friends and Flaubert
was a recluse.
          Flaubert was crazy: he lived
          with his mother.
Living with you is like living
at boarding school:
chicken Monday, fish Tuesday.
          I have deep friendships.
          I have friendships
          with other recluses.

(p. 6)

But despite Glück's unsentimental mapping of love's decline, many of these poems lack an edge. Certainly, there are the sharp, epigrammatic insights that she always provides. And the poems spoken by Circe are among the most cutting and funny in the book: “I never turned anyone into a pig. / Some people are pigs; I make them / look like pigs.” But there are flaccid moments as well, especially at the opening of the sequence. “Penelope's Song” strains to set up the plot that follows: “Soon / he will return from wherever he goes in the meantime, / suntanned from his time away, wanting / his grilled chicken.” Striving for a contemporary version of Homer's original, Glück's language lapses into the mundane.

As for her treatment of desire and absence, the bottom line in Meadowlands is that both partners are helplessly self-absorbed, like the subjects of “Parable of the Swans,” who

spent eighty percent of the day
themselves in the attentive water and
twenty percent ministering to the
other. Thus
their fame as lovers stems
chiefly from narcissism.

(p. 51)

This is the tale that seems to overwhelm all others in the book. Glück tells this narcissistic story well. But in this grim view of modern love, there's little to learn beyond the limits of each speaker's ego.

Canadian poet Anne Carson also explores the vagaries of desire and loss in the five poetic sequences and single essay that comprise Glass, Irony and God. The first and perhaps most brilliant of these sequences is called “The Glass Essay.” It begins in the middle of the night, with the remembered departure of a lover: “I can hear little clicks inside my dream. / Night drips its silver tap / down the back.” In her new solitude, the speaker is haunted by the absent lover (whom she calls “Law”), as she struggles to understand the power of romantic enthrallment.

Carson writes about loss and longing in remarkably plain language: “In the days and months after Law left / I felt as if the sky was torn off my life.” The passage of time is only a reminder:

It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.

(p. 8)

This vivid image is typical of Carson's style—crisp and entirely new.

Like Glück, Carson, a classicist by training, calls up ancient models (as in her colloquial version of “The Book of Isaiah”) But in “The Glass Essay,” Emily Brontë presides, a double for this speaker's contemporary story of lost love. Carson's preoccupation with passion leads her to Catherine and Heathcliff (the latter described as “a pain devil”), and a visit to her mother's home “on a moor in the north” unsettles her: “Whenever I visit my mother / I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë. …”

As this sequence unfolds, the speaker's desolation bleeds into her mother's grief for her husband, lost to Alzheimer's disease. He is consumed by inarticulate rage, which Carson records unblinkingly:

Hi Dad how y'doing?
His face cracks open it could be a grin
                              or rage
and looking past me he issues a stream
                              of vehemence at the air.
My mother lays her hand on his.
Hello love, she says. He jerks his hand
                              away. We sit.

(p. 25)

Behind the losses of both mother and daughter there is Brontë's solitude, her sense of imprisonment and her release only through writing. Carson confronts each woman's grief through this history, implying that dealing with raw emotion requires some distance—for the poet as well as for the reader. “It pains me to record this … I am not a melodramatic person,” she tells us. “But soul is ‘hewn in a wild workshop’ / as Charlotte Brontë says. …” The Brontës may be the vehicle, but the revelations ring true.

The speaker eventually begins to shed her obsession with her lost love, in part by recording an obscure series of dream figures. These “Nudes,” as she calls them, play out her torment: for example, “Nude #2. Woman caught in a cage of thorns. / Big glistening brown thorns with black stains on them / where she twists this way and that way. …” After a dozen of these tortured images, the final vision is relatively serene: “… there was no pain. / The wind // was cleansing the bones.” Austere and melancholy, the image nonetheless suggests purification.

It's hard to overstate the achievement of this strikingly original book, including its scholarly ambitions. “The Gender of Sound,” the essay that closes the volume, reveals the extent to which research and poetry are linked in Carson's work. Here she discusses the relationship between voice and gender, particularly what she calls “the male abhorrence of female sound.” It's a fitting close, since, in part, Glass, Irony and God is about the sounds that escape from us, about the limits of what we can control.

In the Master Letters, Lucie Brock-Broido raises the stakes from lost love to existential desire—a longing impossible to satisfy. As in the work of both Glück and Carson, a literary precursor figures prominently here. The book's title comes from three mysterious letters by Emily Dickinson that were discovered after her death. These “Master Letters” were probably never intended to be sent: each is addressed to “Master” or “Recipient Unknown,” and they have been viewed by literary scholars as love letters, epistles to God, or a kind of poem in prose.

Brock-Broido sees them as all three and explains her unusual project in a “Preamble”: her 52 poems are “a series of latter-day Master Letters [that] echo formal & rhetorical devices from Dickinson's work.” Brock-Broido's account of the original “Master Letters” is very helpful. But her explanations of her own writing seem self-conscious. Unlike Carson, Brock-Broido provides us not with scholarship but with interpretations of work that should ideally speak for itself.

Splicing archaic and current diction, Brock-Broido conjures Dickinsonian states of ecstasy and numbing pain as she probes for an elusive “you”—deity or lover. A “Definition of Prayer,” she reminds us, might read, “Dear Lord, pay attention to—me.” But she offers little hope for an answer. “Sometimes I think I will be broken by your lukewarm Hand,” the speaker reflects in “Into Those Great Countries of the Blue Sky of Which We Don't Know Anything” (hefty titles like this abound). “I should have liked to see you, before you became improbable,” she writes in another poem. “Should you, before this reaches you, experience Immortality, / Who will inform me of the exchange?”

Playing with the nineteenth-century notion that letters are inescapably erotic, these poems still suggest that language is a poor substitute for deeper communion. Often even speech is a one-way affair. In “Treason,” the addressee (ironically called “Dear friend”) threatens to obliterate the speaker: “your Hand, concaved around my mouth, once a ravening thrill to me—now—Abstains me.” In contrast with the revenge Glück relishes, or Carson's slow healing, Brock-Broido assumes there's a perverse salvation in enthrallment: “The speechless throat is economical, deeper Off, the most dangerous.”

In this atmosphere of smothered words, these poems sneak out subversively, like Dickinson's own. Occasionally there is outright blasphemy: “My will be done.” Elsewhere, there is a stubborn self-assertion: “You should be glad, Sir, after all, not to live near me. I have too much of the martyr, would set myself ablaze—just for the bright light of the fire, a curiosity …” Throughout, there is the male addressee—shifting, impossible to reach.

To portray extreme psychic suffering, Brock-Broido contorts diction and syntax. The results are often overwrought, even precious: “I am angel, addict, catherine wheel—a piece of work / On fire spinning sparks from Lourdes to Alexandria.” To my taste, Brock-Broido's merging of Dickinsonian and Hopkins-like language—nonce-words, hyphenations and archaisms—often results in lines that glitter too brightly with their own cleverness, as in: “The sedative of frost composes / Its infinity of dormant melodramas // On the glass.” This sort of rhetorical flourish (with a nod to Coleridge) draws attention mainly to Brock-Broido's own artifice.

In poems like “Grimoire,” however, the search for self-obliteration—the poet's ultimate quest—appears in a simpler, more effective style: “In the tameless night season. / The griefless wind, it is nothing // That I want.” Such moments show us the considerable accomplishment of Brock-Broido's experiments, even if her astonishing similes won't be to every reader's taste:

My world is as ordered as if—as if I had stacked the stars in the nightsky's orchard, senseless as crates of fish stacked glimmering, one-eyed & blank, one atop the other of them, cold as Rome apples or a new moon.

(p. 26)

Still, all of her poems imply the same thing—that there is no relief from longing. More rooted in the real, although equally at home with their literary precursors, Glück and Carson end instead with a measure of renewal, one that the act of writing itself has helped to bring about.

Richard Holinger (review date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Holinger, Richard. Review of Plainwater, by Anne Carson. Midwest Quarterly 38, no. 2 (winter 1997): 235-36.

[In the following review, Holinger compliments Carson's unique skill with descriptive language in Plainwater.]

In one of Plainwater's essays, Canadian Anne Carson writes, “I will do anything to avoid boredom. … You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough” (29). Allusions to Foucault, Heidegger, Husserl, and Hegel confirm her postmodern, deconstructive emphasis. The theme of water that floods each part lends credence to one's notion of seldom having a metaphysical floor to stand on, the aberrations of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and linear movement floating one weightless.

The sections “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings” and “The Life of Towns” suspend conventional prosody and lack a cohesive subject. The verse ascribed to Mimnermos (7th century B.C.) and the brief poems depicting, ostensibly, different kinds of towns, such as “Town of the Sound of a Breaking Twig,” read like koans: “She ran in. / Wet corn. / Yellow braid. / Down her back” (104). The imaginary interviews Carson conducts with Mimnermos, devoid of punctuation and full of intentional anachronisms, remind one of dialogue from a Beckett play, absurd and profound at once.

The prose poems of Short Talks cover such a vast array of subjects, from personal memories of Carson's father to snippets from famous authors' lives, they also fail to cohere, though individually their factual, encyclopedic diction, coupled with extraordinary settings and actions, satisfy. “On Waterproofing” describes the separation of Kafka's sister from her husband in 1942 because he was not Jewish. “She did not mention, because she did not yet know the word, Auschwitz, where she would die in October 1943” (37).

“Canicula di Anna,” 53 numbered poems, focuses on a conference of phenomenologists, their portrait painter, and his girlfriend. The tone is comic irreverence: “I paint the philosophers at table and / on the way to Being” (58). Its Afterword mocks the reader for wanting more plot, saying, “Just then I felt your body tense for a story. … You tracked and peered and stalked it through page after page” (88).

The most successful—and ambitious—section, “The Anthropology of Water,” filling half the book, consists of three spiritual essays. The longest, “An Essay on the Road to Compostela,” chronicles in diary form the author's pilgrimage in Spain where she falls in step with a man she names “My Cid.” Each entry is introduced by a quote from an Eastern mystic and/or poet, as Carson's prose, too, resounds with Oriental philosophy: “A pilgrim is like a No play. Each one has the same structure, a question mark” (148).

In “An Essay on the Difference between Men and Women,” the persona analyzes art and love while camping across the U.S. with her lover “the emperor.” The anthropologist's quest resides in finding how language figures into her/our lives; she discovers that truth may be hidden in silence, in love, for “Camping is an exercise in mind's abstinence” (218).

At the outset of the third essay Carson explains that her brother ran into “bad luck” in high school, and then disappeared while trying to reach Asia. What follows is an anthology of lovely dreamlike prose poems about a man's daily swim in a beautiful lily lake. He is perfectly at home, as are we, thanks to Carson's sure, exquisite language.

Gail Wronsky (review date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Wronsky, Gail. Review of Glass, Irony and God, by Anne Carson. Antioch Review 55, no. 2 (spring 1997): 247.

[In the following review, Wronsky examines Carson's treatment of the relationship between gender and language in Glass, Irony and God, labelling the collection as “one of the most daring and significant and original books to appear in decades.”]

When Carson's poem “The Glass Essay,” the first of five dazzling poetic sequences in this book [Glass, Irony and God], first appeared in Raritan Review, my network of radical women readers and I (“women who read with the wolves,” we call ourselves, wild with irony) went crazy. There are only a few of us—a philosopher, a fiction writer, a couple of poets, an administrator, a former Ike-ette—but we trust each other's reading abilities and nobody else's. For years we've been waiting for someone to publish work like this. And the occasion, it seems to me, should be celebrated with lavish introspection and ubiquitous public meditation on the relationship between gender and language. A discussion that, contrary to what the academy is saying, has only just begun, and to which Carson contributes sheer, lucid genius that has been “‘hewn in a wild workshop’” like Emily Brontë's and yet is not emotionally excessive or melodramatic.

In “The Glass Essay” Carson writes about time in a woman's life—about loss and love, about vision and writing. With bone-chilling candor, she describes a last meeting with a lover she calls “Law” (!) in which she, the speaker of the poem, offers “a man who no longer cherished me” her body. It is the most honest rendering of this particular kind of heterosexual moment I have ever read: “There was no area of my mind // not appalled by this action, no part of my body / that could have done otherwise.”

Carson's poems are also sometimes wickedly funny. In “The Truth about God,” the second sequence in the book, “‘Treachery’ [she notices] sounds just like His zipper going down.” “The Gender of Sound,” an essay that closes the book, is an uncompromising theoretical work that insists on the connection between intellectual and artistic activity. All in all, this is one of the most daring and significant and original books to appear in decades.

Jeff Hamilton (review date summer-fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Hamilton, Jeff. “This Cold Hectic Dawn and I.” Denver Quarterly 32, nos. 1-2 (summer-fall 1997): 105-24.

[In the following review, Hamilton discusses Carson's experimental use of genre and form in Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God, arguing that both volumes “accomplish the enormous task of reimagining the border between the meditative lyric and the autobiographical narrative poem.”]

These two books [Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God] by the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson accomplish the enormous task of reimagining the border between the meditative lyric and the autobiographical narrative poem. How do we talk about what hasn't been done before? Averse to the unsettling hybrid forms among the books' eleven pieces, some readers may decide Carson doesn't write poems. Formally, her work ranges from prose poem to verse novel, generically from satire to scholarly essay, with a dollop of confession to garnish them. The lyric commodity some of our most venerable journals have on offer is, for the moment at least, outside Carson's range. As she tells us in Plainwater, she has “no talent for lyrical outpourings.” Her work moves all around—one wants to say it is all about—that single stanza, sincere and lyric account of personal experience at least one journal calls Poetry. In fact, however, it would be more accurate to say that Carson's work is about the quality of the poem such lyrics commodify: the voice—a sounding so intimate to us as we read silently that we refrain at first from giving it any but the most figurative status. (We call it the voice whether or not we're reading aloud.) The titles Carson gives her two books may be descriptive of just this subject.

Carson's work is discursive, self-conscious, highly intelligent—yet in our poetry culture the revolt against self-consciousness is in full charge, and I suspect these poems cannot overcome it. Is it possible to write a poem about the voice that isn't vulnerable to the charges of subject-mongers who despise whatever smacks of poetry about poetry? Indeed, from Michael Palmer to Louise Glück it has been done successfully, charge what thou wilt. Poetry in English contains multitudes, certainly, but this fact by itself gets to be a problem for a poet like Carson who asks, for starters, whether the voice can be represented—within a poem, within a picture, within a political system—and if not, then what chance does any poet have of finding again a central place within the tribe? The poet of “Song of Myself,” in his own time far from being this central poet, rather sings about the problem of poetic voice. We get the thing confused. Will the voice find itself increasingly subjugated into representative, typical identity positions? Carson's first two books appear in a moment when the poets of identity politics, who at least have a politically engaged audience, and the avant garde, with no audience outside the academy but armed with their hallowed rationale in the idea of progress, have almost nothing to say to one another. In her omnibus review of women poets in Poetry, Sandra M. Gilbert lumps Carson's books in with poets as disparate in their work as Julia Alvarez, Janet Lewis, Linda Pastan, and Alice Fulton, and then says not a word about the feminism of these writers, but rather insensately plots them on a spectrum of “memory and desire”—Eliot's phrase, of all things, with our poets of identity politics on the memory side and the formal experimenters Fulton and Carson holding down Eliot's desire. Surely this is academic. That Gilbert, a credentialed feminist, can't discuss the political meaning of Carson's work in the pages of Poetry suggests how right Whitman was to claim the crisis over poetic voice has vista—we're still in that crisis. Carson's approach to the problem of subject matter is fascinating, though I suspect it will be welcomed more warmly by the reader who is not a poet—someone Riding and Graves called “the plain reader”—than among practitioners.

Each of the poems in these two books would seem to have subject enough, something you could catalogue: In one, the newly found fragments of a pre-Socratic philosopher-poet are presented along with his discoverer's commentary and an interview with the beleagured and post-humous ancient. In another, one of several travelogues, the diary of a North American tourist in Spain emerges as a failed conversion narrative, with stations punctuated by scriptural reference from the literature of Buddhism. A dog narrates the story of Anna, the muse of a painter commissioned to do a group portrait of philosophers attending a phenomenology conference in Perugia. An ethnographer copies down the “short talks” of three old women working in the fields. A suitably anonymous narrator offers a new redaction of the first forty chapters of Isaiah. Several pieces anatomize the aftermath of a love affair gone bad.

Subject matter, yes. Yet on the surface, at least, these eleven pieces, three or four themselves booklength, don't look like poems. Often they are presented as fake books, with introductions, tables of content and epigraphs. For instance, the following is an introduction to something called “The Anthropology of Water”:

Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried. Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts and God, one by one all took themselves out of my hands. Maybe this is the way it should be—what anthropologists call “normal danger” in the encounter between cultures. It was an anthropologist who first taught me about danger. He emphasized the importance of using encounter rather than (say) discovery when talking about such things. “Think of it as the difference,” he said, “between believing what you want to believe and believing what can be proved.” I thought about that. “I don't want to believe anything,” I said. (But I was lying.) “And I have nothing to prove.” (Lying again.) “I just like to travel into the world and stop, noticing what is under the sky.” (This, in fact, is true.) Cruelly at this point, he mentioned a culture he had studied where true and false virgins are identified by ordeal of water […]

Several pleasures that can be had from reading Carson are on display in this excerpt. A winning precociousness characterizes the speaker, whose intellectual curiosity is the instrument of comic chaos in her romantic life. The irony masks a more desperate motive, however; Carson can't help exposing the costs of the speaker's irresistible comic timing. There's a playful enactment in Carson's narration of the way the voice performs the self's claims vocally, deliciously floating them aloud as a way of divining truth from lie. All the mental ear hears the interior voice say will seem true, as they screw up the courage to speak. The integrity Carson's poetic voice achieves in this short passage comes from its movement of thought, a compression as lively in the narrator's refusal to tell us how the anthropologist taught her about danger as in her agile shift from the interior voice of judgement “(This, in fact, is true)” to the more narrator-like “Cruelly, at this point. …” What the anthropologist so cruelly responds to in what the narrator said outright is perhaps no more than that the subject he changes does so inevitably, as a function of human differences, in this case between men and women, which the narrator would prefer to think of as genius, or poetry. The poet's distance from her narrator is a waggish joke on our assumption that they are one and the same. Carson gets off this gag again and again.

Carson's poems have subject matter then, but only a nominal one; the secret subject of the passage just quoted is borne by the movement of thought, by what gets left out in the hurry to go on. Writer, narrator, dramatic speaker: Carson insists on being all three, and nearly never at once, so that to stay with her we have to tune in to the motive of her shifting attentions. What makes Carson's prose movement so often such a hoot is that, whatever her subject matter, she's always got her mind on what the characters in Preston Sturges movies used to call Topic A. For these characters it was sex, and for Carson, too, but with the added and dreadful implication in Carson of the loss of the self's integrity in the face of the beloved.

This loss of self, of which love is the model, the voice can represent only at the cost of its own integrity: writer, narrator, dramatic speaker, and if all at once, then always one dominant. I suspect Carson feels that, in order to keep her secret subject comic—that is, tolerable—she must give up something as a poet; often, verse. Or put another way, let us suppose that Carson feels the prose essay is her native form and it's only her feminist emulation, along with her deepest cherishments as a reader, that draw her into verse. As a reader she's often in evidence with her epigraphs from canons both East and West, an avocation she makes light of by tagging her narrators with scholarly epithets. Scholars write prose, however, so her insecurities as a verse writer may rhyme conveniently with her political passion in those decisions which resist her discursive mastery in prose—her glib comic timing. Throughout the following—one of the prose travelogues in which the speaker is making a cross-country trip with her lover, a Chinese anthropologist she refers to as the emperor—but particularly in the last sentence, her timing is expert:

In camping, cryptic rituals of the lost tribe confront the anthropologist. I am learning to read a map. There are many small numbers. I navigate us across Kansas and into a large ruined area where crumbled fenders and auto parts are lying about. It is hard to find the exit. “Women don't know maps, I never met a woman who could read a map,” says the emperor. Well I haven't been a woman for long, I will keep working on maps. They imitate reality in somewhat the same way sex does desire, curtly. Make me your fuck boy, I hear one of us whispering in the midst of dark tent nights—where do I go for a map into that country?

She gets her laugh, but too much of so fond a thing as a Carson punchline can slur into the banter of a hundred Maureen Dowd-type newspaper columnists, with their damned foothold in Yankee sanity. At this point in her work Carson seems to understand the risk of being a crowd pleaser, and if nothing else the length of “Anthropology of Water”—130 pages—secures the reader's sense of the narrator's desperately comic repetition. Perhaps aficionadoes of travel narrative will bring more patience to this work than I do. In any case, what can't be overlooked about Carson's prose is the way its values transform her verse, for were she not quite conscious of this herself she would not have included essay and verse under one cover.

We need some explanation of Carson's funkiness as a poet. As a maker of free verse, Carson can hardly live without her catty and satirical repose toward the tradition. Of course she's part of a conversation going on since Whitman between prose, verse and poetry. When she steals verse compression for her prose, the movement of voice typifies one kind of exchange poetry often makes with prose:


The reason I drink is to understand the yellow sky, the great yellow sky, said Van Gogh. When he looked at the world he saw the nails that attach colors to things and he saw the nails were in pain.

This is terrific, so we don't haggle over distinctions about what to call it; if anyone asks we say it's a prose poem. The issue gets trickier, however, when verse steals prosiness and the thief risks being called a versifier. It is a commonplace to observe about a verse line that when it lopes beyond five metrical feet it begins to lose its mnemonic function. When Carson writes a series of lines like the following, from the verse novel “Canicula di Anna,”

Some of Perugino's early works
were extensive frescoes
for the Ingesati fathers in their convent
(destroyed shortly thereafter in the siege of Florence).

she risks the accusation that she versifies (or fails to versify) an art history paper. Yet this last line of prose permits a slight shift of tone, from the informative to the pedantic, which, when often enough struck, becomes amusingly exposed, thematic—one strain within a shrewd orchestration of themes the novel manages. Cattily, then, as in Plainwater's other work of verse, “The Life of Towns,” Carson risks a rather mordant relation to the tradition. Most of the verse in these two volumes merely critiques the blank verse line of our tradition, pilfering here and there by now-abandoned formal ideas that serve the cause of Carson's satire. Unless we read “The Glass Essay,” a booklength autobiographical poem from Glass, Irony and God, we gain from these volumes no sense of Carson's singular engaged response to the debate in this century over the relation of the free verse line to the blank verse tradition.

This isn't at all to regret the persnickety irony of a poem like “Canicula di Anna,” Carson's brilliant and deadpan parody of a certain obsolescent kind of high brow romanticism. She may get her title from Pound's observation about an Umbrian landscape he knew well: “the dry earth pants against the canicular heat.” The tip-off came when I realized Carson's novel seemed to be narrated by a typical panter of another kind—a dog, who obsesses about his master as a painter might his muse. The muse of a painter visiting Perugia to paint a portrait of the attendees to a phenomenology conference, the “Anna” of the title is a scholar who misses more than one of the sessions. Her absurd death, “the aeroplane / … exploded near Milan / by newsmen / simulating a terrorist incident,” gives Anna the quality of an Antonioni heroine, whose affectless manner inscrutably seems part her own motive, part her creator's. In any case, the tone of this speaker's voice is so ripe one doesn't know whether to keep looking or pick it:

“Do not hinge on me,” Anna says.
“If you want my advice,
do not hinge at all.”
One of our many discussions of freedom.
Anna goes dancing
with a phenomenologist
who is also a captain
in the military
When he sees some of his philosophy students
(to whom he refers as “the enlisted men”)
he retreats to the bar.
Anna dances joyously on alone.
I do not dance.
A dog has a choice.

The point of view might be painter or dog, given the evidence here, though if it's a dog then it's one trained in art history, who meditates elsewhere on the technologies of paint and on the Perugian master Perugino. “In perspective / he applied / the novel rule / of two centers of vision”—the two in Carson's case being dog and painter, we suppose, though the narrator refers to Perugino. The narrator is a kind of monster searching for his Master, howling feverishly, as is a dog's, or a man's, prerogative. Anna, however, can be neither dog nor man—she's just chosen as the object of commentary.

If the lines above would have us ask who the speaker is, then we might take it that the novel wants us to meditate on why it's in verse. For Carson the issues are bound up. She closes Glass, Irony and God with an essay on “The Gender of Sound,” which argues that the classical aversion to sounds that could not be rationally referred to something in the world was a form of gynophobia. (A howl is just such a sound.) That “gynophobia” is the only word that will do here Carson suggests by opening her essay with the anecdote from A Moveable Feast in which Hemingway quits the anteroom of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in horror at the lover's names the lesbians call each other behind a closed door within Hemingway's hearing (Namely, Pussy). In the world of “Canicula di Anna,” “Wild dogs, mouths dripping with such bloody / syllables, ebb and run over the ocean / floor down there” (in the underground section of Perugia). The syllables that aren't yet words are linked to women's menstrual blood, probably the “sacred filth” in the passage that follows. In a moment of solidarity with his muse, the narrator allows that to categorize is to name in public and admits:

To categorize
is to clarify, often.
But not invariably.
Sacred filth, for example,
constitutes an ancient category
distressing to scholars
and other men of freedom
in the present day.
One continuous howl
by now …
that shines up as a laugh
and sounds like blood
is another troublesome,

The lapideous footfall of verse lines that sound this howl will seem unassuming at first to the reader plummeting down the page, with only occasional landings at single-word lines and section breaks. (There are 53 sections.) The line here is more a unit of mass than weight, as though space, and not, as conventionally, silence, were being asked to carry the burden of the poet's irony. Over 860 lines, the effect of such movement is surprisingly enchanting, and the mis-steps of this verse novel, if there are mis-steps, aren't in the verse-making. The tension between the vertical pull of short lines and the sectional intervals works beautifully to permit the narrator to be as smart as the poet likes (the dog has his day); Carson's novel contains a surfeit of ideas. Yet so many thematic elements are in the air, the movement of voice so extended in order to keep them up there, that occasionally I hear the acrobat's irony freefall into the safety net of thesis statements, for example in section 46:

The beloved's innocence
brutalizes the lover.
As the singing of a mad person
behind you on the train
enrages you,
its beautiful
animal-like teeth
shining amid black planes
of paint.
As Helen
enrages history.
Senza uscita.

The themes here have everything to do with the scholar's work on “The Gender of Sound,” surely why she includes the essay in a volume of poems. The compression of thought in these lines characterize her prose movement as much as it does her verse, as we have seen. Indeed, some readers will no doubt envy Carson's reluctance to see scholar's and poem's argument out of plumb. Nonetheless, Carson's use of the short line here doesn't howl as it should. The thesis-like texture of thought moving in swelling rhythms (i.e., the way the same number of words per line swell in syllable counts of 2-3-5-5: “of paint. / As Helen / enrages history. // Senza uscita”) tries to hold the tone steady as we plummet down the page through abstractions that lose something of their ironic subsistence when asked to resolve thematic strains in this way. At the novel's parodic best, the jagged rhythms that owe to prose their tonal grit need no such resolution.

Still, as a free verse poet Carson's ranginess and poise is more evident in “Canicula di Anna” than in “The Life of Towns,” the other verse sequence in Plainwater. If the speed-bump rhythms of the former owe something to a free verse line tradition beyond Mina Loy's “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose,” the experimental cadence and punctuation of “The Life of Towns” would be unthinkable without Gertrude Stein's little-read 1957 poem, Stanzas in Meditation. Carson herself suggests the comparison, and not only by drawing on the poems of antiquity to argue for Stein's contribution to a feminist poetics in “The Gender of Sound.” Several years ago when “The Life of Towns” was chosen for a volume of The Best American Poetry series, she published the following author's note: “The poem is part of an ongoing war with punctuation; we fought to a standstill here.” For those who have struggled to understand the meaning of Stein's great essay “Poetry and Grammar,” this would ring a bell, for Stein tells us there that from early in her life her temperament required that writing sentences should go on and on; that the sentences' only relation to time be happenstantial; that the sentences' periodization occur “beside” the fact of its going on. In other words, Stein conceived of sentences spatially, as a kind of allegorical terrain on which plot—the succession of referential events called words—could happen into relation with non-referential events like punctuation, syntax, and the space between words. These grammatical events had a powerful life-force for Stein; when later in her development she realized that, as she says, periods “might come to have a life of their own and commence breaking things up in arbitrary ways,” she was not being fanciful. Nor is Carson when she tells us she is in “an ongoing war with punctuation; we fought to a standstill here.” She's surprisingly candid about presenting herself as an heir to Gertrude Stein. (Indeed, why not cipher the equation that The Life of Towns + heir = “a life of t[heir] own”?)

Maybe it's toilsome that Carson performs Stein's experiment from Stanzas in Meditation's “Winning His Way” sequence, but Carson provides a kind of rationale earlier in Plainwater when her ethnographer tells us: “I began to copy out everything that was said. The marks construct an instant of nature gradually, without the boredom of a story. I emphasize this. I will do anything to avoid boredom.” If there's a scholar's earnestness to Carson's imitation, then there's a sensualist's dread of passivity, too. Those “marks” she refers to are letters, extensive things that avoid the boredom of story provided someone constructs of them “an instant of nature.” Similarly, “The Life of Towns” is a sequence of single stanza sections, each line end-stopped with a period, the sections “Towns” which, as the introduction informs us, “… are the illusion that things hang together somehow, my pear, your winter. I am a scholar of towns, let God commend that … A scholar is someone who takes a position.” The position the scholar of towns takes toward Stein is that while Stein uses the period freely throughout the syntactical unit we recognize as a sentence—

And so. Now. A poem.
Is in. Full swing.
A narrative poem. Is commencing.
A poem. Entitled.
Winning his way.
A poem. Of poetry.
And friendships.

—Carson's scholar uses the period only as end-stop, so that the tension between line and sentence is more clearly isolated, exposed:


Inside a room in Amsterdam.
Rembrandt painted a drop of life inside.
The drop he painted Rembrandt's stranger.
Dressed as a woman rippling.
With nakedness she has.
A letter in her hand she is.
Out of a thought toward us.
Her foam arrives.
Before her even when he.
Paints Rembrandt's stranger.
As Rembrandt he shows.
Him bewildered and tousled.
As if just in.
From journeys.
On tracks and sideroads.

In the prose introduction to this sequence the scholar of towns defines her vocation as one “from which position, certain lines become visible. You will think I'm painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there.” The poet's insistence on lines, on verse, on turning, comes not from drama's jealousy of picture, even though poetic use of the term “lines” borrows from the technology of vision. (Carson is herself a painter.) What the scholar has in mind when she says “lines” can perhaps be recognized by turning “Town of Bathsheba's Crossing” into a 12-line, six sentence poem in fairly regular iambic tetrameter:


Inside a room in Amsterdam
Rembrandt painted a drop of life
Inside the drop he painted. Rembrandt's
Stranger dressed as a woman.
Rippling with nakedness, she has
A letter in her hand. She is
Travelling out of a thought toward us.
Her foam arrives before her.
Even when he paints Rembrandt's
Stranger as Rembrandt he shows him
Bewildered and tousled, as if just in
From journeys on tracks and side roads.

If we were to encounter this in some notebook of Carson's, it would seem no more than a fairly conventional painting poem—Victorian scholars call it an ecphrasis. Nothing to it except the first sentence, an essentialist thesis about painting: that life is in—in Amsterdam, in a drop of paint—as it might be applied to the Rembrandt. For if it is not in, life might otherwise find itself beside, as Stein saw her own attraction to periods “beside” their having “had to exist.” Were one to agree that periods “live,” couldn't they go anywhere? And if so, then what does “where the period goes” mean? What you will, Stein would say, since fixing the meaning of a sentence is one linguistic activity that “goes on.” But while any isolated sentence can mean different things, only paragraphs and stanzas have the emotional force that encourages the consensus of more than a single reader. If a poet's “voice” functions in the disambiguating force of stanzas, then the force of Carson's successive end-stopped lines may similarly interrupt the reader's hurry to get to the end of grammatical and syntactic events we call a sentence. We don't need to regard the consensus, or lack of ambiguity, as anything more than a necessary illusion, she suggests. Her sequence, “The Life of Towns,” are single stanza sections, or towns, which “are the illusion that things hang together somehow.” The trick is only on the page: Readers accustomed to anticipating the end of the sentence across verse lines (more likely the further the tradition strays from blank verse) will read Carson's sequence hearing at once the metrical line and sentence underneath it (my version heightens those two components), their convergence a vanishing point toward which one must take a position. Carson cleverly recognizes a verse equivalent to the vanishing point in a reader's sense of the vertical and horizontal pulls that are the perceptual drag of reading verse. A kind of inner syntax, running idle, wants always to speed up the phrase so that it will become pure sound, a theme—an acceleration corrected for in the tension between line and sentence. By using end-stops to distend the horizontal drag of the line and frequent short lines to compensate vertically, Carson manages to restore to the verse line the spatial texture it had before prose values in verse began to resolve all tensions in favor of a vertical acceleration that makes narrative succession of everything. She will do anything, her ethnographer tells us, to avoid boredom.

“The Life of Towns”'s experiment with the line's spatial texture has no truck with boredom, then, but probably nets no more than the result of most experiments: information, in Carson's case symptomatic of her anxiety with narrative, and with the blank verse line perhaps we would associate with Frost—information more practical in poems other than those so staked on the dazzle of the writer's formal invention. No doubt sheer brilliance takes us a long way in Carson, where a droll concept enshrined in the title “The Truth about God,” or an intellectual burlesque carried on in “Mimnermos: The Brain-Sex Paintings,” can outflank whatever sympathetic interest her voice elicits in poems with a more conventional form. The range of its formal invention makes Plainwater the more substantial of the two collections under review, yet by measure of its improvisation on the meditative form, “The Glass Essay” (from Glass, Irony and God) seems the benchmark of Carson's achievement so far.

“The Glass Essay” sustains meditation; its genre is the autobiographical relation—once properly a “confessional” poem. The subject is again, nominally, love, or sex, a blue note the poem hits only long enough to sneak us the sense that the real subject hides elsewhere. The speaker has come home to visit her mother and her institutionalized father after the failure of a five-year love affair. We know little of her but that she is a reader—an avid fan of the Bronte sisters, she's re-reading Wuthering Heights. When at the outset she offhandedly tells us “I can hear little clicks inside my dream. / Night drips its silver tap / down the back. / At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking // of the man who / left in September. His name is Law,” all that saves the lines from profound unimpressiveness is the writer's coy disguise of the lover as a personification. And when by the end of the poem the speaker ventures such weather reports as “Gradually I understood that these were naked glimpses of my soul,” or “I had become entirely fascinated with my spiritual melodrama,”—droll utterances that might have been overheard at some Cheeverish late sixties cocktail party, and prose enough to chasten any lyric compression—she gets away with it because the “I” has been placed into a series of relations (with her mother, her lover, her father, her psychotherapist, Emily Bronte, and Bronte scholars) that distance the reader from the confessions the speaker would make. Without this slight mediation, pages upon pages of this speaker would be pure dreariness. For quite unlike her more satirical poems, where the speaker is often typed (scholar, painter, TV director), in “The Glass Essay” Carson produces this distance without her customary irony, and this makes characterizing the poem's voice all the more fascinatingly difficult.

The dramatic motive for the confession appears to be that when Law attempted to leave her,

… I put out my hand
to touch his: He moved back.
I don't want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.
Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.
He moved onto me.

Some of the humiliation the “I” undergoes for our delectation is sieved off in Carson's exposure of the lines' more loaded terms. So, for example, the speaker's father has “got crazy” some years before this moment of humiliation; the speaker offers too a running essay on the naked and the nude, of which visions she keeps her therapist apprised:

Nude #1 Woman alone on a hill.
She stands into the wind.
It is a hard wind slanting from the north.
Long flaps and shreds of flesh rip off the woman's body and lift
and blow away on the wind …

The conventional, gothic language of this vision sounds a lot like Emily Bronte, a fact of which the therapist, named Dr. Haw to rhyme with Law, seems lugubriously unaware when she advises the speaker to ignore the visions. That the writer circulates the language of mortification and spirit throughout the speaker's account without putting a kind of ironic “shock quotes” around it permits us to enter freely that space between Carson and speaker; to read those gothic conventions as Carson's characters read them in the literary texts they love. Indeed, between the beloved and the therapist's rhyming names, the pratfalling advice of those close to her, and the speaker's gothic fixation on moors and self-flagellation, there's something loopy right on the surface of her conflict. Below the surface something tells us she quite seriously faces a spiritual crisis to which the writer does not encourage us to feel superior.

Not unlike Susan Howe, whose drift back and forth between prose and verse is similarly fascinating, Carson's political passion, her feminism, permits her to double the speaker's spiritual crisis with a literary historical meditation on the domestication of women's voices. A section early in the poem informs us of a textual crux in one of Emily Bronte's poems, “Tell me, whacher, is it winter?” where her male editors have regularized “whacher” as “whether” (though in my edition it's “watcher”). Whacher, pronounceable as “whacker” and “wake her” (as well as “wager”) resists utterance, and is therefore a fascinating portmanteau, a word, the speaker argues, Bronte used to address herself:

To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,
although she uses these words in her verse
as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,
grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.
But it has no name.
It is transparent.
Sometimes she calls it Thou.

There are names for things, things that have no name, and names that mean nothing but to those who know them—the portmanteau lovers use. “Thou” is another version of the ideal self the lover sees in the beloved—the lover and beloved personae Carson has chosen to study since her first book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), a study of Sappho and the Platonic representations of love. Commenting there on the impassivity of the “thou,” Carson argued that to use the word “constitutes [for the lover] a glimpse of a new possible self. Could she realize that self, she too would be ‘equal to the gods’ amidst desire; to the degree that she fails to realize it, she may be destroyed by desire. Both possibilities are projected on a screen of what is actual and present by the poet's tactic of triangulation.” The craft of Carson's autobiographical confession is precisely in the cause of such a “triangulation.” Can the lapidary spaces of the 19th century novel be reproduced in belatedly modern meditative verse? Carson wants not to tell a story, but to show the slippage between categories like poetry, verse, and prose; the self, the other, and the act of love by which that relation gets represented. She writes with the lucky sense of assurance that there's something erotic in the moment a poem listens for a voice like Emily Bronte's (or listens to itself):

… in between the neighbor who recalls her
coming in from a walk on the moors
with her face “lit up by a divine light”
and the sister who tells us
Emily never made a friend in her life,
is a space where the little raw soul
slips through.

That the space the speaker finds for Emily Bronte's whaching is “in between” and not “aside from” the disparate perceptions of neighbor and sister depends on the eros of the lover-scholar reading about her and seeing the difference “between” the two perceptions. The “in between” is inutterable, like the “soul” the speaker “kept watch on all that night. / Law stayed with me // … caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language.”

It's a poem of astonishing clarity—and intellectual density. Reading it, I had the sense that the poet was in the midst of these spaces she'd made saying, This can be done and how surprising—lucky, really, that it hasn't been. A certain gravity, too, in choosing to suss out the meaning of one's luck. She shows us things we don't often see—the way, for example, the erotic space of a poem's voice is similar to the adult language of non-verbal expression we first notice when our parents flee from the inadequacy of words. This kind of erotic charge is enacted again later in the poem by Carson's conduction of a space across which narration and imitation, narrator and writer, behold one another. The speaker remembers her father's flirtation with the mother within the child's hearing: “I stared at the back of her head waiting for what she would say. / Her answer would clear this up. // But she just laughed a strange laugh with ropes all over it.” Like the earlier non-response of the therapist (“Haw” itself suggests a non-verbal language—a laugh), the mother's non-response allows the daughter a perception of space across which “soul slips”:

She was talking on the telephone in the kitchen.
Well a woman would be just as happy with a kiss on the cheek
most of the time but YOU KNOW MEN
she was saying. Laugh.
Not ropes. Thorns.
I have arrived at the middle of the moor …

The movement of thought in these lines enacts an encounter between Carson the writer and Carson the confessant. If I seem to address various components of a single function, then such are the nimble antennae that is the voice in Carson's work. The narrator is responsible to the story told, and to her listener; while Carson's more writerly imitation wants us to suffer an experience that hasn't yet been narrated into understanding, for example the eleven-year-old girl's listening in on a mother's telephone conversation. Our speaker locates herself dramatically between the writer's cunning and the narrator's responsibility. What seems important in the passage just cited is the way the first line, a line of narration, abuts a space shared by the second line imitating the mother's voice which (since there are no quotation marks) for a moment we may even mistake for the narrator's commentary—one kind of movement, then, is our shifting perception of this mistake. Think of it as a space within which imitative idioms like “YOU KNOW MEN,” with its three beat terminal irony, and narrative exposition (an unarticulated yet clear enough history of the mother's sexual disappointment) can intersect, rendering the speaker helpless but to submit to the (second) line even as it gallops prosaically to the end of the page; the speaker's only recourse is the laconic, and painfully precise narrator's idiom, “she was saying”—which by now is unnecessary to the story being told but which nonetheless provides us with essential information about how the speaker understands the mother's confidence. Our speaker is reduced to taking the writer's dictation across the lines' caesuras and uttering one word accounts of the sense she can make of it (Laugh. Not ropes. Thorns.), each one less the language of the mother's moment and more the language of the poem's voice.

Carson's work raises certain questions: Must a speaker be always so subjugated? Can the voice be represented? If so then the poem suggests that the subject of the representation hides. From this hiding place in the poem, we go on to hear a narrator who accepts the rescue of projecting herself into Emily Bronte's world (“I have arrived at the middle of the moor”) and offers an interpretation of Bronte's poem, “I'll come when thou art saddest.” In doing so she is certainly the scholar-lover of Bronte's work, an authorial stand-in witnessing in Wuthering Heights and, as all lovers do, the slippage between an actual and an ideal self in the beloved. Yet she is also a speaker, the dramatic subject of an encounter between the poem's narrative and imitative functions. We get a glimpse of her at that vanishing point; we might say the speaker both witnesses this slippage and is it. While on one level the enactment I have just described allows the speaker to say “It is a shock to realize that this low, slow collusion / of master and victim within one voice / is a rationale / for the most awful loneliness of the poet's hour,” as though the lines described the poet's mastery of the victimized eleven year old's voice; on another level the speaker is referring here to Bronte's relationship to the “Thou,” that transparency (we recall) it is to “whacher.” Like eros, “whacher” is properly thought of as a verb, as a movement across space, a “soul slips.” The movement approximates closely a classical notion of what a poem does—it catches or traps the soul in something, as in a mirror. In what follows, the “she” might as easily refer to (the poet) Carson and the “I” to Bronte; though by the speaker's lights, it's the contrary:

She has reversed the roles of thou and Thou
not as a display of power
but to force out of herself some pity
for this soul trapped in glass,
which is her true creation.
Those nights lying alone
are not discontinuous with this cold hectic dawn.
It is who I am.

While the speaker seems modestly to claim her literary ancestry through Bronte's poem, on another more astonishing level the lines claim that Bronte's true creation is the “I”—a “trapped” moment of infinite reproducibility. We might say a glass essay would try to make such a mirror transparent, and that if it succeeded, it would achieve that “triangulation” which is “the poet's tactic.” I for one believe she's done it.

For the moment, at least, this meditation in glass on the subjugated voice and the mastery we honor with the epithet “poem” is essential reading. It's tonic for those of us made weary by poems with an ahistorical narrator who comes on like a paper mache angel with a tale of victimization. When such narrators are then disavowed, called “personae” by writers like Sharon Olds, it's morally tedious, indeed. The way a subject secrets itself in the form of the speaker's address to the reader can't be accounted for by changing the site of the romantic poem from the hillside at sunrise to the dinner table when dad sticks his hand up the waitress's dress. It's only our insistence that we live in the world that can defeat such convenient typing, and force the poet to listen. With “The Glass Essay,” Carson makes the reader matter.

Nicole Cooley (review date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Cooley, Nicole. Review of Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 233-34.

[In the following review, Cooley praises Carson for the emotional power and “masterful formal innovations” in Autobiography of Red.]

Translator, poet, and professor of classics Anne Carson has written a work which challenges many long-held literary oppositions: prose vs. poetry, epic vs. lyric, ancient vs. modern. This text [Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse] retells the story of Geryon, a winged red monster, moving from his childhood to his love for and loss of the young boy Herakles. A parallel narrative follows the career of the ancient poet Stesichoros, original author of the myth. But the narrative appropriates myth only to reinvent it. Notably, the book begins with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein: “I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.” Here we are immediately alerted to the fact that Carson's “autobiography” has a Steinian twist: it is less an exploration of individual subjectivity than an explosion of the conventions and codes on which autobiography as a genre depends. Geryon composes his own autobiography (which begins before he can write, as a cigarette glued to a tomato), but it is his camera that becomes increasingly important to him as the text proceeds. The sections of the text that concern photography are the book's most compelling and beautifully written moments. When Geryon photographs Herakles, Carson writes: “It is a photograph of the future, thought Geryon months later when he was standing in his darkroom / looking down at the acid bath and watching likeness come groping out of the bones.” And, despite all its masterful formal innovations, what I admire most about this book is its emotional power. Autobiography of Red is an extremely moving story of love and loss and the powers and failures of language.

Bernard Knox (review date 19 November 1998)

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SOURCE: Knox, Bernard. “Under the Volcano.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 18 (19 November 1998): 57-60.

[In the following review, Knox provides an overview of Carson's body of work and examines the author's inventive form and narrative verse in Autobiography of Red.]

My letter to the Princeton University Press recommending Anne Carson's first book Eros the Bittersweet (it was published in 1986) contained the following sentences: “This is an extraordinary book—the book of a poet, a subtle critic, and a scholar. It is also a brilliant piece of writing, flawlessly phrased throughout, constantly surprising but never disappointing, and laced with a wit that is all the more effective because it is perfectly disciplined.” The book is a perceptive analysis of the Greek conception of Eros and of his role in Greek poetry, philosophy, and life. He is a winged creature and his invasion of his target's body causes the heart to fly up in the chest, as Sappho and Alcaeus put it, an image reshaped by Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus.

Our souls had wings once, Socrates explains, when we lived among the gods, and now, in exile, we remember our former state from time to time, when we look upon beauty and fall in love. When you fall in love you feel all sorts of sensations inside you, painful and pleasant at once; it is your wings sprouting. “Both the philosopher and the poet,” Carson explains, “find themselves describing Eros in images of wings and metaphors of flying, for desire is a movement that carries yearning hearts from over here to over there. …” This connection between love and wings was to surface again, a decade later, in her Autobiography of Red.

When I wrote the letter to the publisher, I had not seen any of her poetry; I sensed the mind of a poet in her keen sensitivity to the complexities of the texts she was marshaling for her argument and the fine precision and pleasing rhythm of her prose. When I finally did see one of her poems it was, as I had half expected, something unpredictable. It appeared in Raritan under the title “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings.” It consists of translations (though some of them would be more accurately described as adaptations or even appropriations) of fifteen of the twenty-five fragments that have come down to us from the work of Mimnermus, a poet of the sixth century B.C. who lived in Colophon, a Greek city on the west coast of what is now Turkey. His most famous lines are his lament for the passing of youth and its joys.

What is life, what is pleasure, without golden Aphrodite? Let me lie dead when I no longer care for these things—couplings in the dark, honeyed gifts and the bed … when the agony of old age comes on … a man no longer feels happy when he sees the sunlight … hated by boys, rejected by women …

In another fragment he wishes that death would take him, free of disease or sorrows, at the age of sixty years—the point at which modern American males look forward to the golden age of leisured retirement. In the ancient world there was little to look forward to. It was a world that had none of the palliatives for the gradual degradation of the human frame that can help to make living tolerable for us if we live long enough to need them: no eyeglasses, no hearing aids, no dentures, no artificial hips and knees, no face lifts, and (something that might have addressed what is obviously Mimnermus' main concern) no Viagra.

For the ancient Greeks old age was a nightmare, and Carson's version of these famous lines by Mimnermus tries to reinvest them with the revulsion and horror that they expressed in their original context and which literary echoes and adaptations have blunted for the modern reader.

What Is Life without Aphrodite? …
Up to your honeybasket hilts in
                    her ore—or else
          Death? for yes
how gentle it is to go swimming
                    inside her the secret swimming
          Of men and women but (no) then
the night hide toughens over it
                    (no) then bandages
          Crusted with old man smell (no)
bowl gone black nor bud nor boys
                    nor women nor sun no
          Spores (no) at (no) all when
God nor hardstrut nothingness
          its fist on you.

Seldom has Pound's injunction—Make it New—been so spectacularly obeyed.

Carson's versions of the other fragments are even more free, and some of them seem to use Mimnermus' lines as a takeoff point for soaring fantasies of her own. The fragments are followed by a brilliant essay on Mimnermus and time and then by three interviews with the poet, sardonic parodies of the mindless celebrity interviews that assail us in magazines and on television.

All this, though it deals with the same subject, was a far cry from Eros the Bittersweet. But I was even more surprised by her next two books, both of which appeared in 1995: Glass, Irony and God, a New Directions book published by James Laughlin, and Plainwater, published by Knopf.

The first of these opens with a long narrative poem called “The Glass Essay.” Though its principal theme is still Eros, it has no other connection with the ancient Greeks. It is a tale of a woman's visit to her mother in Canada after her lover has rejected her. “He stood in my living room and spoke / without looking at me. Not enough spin on it, / he said of our five years of love.” In the background and often in the foreground of the poem's present is the figure of Emily Brontë, whose Yorkshire moors that “surrounded her father's house on every side, / formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit” reappear in the view from the Canadian mother's kitchen—“There is the moor, paralyzed with ice. / It extends as far as the eye can see / over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.” And there too is Emily Brontë.

This is my favorite author.
Also my main fear, which I mean
          to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily

This long narrative, set in lines of varying lengths, grouped in short stanzas (three lines is the norm), interweaves the narrator's attempt to recover from the shock of her rejection by her lover with her absorption in and speculation about the strange case of Emily, a recluse who probably “did not touch a man in her 31 years” but in whose verse “Falsity and bad love and the deadly pain of alteration are constant topics. …” One episode consists of a visit to her “tall, proud father, former World War II navigator,” who is now in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease, strapped to a chair in

… the west wing, for chronic care
Each wing has a name.
The chronic wing is Our Golden
although mother prefers to call it
          The Last Lap.

This suggests a background for the graphic horrors Carson worked into Mimnermus' description of old age. But the story is at times enlivened by a sardonic wit, especially in passages that deal with her relations with her mother.

I can tell by the way my mother
          chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
or not.

“The Glass Essay” is not Carson's only long narrative poem; there is another in Plainwater. It is called, somewhat enigmatically, “Canicula di Anna,” and its setting is a congress of phenomenologists that takes place in the Italian city of Perugia.

Famous phenomenologists of
          tutta l'Italia
have forgathered here.
They take things back to the
then climb the stone stairs
for a heavy lunch.
Their foreheads are not so tall
as the foreheads
of French phenomenologists
but they are much more good-

The narrator is apparently a painter who is there for professional reasons:

Group portrait: a special
I paint the philosophers at table
          and on the way to Being.

He is waiting impatiently for the arrival of someone called Anna, who does eventually turn up, but seems to have little to do with him before leaving (though they seem to have gone off together on a trip to Assisi which is merely mentioned in passing). Meanwhile the phenomenologists pursue their concerns.

One phenomenologist has a
          coughing fit
Another begins to insist on the
          limitations of the text.
Tautologies, enigmata, drift in
          like an autumn.
The Seinsfrage is growing

But their discussions are on occasion more earthbound.

The phenomenologist from Paris
          hates mosquitoes
and carries a small electronic
that lures the female mosquito to
          her death
by simulating the amorous cry of
          the male. Then,
to block the whining sound, he
          has pink earplugs.
As he sits in conversation
with the phenomenologist from
a mosquito is observed to enter.
The Englishman leaps to his feet,
calling, “Let us use the mosquito
and smashes the insect to the wall
with the device. It is the first sign
of wide ontological differences
that will open in the Anglo-
          French dialectic

But there are sinister undercurrents in this story. Anna leaves by plane but “I never saw her again. / The aeroplane / was exploded near Milan / by newsmen / simulating a terrorist incident.” And there is a repeated theme of menace, the barking of the wild dogs at the base of the rock on which Perugia is built:

Last night the dogs
killed a cock down there.
It crowed once (dark red) crazily,
far too early in the night.

And in the end the reader is left wondering about the meaning or even the nature of the actions and emotions of the characters as well as what happened to them. Was Anna really killed? Is the narrator in love with her? Why have the phenomenologists commissioned the group portrait in “pigments of the fifteenth century”—the colors, lovingly and expertly described throughout the poem, of the Italian painter Pietro di Vanucci, known as Perugino? And what does the title mean? Canicula is the Latin name of the Dogstar, the herald of the season of oppressive heat in Italy. What can Canicula di Anna mean? Does it have something to do with those dogs at the base of the rock?

Carson is quite aware that readers will be puzzled. She provides a prose afterword that appears to sympathize with the reader who “would … like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis.” But what she offers will be of small comfort. It consists of Socrates' last words—the reminder to Crito to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—and the far from comforting “fact, as you go down the stairs and walk in dark streets, as you see forms, as you marry or speak sharply or wait for a train, as you begin imagination, as you look at every mark, simply the fact of my eyes in your back.”

This will leave many readers baffled, perhaps annoyed, but it is nonetheless clear that, notwithstanding her penchant for sibylline mystifications, Carson has in these two narratives (and in another one set in Italy, “The Fall of Rome”) created an individual form and style for narrative verse. And in her most recent production, Autobiography of Red, which she describes as a novel in verse, she tells a story some 13,000 lines long.

It announces as its model a long poem (a notation on a papyrus shows that it had at least 1,300 lines) by Stesichoros of Himera, a Greek city on the north coast of Sicily, who was born about 650 B.C. Among his epic-length poems (all written, like Pindar's victory odes, in lyric meters arranged in the triadic pattern of strophe, antistrophe, and epode) was an Oresteia, from which Aeschylus borrowed the lock of hair on Agamemnon's tomb which leads to Electra's recognition of her brother Orestes. He also composed a Sack of Troy, a Return of the Heroes, and a Geryoneis, the story of Geryon. He was a monster; he had wings, three bodies, six arms, and six legs and lived on an island called Erytheia (Redland) off the Atlantic coast of Spain, where he took care of herd of red cattle, helped by a herdsman and a dog. The tenth labor imposed on Herakles by his taskmaster Eurystheus was to seize Geryon's cattle and bring them to Greece. Herakles killed the monster and his dog (it had three heads) and came back ready for his eleventh labor, a descent to Hades to bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gate.

We already had some details from various sources but very little of the actual text until quite recently, when fragments of a papyrus copy from Oxyrrhychus were published. They show an unexpected sympathy with Geryon, who in one scene, begged by his herdsman not to fight against Herakles, rejects the advice in a heroic speech that recalls Achilles' rejection of his mother's plea that he refrain from killing Hector, since his own death must follow soon after. Geryon's mother, too, urges him not to fight but to no avail. Meanwhile, up on Olympus, Athena, Herakles' patron and protector, makes sure that no help will come to Geryon from the gods. Herakles kills him by thrusting one of his arrows, tipped with the lethal poison of the Hydra's blood, through his skull. He also kills the dog.

Before the opening of her novel Carson offers some items labeled “Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros.” It will at once be obvious even to readers unacquainted with the Greek texts that these short items are wildly free adaptations and in some cases outright inventions. But one of them sets the tone for the remarkable narrative that follows:

Are there many little boys who
          think they are a
Monster? But in my case I am
          right said Geryon to the
Dog they were sitting on the
          bluffs The dog regarded him

Unlike his mythical prototype, this Geryon does not have more than the usual number of arms, legs, and heads, but he does have wings, which he generally manages to conceal, folded under a jacket or overcoat. And he is red, and so is his shadow.

The verse Carson uses to tell her story has a single repetitive pattern: one long flowing line followed by a shorter one, which is one third to half the length of its predecessor. This matches to some extent the easy flow of the Stesichorean lines, in which the characteristic dactylic rhythm of the Homeric hexameters predominates (though Carson does not of course attempt to reproduce the triadic stanza structure). Instead, the narrative is broken up into forty-seven chapters, of variable lengths. Notwithstanding the novel's title, the story is not told in the first person; the autobiography is something Geryon works on throughout the novel “from the age of five to the age of forty-four.” While still at school Geryon had begun to write it in “a beautiful notebook from Japan” given to him by a friend of his mother. In it he wrote, under the title “Total Facts Known about Geryon,” a short summary of the Stesichorean epic followed by some speculative answers to the question “Why did Herakles kill Geryon?”

Where does he get his ideas, said
          the teacher. It was Parent-
          Teacher Day at school.
Proceeding to the back of the
          classroom he sat at his usual
          desk and took out a pencil.
New Ending.
All over the world the beautiful
          red breezes went on blowing
in hand.

So much for Stesichoros.

Geryon's schooldays, as might be expected, were not happy days, and at home he is bullied and sexually abused by his lout of an elder brother; his only comfort is his mother, whom he adores. But at the age of fourteen he falls in love with an sixteen-year-old whom he meets at the bus depot:

Then he met Herakles and the
          kingdoms of his life all shifted
          down a few notches.
They were two superior eels
at the bottom of the tank and they
                    recognized each other like italics.

It is love at first sight, but like the love affair in “The Glass Essay.” it comes to a sudden end. After a brief spell of joyous companionship and sexual coupling—during which Geryon visits Herakles in his home town of Hades and is taken, with Herakles' grandmother, to visit the site of a volcanic eruption—Geryon is rejected. “Geryon you know / we'll always be friends.” Later, home and in bed, Geryon's

brain was jerking forward like a
          bad slide projector. He saw the
the house the night the world and
on the other side of the world
          somewhere Herakles laughing
          drinking getting
into a car and Geryon's
whole body formed one arch of a
          cry—upcast to that custom, the
          human custom
of wrong love.

Geryon returns to his mother, who had disapproved of Herakles from the start—“nobody sees him around, is it true he lives in the trailer park—that where you / go at night?”—and takes a job in a local library shelving government documents. He takes a lot of pictures (the autobiography had taken the form of a photographic essay) but “they showed only the shoes and socks of the person.” And then, for reasons that are never explained, he boards a plane to Buenos Aires, an occasion for Carson to treat us to a wrenching account of the tortures of long-distance flights in cabin class:

… Geryon shifted himself down
          and up in the molded
          seat trying to unclench
knots of pain in his spine. Half
          turned sideways but could not
          place his left arm.
Heaved himself forwards again
accidentally punching off the
                    reading light and knocking his
                    book to the floor.
The woman next to him moaned
and slumped over the armrest like
          a wounded seal.

In Buenos Aires he meets, in the Café Mitwelt, a yellow-bearded American professor of philosophy who takes him off to listen to his lecture on emotionlessness. Later, walking the streets he accidentally bumps into a man who turns out to be Herakles—“after all these years.” Herakles is traveling with a Peruvian named Ancash, “a man as beautiful as a live feather”; they are recording the sounds of volcanoes. Geryon is offered a pair of earphones attached to a tape recorder and listens to the sounds of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. He “heard a hoarse animal / spraying pain from the back of its throat. / Then heavy irregular bumping sounds like tractor tires rolling downhill.”

Volcanoes provide the setting for two of he most striking episodes in the novel. In the first, which takes place during Geryon's first association with Herakles, the two of them, accompanied by Herakles' grandmother, visit the site of a volcanic eruption that took place in 1923. The grandmother had taken a time-exposure photograph of it at 3 PM—“looks like midnight,” says Herakles. The second volcanic episode closes the novel; it brings Geryon, Herakles, and Ancash and his mother to Lima and then to the village of Huaraz, where Ancash was born. Later they go to another village farther north, Jucu, where houses built against the inner wall of the volcano's cone have openings in the shaft where the inhabitants bake bread over the flames.

Carson, as we learn from Guy Davenport's perceptive introduction to Glass, Irony and God, is “a fancier of volcanoes and paints them erupting.” (The cover of Glass, Irony and God reproduces one such painting, “Volcano Talk.”) Even without this information, the author's obsession with volcanoes emerges clearly from the graphic details of the text, in such passages, for instance, as the visit to the site of the 1923 eruption.

… Geryon put his foot out to take
          a step.
The lava emitted
a glassy squeak and he jumped.
          Careful, said Herakles'
Herakles had lifted her out of the
          back seat,
now she stood leaning on his arm.
          The lava dome here is more
          than ninety percent
glass—rhyolite obsidian they call
… She began to move
forward with a tinkling sound
over the black billows. They say
          the reason for all these blocks
          and rubble on top
is strains produced when the glass
chills so rapidly. She made a little
          sound. Reminds me of my

There is an affinity with volcanoes in the nature of Geryon. In Carson's interview with Stesichoros (yes, she interviews him too) he remarks, speaking of Geryon, that there is a link between geology and character. Geryon is a creature the color of fire—“a winged red person”—and was surprised when other people admitted that “… they did not hear / the cries of the roses / being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully. …” In his photograph of his mother's rosebush under the kitchen window, “Four of the roses were on fire / They stood straight up and pure on the stalk, gripping the dark like prophets / and howling colossal intimacies. …” And imagery from the volcano is called on to describe Geryon's feelings:

Geryon sat on his bed in the hotel
          room pondering the cracks and
of his inner life. It may happen
that the exit of the volcanic vent is
          blocked by a plug of rock,
molten matter sideways along
lateral fissures called fire lips by

As he read a philosophical discussion of the problem of communication—“I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it …”—he “could feel something like tons of black magma boiling up / from the deeper regions of him.”

But Geryon is not only red as volcanic fire; he is also winged. Although he manages to conceal this from Herakles by keeping his wings folded back under his clothing, he sometimes, when alone, deploys them. In Buenos Aires, after hearing the yellow-bearded professor announce that 12 percent of babies in the world are born with tails, which are cut off by the doctors before the parents can see the child, Geryon went back to his hotel.

He set up the camera on the
          windowsill and activated the
          timer, then positioned
himself on the bed.
It is a black-and-white
          photograph showing a naked
          young man in fetal position.
He has entitled it “No Tail!”
The fantastic fingerwork of his
          wings is outspread on the bed
          like a black lace
map of South America.

It is Ancash, Herakles' new companion, who discovers the wings. On the roof in Lima where Ancash's mother lives (“it hasn't rained in Lima since 1940”) he tries to wrap Geryon in a blanket so that he can withstand the cold of the night, and in spite of Geryon's resistance, pulls his overcoat down over his shoulders, exposing the folded wings. “They rustled through the two slits / cut in the back of Geryon's T-shirt and sank a bit on the night wind.” Ancash is astonished. “Jesus Mary and Joseph” he says quietly. And then whispers the world “Yazcamac.” The wings have a special meaning for him. He tells Geryon about Jucu, the village in the mountains north of Huaraz, where he was born. It is a volcanic region, not active now. In ancient times the villagers worshiped the volcano and even threw people into it.

… For sacrifice? asked Geryon …
No not exactly. More like a testing
          procedure. They were looking
          for people
from the inside. Wise ones.
Holy men I guess you would say.
          The word in Quechua is Yaxcol
          Yazcamac it means
the Ones Who Went and Saw
          and Came Back—
I think the anthropologists say
          eyewitnesses. These people did
Stories are told of them still.
Eyewitnesses, said Geryon.
Yes. People who saw the inside
          of the volcano.
And came back.
How do they come back?
Wings? Yes that's what they say
          the Yazcamac return as red
          people with wings,
all their weaknesses burned
and their mortality.

So it is off to Huaraz they go, where “water … boils at seventy degrees centigrade.” And it is there that Geryon's sexual relationship with Herakles, renewed on the plane to Lima, comes to an end as Geryon realizes the truth. “I once loved you,” he thinks, “now I don't know you at all. He does not say this.” Herakles sees that he is crying and sums up the problem in a brutal phrase: “Can't you ever just fuck and not think?” As he gets into bed he says:

Well Geryon just another
          Saturday morning me laughing
          and you crying. …
Geryon watches him pull the
          blanket up to his chin.
Just like
          the old says.
Just like the old days, says
          Geryon too.

But Geryon still has Ancash to deal with. He finds him in the garden sitting on a bench. His conversational gambits are met with silence, and he looks down at the ground. When he looks up,

… His eyes met Ancash's eyes
          and they both rose at once and
          Ancash hit
Geryon as hard as he could
across the face with the flat of his
You love him? Geryon thought
          about that. In my dreams I do.
          Your dreams?
Dreams of the old days.
When you first knew him? Yes,
          when I—knew him.
What about now?
Yes—no—I don't know. Geryon
          pressed his hands over his face
          and then let them fall.
No it's not there now.

Later, Ancash says to him: “There is one thing I want from you.” “Tell me.” “Want to see you use those wings.” Herakles suddenly bursts in on them and realizes what has happened.

… In the photograph the face of
          Herakles is white. It is the face
of an old man. It is a photograph
          of the future, thought Geryon
          months later when he
was standing in his darkroom
looking down at the acid bath and
          watching likeness come groping
          out of the bones.

In the next-to-last chapter Geryon uses his wings. Taking a tape recorder he flies off to photograph the heart of the volcano.

This is for Ancash, he calls to the
          earth diminishing below. This is
          a memory of our
beauty. He peers down
at the earth heart of Icchantikas
          dumping all its photons out her
          ancient eye and he
smiles for
the camera: “The Only Secret
          People Keep.”

The chapter is titled “Photographs: #1748.” It is not a date but a reference to the epigraph of the novel, number 1748 in the poems of Emily Dickinson, which ends with the lines

The only secret people keep
is Immortality.

Geryon, this seems to suggest, by exploring the depths of the volcano, has become a Yazcamac—“red people with wings, / all their weaknesses burned away— / and their mortality.” And in the final scene, they are all three in Jucu watching the men shovel the dough on long handles into a square hole filled with flames.

We are amazing beings,
Geryon is thinking. We are
          neighbors of fire.
And now time is rushing towards
where they stand side by side with
          arms touching, immortality on
          their faces.
night at their back.

It is a novel, all right; a story which creates characters that are surprising but credible, involves them in an action that works to what seems an appropriate if somewhat mysterious end and, in this case, leaves the reader with a feeling that it contains depths which only rereading and reflection will sound. But the reader cannot help wondering: Was the decision to tell the story in verse justified? Why did Carson not leave it in prose, as she did “The Anthropology of Water,” the long account of her pilgrimage to Compostela in Plainwater?

It is true that every now and then the verse has the compression, the wide suggestiveness, the intensity of poetic expression. But for the most part the diction is that of prose, the frequent conversational exchanges appropriately colloquial. And yet, as the reader is led through the tangled interlocking of these semimythical beings, the pattern of long line followed by short comes to seem the natural, indeed the only way to tell what the publisher's blurb (no exaggeration for once) calls “a powerful and unsettling story that moves, disturbs, and delights.”

Sharon Wahl (review date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Wahl, Sharon. “Erotic Sufferings: Autobiography of Red and Other Anthropologies.” Iowa Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1999): 180-88.

[In the following review, Wahl asserts that Carson's works effectively combine academic scholarship with lyrical verse, observing that Eros the Bittersweet, Plainwater, and Autobiography of Red form “a sort of trilogy of erotic sufferings.”]

I have been a devoted reader of Anne Carson for several years now, and when I saw her novel Autobiography of Red in a bookstore last spring, I bought it immediately. I won't say I didn't even open the book first—I did—and it looked beautiful. Most of the book is written in alternating long and short lines spaced commodiously on the page; not so much “verse” in any strict metrical sense, more like broken up, though poetic, prose:

It was raining on his face. He forgot for a moment that he was a brokenheart
then he remembered. Sick lurch
downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple. Each morning a shock
to return to the cut soul.

This form, and the book's tone, seemed to give off a feeling of tenderness, almost like being rocked. I left the bookstore and went to the nearest café to drink espresso and read, as that is what I do with books I am preparing to love.

Anne Carson is a professor of classics as well as a poet, and her books are a fine marriage of these talents. But what makes them particularly interesting to me is a third obsession, her study of the longing for, and loss of, romantic love. I say “study” deliberately, as this is a subject to which she brings the scholar's passion for knowledge. There is a resemblance, she says, between “the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker. … I would like to grasp why it is that these two activities, falling in love and coming to know, make me feel genuinely alive.”

This is from Carson's first book, Eros the Bittersweet, a scholarly and poetic meditation on Greek love poetry distilled from her doctoral thesis in classics. (Eros, published in 1986 and once difficult to find, has been reprinted in paperback by Dalkey Archive Press.) The next installments in this erotic investigation came in two books published in 1995, Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God. From these collections I would single out two long poems or essay/poems, “The Anthropology of Water” and “The Glass Essay,” for their autobiographical contributions. These pieces shift from a more general longing for romantic experience to recording the effects of abandonment on desire. Autobiography of Red is their direct descendent. All offer gorgeous insight into the consuming ache of heartbreak.

Carson's books (and poems) are hybrids of poetic and critical forms. The longest section in Autobiography of Red, a “Romance,” is sandwiched by the scholarly trappings of Essay, translated Fragments, Appendices, and Interview, all dealing with the Greek poet Stesichoros (“He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet”). Stesichoros was the author of a long lyric poem about the mythical Greek monster Geryon, who was red and had wings (and perhaps had six arms and legs), and was killed by Herakles in the tenth of his labors.

Carson's translation of Stesichoros is very free, using modern images like the coil of a hot plate and a glass-bottomed boat, a whimsy that mixes well with the poems' whimsical hardcore redness. Everything here—the cattle, the breeze, the dog—is red. And the monsters are real. Who could love a red winged monster? Who would pick him up in a bar and bring him home? Well, a centaur! Of course. Makes sense. I admired Stesichoros's relentlessness.

The “Romance” section of the novel follows the life of Geryon (still with wings, but in a contemporary setting) from kindergarten to his early twenties. Here also Geryon meets Herakles, late at night in a train station, when Geryon is fourteen and Herakles sixteen. It is love at first sight. Herakles seduces Geryon, then abandons him. “Geryon you know we'll always be friends,” says Herakles, but Geryon for years after lives life as “a brokenheart.”

His brain was jerking forward like a bad slide projector. He saw the doorway
the house the night the world and
on the other side of the world somewhere Herakles laughing drinking getting
into a car and Geryon's
whole body formed one arch of a cry—upcast to that custom, the human custom
of wrong love.

Is Carson's Geryon really a red monster? Is the reader meant to think the wings, the redness, are literally there? The answer is, yes, sometimes; and no. For the most part, it seems that Geryon is not literally red (that is, no one ever mentions it, though he frequently thinks it to himself); but the wings are sometimes meant to be real. They are a nuisance, Geryon is always stuffing them into large jackets. But in some of the scenes where they seem most crucial, they are missing. The most peculiar absence is in Geryon's affair with Herakles. Late in the book there is a description of Geryon and Herakles in bed:

When they made love
Geryon liked to touch in slow succession each of the bones of Herakles' back
as it arched away from him into
who knows what dark dream of its own, running both hands all the way down
from the base of the neck
to the end of the spine which he can cause to shiver like a root in the rain.

And what does Herakles think of Geryon's back, with its wings powerful enough to fly? When Geryon is alone, we see “the fantastic fingerwork of his wings … outspread on the bed like a black lace / map of South America.” But when Herakles is around, the wings are never mentioned. There is no description of how Herakles reacted learning of them, of how he touched them when they made love. Geryon never uses them to entice Herakles: a lover who can fly! Surely Herakles would take notice. Who wouldn't? So the reader begins to wonder, are the wings really there? Maybe this is all metaphor. But another character, Herakles's companion Ancash, sees the wings, and his reaction is completely realistic, and it all seems very literal.

This is an odd thing. What is going on?, I kept wondering. Are “red” and “wings” merely words here? In fact the wings mostly showed up when they made a good image, an imaginative line. And there are plausible metaphorical readings: that they stand for Geryon's difference from other people, his extreme sensitivity and creative nature. Geryon becomes a photographer, and there is certainly a sense here of art being a way to redeem pain. One might also say that the people who see and react to Geryon's wings—his mother, and later, Ancash—are the people who understand Geryon, who can see what he really is, where Herakles—physical, restless, focused on sex, as energetic as Geryon is passive—certainly does not.

This all makes sense. And yet, I found myself fighting the metaphors. It is not that I object to there being metaphorical substance. But the balance between literal and metaphorical readings didn't seem right. I wanted the wings (and the whole “monster” premise) to play a less passive role, and affect the book's narrative events. Geryon could have done everything he does here (except fly, once), without them. Look what Red [Autobiography of Red] starts with: a character who is a “monster,” and one with mythical origins; wings capable of flight; the scholarly framing, the book's formal beauty. … I was disappointed that the narrative didn't go along with this, and take a direction for which those wings were necessary. In my enthusiasm for the premise and Carson's writing I imagined a book like an eagle's aerie built into a cliff face; a place you couldn't get to any other way.

Well, it is no small thing to get a glimpse of a fabulous book that might have been, even if that gets in the way, for a time, of appreciating what there actually is. What there is, is a book that is quieter, more gentle, playful and a bit sulky. Red is lovely to read. The “Romance” particularly, with its short sections and rocking lines, is compulsively readable. There are passages throughout with exactly the kind of adventurous imagination I had hoped to find in the narrative structure:

It was the year he began to wonder about the noise that colors make. Roses came
roaring across the garden at him.
He lay on his bed at night listening to the silver light of stars crashing against
the window screen. Most
of those he interviewed for the science project had to admit they did not hear
the cries of the roses
being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully,
like horses in war. No, they shook their heads.
Why is grass called blades? he asked them. Isn't it because of the clicking?
They stared at him. You should be
interviewing roses not people, said the science teacher. Geryon liked this idea.

Carson's sense of humor is deeply embedded in the writing and shows up everywhere, from the surprise of parrot ticks in a wool blanket, to odd philosophical twists, such as an anti-Zeno's paradox: “A man moves through time. It means nothing except that, / like a harpoon, once thrown he will arrive.” Or, more subtly yet, Geryon thinking to himself “Time isn't made of anything. It is an abstraction” as the scene mysteriously shifts from just past dawn to 3 P.M.

The narrative, though, continued to frustrate me. It often felt as though Carson had simply attached some of her own interests or experiences to the characters. And perhaps this was deliberate. But it had the effect of making the events of Red seem quite arbitrary.

After college, Geryon goes to South America. (Why South America? Is it so that he can go from one mythology to another—from the Greeks to the Peruvian Indians, where red winged people are those who have returned from inside the volcano, “all their weaknesses burned away”? Or did Carson travel there herself, and want to describe what she had seen?) In Buenos Aires Geryon runs into Herakles, who is traveling around the world taping the sounds of volcanos for a documentary on Emily Dickinson. (Why is Herakles so interested in Emily Dickinson? Are we supposed to believe that he really is interested, or just enjoy the reference to Dickinson?) There is a convention of philosophers in the middle of the book. (Why? So that there can be a lecture on emotionlessness, an “erotics of doubt”?)

So many questions; perhaps the interview at the end will answer some of them?

I: How about your little hero Geryon
S[tesichoros]: Exactly it is red that I like and there is a link between geology and character
I: What is this link
S: I have often wondered

It was frustration that lead me to reread two of Carson's earlier works: Eros the Bittersweet, and the long essay/poem “The Anthropology of Water,” from Plainwater. Frustration has its rewards. The character and sensibility of Geryon had reminded me throughout Autobiography of Red of Carson's (autobiographical) narrator in “Water.” They share a sense of being outsiders who feel the insides of things; at once skeptical observers and fierce experiencers. So that words, and feelings, bump against each other. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives migrate. Even when they keep their proper places in a sentence, you can feel them turning into each other. (As Carson says in Eros the Bittersweet: “properly a noun, eros acts everywhere like a verb.”) In a way, this similarity makes Geryon less convincing a monster. What had seemed most alien about his perceptions (in passages such as the screaming roses) turns out to be true of Carson's, too: “Sky so blue it comes off on your eyes. I see shadows in the process of being sucked back into the light.”

The parallels between “Water” and Red extend to form, language, even a sequence of photographs. Here Carson “photographs” El Cid and his lover Ximena, buried together in Burgos Cathedral:

My heart gets dizzy. It is the most difficult photograph I have tried to take so far: up the scaffolding, hand over hand and out onto the pinnacles they blow, her hair like a red sail as they veer around storks' nests in the wind and clutch wide at the railings, leaning out over the tiny city, its clockwork shadows so crazily far below. … She kisses him on the shoulder in the Moorish custom. They look at one another. They look into the light. They jump.

In Red, Carson has Geryon take such photographs. And she gives him her heartbreak. Reading Geryon's heartbreak as an extension of Carson's gave it far greater impact, for me; perhaps because that weight of loss seemed to belong to someone older, not to a boy of fourteen.

More could be said about the similarities of Plainwater, as a collection, and Red, which were assembled from many of the same ingredients. I will only mention here that “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings” has the same structure of essay, fragments, and interview as Red's sections on Stesichoros; and the conference of phenomenologists in “Canicula di Anna” gets transformed into Red's philosophy conference (none of which discourages my inclination to see Geryon as Carson with wings).

Then there is Eros the Bittersweet providing the theoretical commentary—“We are not lovers who can both feel and attain their desires”—Carson's long fascination with the ache of erotic desire, with pleasure/pain made exquisite in lyric poetry, with how words feel. Reading one and then another they tumbled together: the erotic possibilities of language, the way love stories played out in Carson's life, the way she shifted the aches to fiction, red with wings. They formed a sort of trilogy of erotic sufferings.

“What does the lover want from love?” “What does the reader want from reading? What is the writer's desire?” Eros the Bittersweet takes for its subject the links between eros and the written word, generally; and in particular, the way poets use language to describe the feeling of falling in love. The poems and the language most closely analyzed are early Greek (Sappho, Archilochos, Anakreon), what Carson calls “the first outbreak of literary activity that followed the alphabet.” These poets were the first to write about love; they were the first to use written language at all. It was newly invented.

One effect of this newness was that the unit of poetic line was no longer the stock image, easily memorized, but the individual word. This notion comes up also in Red, in the opening essay on Stesichoros, whose importance, Carson says, was making adjectives: “Homer's epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption.” When Stesichoros began to attach different adjectives to nouns, “Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow-hooved. … Or a planet middle night struck. Or an insomniac outside the joy.

Language is approached throughout the book as a thing that we shape, and that shapes us. There are the psychological effects of reading, of blocking out the external world to more fully experience an imagined one; the impact of the invention of the consonant, the concept of words having edges and boundaries. There are the ways language frames the paradoxes of erotic feeling, showing how we are spun around by wanting, and not wanting, love to take possession of us. In a fragment from Anakreon: “I'm in love! I'm not in love! / I'm crazy! I'm not crazy!”

My title “erotic sufferings” is taken from the chapter “A Novel Sense.” “Erotic sufferings” were an early form of romance novel, “love stories in which it is generically required that love be painful.” The writer gives the reader both pain and pleasure by providing a series of obstacles to the lovers' union. But the lovers always come together at the end, and the reader knows this, and enjoys the tease. “As readers we know the novel must end and want it to end. ‘But not yet!’ say the readers to the writer. ‘But not yet!’ says the writer to his hero and heroine. ‘But not yet!’ says the beloved to the lover. And so the reach of desire continues.”

Which brings us to “The Anthropology of Water,” still my favorite of Carson's works: “Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried. Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts and God, one by one all took themselves out of my hands.”

I liked this best of all the pieces in Plainwater when I read it several years ago. Was it as good, on rereading, as I remembered? Yes; better. In fact it was stunning. Why did it seem even better now? This was particularly true of the section “Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference between Men and Women,” which is an account of Carson and her lover driving cross country. I was halfway through before I realized Carson had not yet told the reader that she and her lover will part for good when they reach L.A. That is why it matters so much that she remember every little thing (“Every little thing the entire truth”), and why she asks so many questions about what love means to him; why she is studying “the difference between men and women.” It is not until their last night of driving that she says: “Well enlightenment is useless but I do not like the fact that a shot has a target. We are driving to Los Angeles because he wants to live there. When the ritual is over, campers go their separate ways.”

Often, in a review, one does not want to mention developments of this sort, for fear of robbing a plot of suspense. But in this case it changes the reading completely to know the source of Carson's frustration throughout the drive. She isn't just being difficult; her heart is breaking. In the light of approaching separation, each snatch of song lyric or “ancient Chinese wisdom” gives sad council, and the scenery aches. It is abandonment that loads each sentence with grief, and it seems like the reader ought to know this. Otherwise one must read the essay twice; and while I would recommend that too, most people will not.

I am neglecting the other sections of “The Anthropology of Water” for the purposes of this review. But all of it is gorgeous. The three sections share a structure of journal entries: days of walking; driving; swimming. The last section, “Water Margins: An Essay on Swimming by My Brother,” is dedicated to Carson's brother, who left home when he was seventeen, for three years sent postcards from Europe and Asia, then disappeared. The section feels haunted. The days pass in hypnotic suspension—swimming, not swimming; water and weather, watching, waiting:

In the late afternoon the lake is shaded. There is the sudden luxury of the places where the cold springs come flooding up around the swimmer's body from below like an opening dark green geranium of ice. Marble hands drift enormously in front of his face. He watches them move past him into the lower water where red stalks float in dust. A sudden thin shaft of fish smell. No sleep here, the swimmer thinks as he shoots along through the utterly silent razor-glass dimness. One drop of water entirely awake.

Dive in. Hold your breath.


Plainwater is currently out of print, but Vintage plans to publish a paperback edition sometime in 1999.

Jed Rasula (review date summer-autumn 1999)

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SOURCE: Rasula, Jed. “A Gift of Prophecy.” Canadian Literature, nos. 161-162 (summer-autumn 1999): 187-89.

[In the following review, Rasula praises Carson for her imagination, originality of form, and effective use of irony in Autobiography of Red.]

Subtitled “A Novel in Verse,” this book [Autobiography of Red] recalls in its form the maverick legacy of the novel as “total poetic genre” as envisioned by the German Romantics. Historically, the novel is a genre arising in the seams between other genres, accenting the faultlines within and between them: a genre born to contest other genres. Because most novels forego this legacy, it has lately become a fetching prospect for poets (Lyn Hejinian's Oxata, for example). In the Canadian context, there is a rich precedence for the book-as-concept in the work of Nichol, McCaffery, Dewdney, and Bök, to name a few. Autobiography of Red is more than a narrative of a hundred and twenty pages; it includes six other elements which ostensibly present and deliberate on the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros, whose surviving fragments Carson has patched together, like Victor Frankenstein, into the monster Geryon. These six genre-expanding supplements to the story are not paraphernalia, but incubators of the uncanny atmosphere in which the story is germinated. The twenty one numbered syllogisms of Appendix C, which immediately precede the narrative proper, induce a narcosis of logic as narrative threshold: “If Stesichoros lies either we will know at once that he is lying or we will be fooled because now that we are in reverse the whole landscape looks inside out.” In Hesiod's Theogony the Muses appear to the poet shepherd and declare him incapable of detecting whether the visions they inspire are true or false. This vitalizing equivocation—traditionally the legacy of the poets (and source of Plato's opprobrium)—is transported here into the novel. It might be more accurate to say that Carson, a professor of classics and a poet, has imported a powerful pharmacopia into the blandly compliant medium of the contemporary “novel.” Ezra Pound thought of the literary event as news that stays news; the “novel” means news; Anne Carson renews Pound's pledge with an ambitextrous, genre-blending work which is novel in the best sense of bearing real news. The news in question here is, simply, itself. Every compelling work of literature is autotelic in the best sense (or “intransitive,” to use the term favored by Blanchot, Foucault, Barthes). That Autobiography of Red seems so delectably itself, one of a kind, is not surprising coming from the author of Plainwater and Glass, Irony and God and Eros the Bittersweet. These works show Carson disposed to think of each composition demanding its own form. The result has been idiosyncratic intensity and variety. Autobiography of Red lacks the variety, consisting largely of a sustained narrative of forty-seven sections composed in alternating long and short lines, but this “lack” introduces yet another element of variety into Carson's audacious oeuvre.

A nearly eventless narrative, this is a fin de siècle Bildungsroman of ennui and sexual perplexity, a textual brocade suffused with red. The tale conjures from Stesichoros's fragments the tale (transposed to the present) of Geryon's passage from boyhood to young manhood. He is a photographer with a secret (a full set of wings tucked away under his clothes), obsessed with volcanoes and pathologically enamored of an older boy named Herakles. In the concluding “interview” (a format Carson favors), Stesichoros says “it is red that I like and there is a link between geology and character.” The terms are instructive: this is a poem about the unwarranted intensities that arise from drab circumstance and the fleeting threshold of sociability bestowed by accident and coincidence. Carson has an assured way of passing from flatness of affect (as if taking a cue from Jameson's theory of postmodernism) to angular eruptions of (modernist) epiphany. Geryon's grandmother, for instance, reports an encounter with Virginia Woolf, who asks her “Why are you alone in this huge blank garden / like a piece of electricity?” Geryon bears his own solitude everywhere like a piece of stifled voltage, only gradually coming to the realizing that “We are amazing beings … We are neighbors of fire.” There is also a finely discriminated irony in Carson's poem. Erotically incendiary ochre Geryon meets a scholar in Buenos Aires named Lazer (whose mouth is like a nipple) studying “the erotics of doubt.”

Certain modernist writers—Mary Butts, Laura Riding, Robert Graves, Herman Broch—possessed a beguiling ability to make antiquity seem modern. Carson has a unique ability to blend ancient and contemporary, retaining discordance as connective link. Few scholars possess her ability to rekindle the philological debris of antiquity with any imaginative force: Guy Davenport—who prefaced an earlier Carson book, and who wrote a magical story around the surviving fragments of Heraclitus—and Stanley Lombardo, translator of Empedocles and Parmenides. Anne Carson has the knack of a clairvoyant in this respect, as if any broken off clause in ancient Greek spoke to her like Geryon's mother's roses, “standing straight and pure on the stalk, gripping the dark like prophets / and howling colossal intimacies / from the back of their fused throats.” Autobiography of Red is a gift of prophecy.

Robert Lamberton (review date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Lamberton, Robert. Review of Economy of the Unlost, by Anne Carson. Classical and Modern Literature 20, no. 2 (winter 2000): 81-4.

[In the following review, Lamberton commends Carson's accomplishment with Economy of the Unlost, describing the collection as “a book of extraordinary richness.”]

Anne Carson's Economy of the Unlost does not sit comfortably in its slim, ashen Princeton University Press binding. The color is appropriate enough, and in size it might be confused (appropriately) with a volume of poetry, but beyond that, the book is much more than its presentation implies. The jacket blurb, the list of the other contributions to this new series of Martin Lectures—even the six LCC subject categories on the back of the title page—either miss the point or falsify the text by miscontextualizing it. This should not be construed as a criticism of the book's (nameless) editor(s). It is not their fault that Anne Carson's book is both elusive and clever, and has turned the tables on them. It is a book about poetic language, more specifically about its content (here, broadly: presence, absence, and loss) and its fate (commodification). As such, this beautiful text kicks against the pricks, defying and never quite accepting its own fate—to be packed primly in its academic binding, tagged with the drab, inoffensive labels “classics” and “scholarship” (though it is certainly scholarly in the best sense of the word)—and giving only an ironic, sideways glance at the notion that it might be called “classical lectures.”

As we all enter, more or less passively, the post-political age of the commodification of absolutely everything, Carson musters the poetry of the thinker who described the process (Marx), alongside that of a poet who was in the vanguard of that process (Simonides), and one who experienced the consequences of the alienation of his own tools of production—the German language—in a uniquely radical way (Celan).

The juxtaposition is as brilliant as it is unexpected. By all rights, the clear-eyed, money-grabbing Greek—long since comfortably mythified by the familiar mendacities of Greek literary commentary into a cheerful prostituter of his art—should be the comic relief in this trio. But of the three, Simonides (still living out his myth) is the one who in fact reaps the greatest profit. Marx and Celan have nothing to gain from what certain formalist critics of a bygone era called Verfremdung—Marx himself is the condition of our knowing such “estrangement” or “strangeification” as a socio-economic, and only secondarily an aesthetic phenomenon, while Celan was the quintessential Fremdling überall. But Simonides has baked too long in the bright, even illumination of Europe's retrospective vision of Archaic Greece. He is far too familiar, and the Verfremdung Carson bestows on him by juxtaposing with him the thinker who rendered possible the observation that “history is what hurts” (Jameson < Marx), and a poet who is among the most vivid witnesses to the peculiarly bitter twentieth-century version of that hurt, can—and does—only ennoble the old skinflint.

The prefaces to “classical lectures” in the best and most prestigious series (notably the Sathers and the Martin Lectures) tend to express anxiety over the relationship of the published book to the original lectures. In general, these talks have put on a few years in the interim between delivery and publication, and their waistlines have expanded (sometimes quite enormously), so they perform their little “Quand' ero paggio …” and belabor the difference between their present corpulence and their lost sottilezza—though without Sir John's wit. Perhaps nothing about Economy of the Unlost so clearly marks it as the work of a genuine writer (and not merely a scholar) as the absence of this traditional, almost obligatory, fussy preface. Instead, illustrating the economy that is her subject, Carson prefaces the book with a one-and-a-half-page “Note on Method” that opens the issue—central to all her writing on ancient literature—of the relationship of the work of the writer to the work of the scholar. The preface's closing paragraph—where the genre demands its most flaccid and insincere trope, the author's self-location in some prestigious institution of higher learning, followed by thanks to colleagues and others, past and present—beings: “I am writing this on the train to Milan” (viii). The only proper name it contains is George Eliot's.

This is to say that, unlike what most of us academics spend our lives pounding out, Carson's text has the courage to be a text—and that courage is exhilarating. If anything, Economy of the Unlost must have trimmed down in revision. Whatever the unrevealed history of the passage from lectures to book, as we have it it carries around about as high a percentage of subcutaneous fat as a Giacometti. After the “Note” the book has an elegant and deliberate symmetry: a Prologue (“False Sail”), four chapters (“Alienation,” “Visibles Invisibles,” “Epitaphs,” and “Negation”) and an Epilogue (“All Candled Things”). The title of the book and that of the epilogue make remarkable use of two of Celan's characteristic neologisms (unlost [unverloren] and candled [gekertzt]). These are relatively mild examples of this peculiar aspect of Celan's reinvention of the German language—in general, an endearingly leveling phenomenon, in that such coinages exclude native speakers along with the rest of us in a manner analogous to that in which we non-native speakers are accustomed to being excluded. “Unlost” and “candled,” like their German equivalents, are finally not so much neologisms as words that anybody might have found lying around, but for which few would have found a use. (To invent English equivalents for such things involves a combination of gift and luck, and the majority come apart in one's hands—or are simply drained of meaning by that most vicious and deliberate of commodifiers of language, advertising: Zwienacht englished is now just a kind of double header, and even unverloren has recently been impinged on by a brand of undersea orientation hardware called “Neverlost.”) But Carson does more to communicate the feel of Celan's manipulation of these decay products of the German language than the translators can do.1 Her combination of paraphrase and description, tapping the critical literature and sometimes citing it, but rigorously maintaining its own thoughtful and secure discourse, incorporates “unlost” and “candled” into the English language and shows that there was an empty place there all along, just waiting for them.

Because of the nature of this quite wonderful book, it would be no favor to it to paraphrase its arguments—though it would be easy to do so, for they are lucid and direct.2 This is because the arguments are so integrated into the texture of this short study that to approach it with its insights already revealed would be to lose something of the pleasure it offers. It consists of meditations (sometimes Cartesian in their analytic precision) on the topics alluded to in the chapter headings and subheadings, interspersed with and illustrated by readings of poems or fragments of Simonides and Celan. In general, each chapter starts with Simonides and ends with Celan, but the organization is not in fact so simple, and both poets interrupt each other and are interrupted in turn by other voices: Parmenides, Aristotle, and Cicero among them, and (especially in the opening sections) Marx. The given project is the juxtaposition of the two poets, announced in all its apparent arbitrariness by the subtitle. As a project, it outdoes Plutarch's Parallel Lives in idiosyncrasy. In fact, it is as if Plutarch had juxtaposed a thoroughly mythified figure—Theseus, for instance—not (as he did) with Romulus, but with one of those well documented Romans from the century that preceded his own, a period of genocidal savagery that invites comparison with Celan's. Sometimes Carson's points of comparison are indeed Plutarchan in their oddness: Simonides lived on borrowed time (he left his native Keos, where by custom sexagenarians drank hemlock, and chose to live to a ripe, old age elsewhere) as did Celan (who was in hiding elsewhere when his parents were taken by the Nazis, came home to find the house sealed, and survived to the age of fifty). But the brilliance of the book is in these juxtapositions and their working out, and it blossoms phrase by careful phrase.

Here are two unforgettable and characteristic samples:

The responsibility of the living to the dead is not simple. It is we who let them go, for we do not accompany them. It is we who hold them here—deny them their nothingness—by naming their names. Out of these two wrongs comes the writing of epitaphs.

(84-85; from ch. 3 “Epitaphs”)

and on Celan's echo (in “Tübingen, Jänner.”) of Hölderlin's phrase “ein / Rätsel ist Rein- / entsprungenes” (from his poem Der Rhein):

If language were a commerce, punning would be its usury. Aristotle tells us that usury is the most unnatural sort of wealth-getting because it allows money to breed money out of itself instead of being spent as it was intended. Analogously, punning generates an unnatural supplement to significance from a sound that properly expends itself in one meaning alone.

(132; from the Epilogue: “All Candled Things”)

In case that sample is not enough to convince you that this is a book of extraordinary richness, then let me revert to something like the rhetoric of the academic review:

If a student came to me and said, “I want to know something about Simonides,” I would send that student to Anne Carson's book. I would do the same in the relatively unlikely event that a student came to me in search of help with Celan. The payoff of the paradoxical situation of Carson's scholarly prose is a fruitful one: the student who goes to her for tutelage will find not only the basic facts about both poets imbedded in these chapters, but in addition something that is far more important and less easily grasped: on the one hand, what it is to take poetry seriously; on the other, what it is to have a voice of one's own.


  1. Carson mentions only Michael Hamburger's English translations, but a peculiar and revealing light is thrown on the subject of this book by the work of Celan's Greek translator, Ioanna Avramidou: Πάουλ Τσέλαν, аὐτός ὁ χόσμος ὁ δυσανάγνωστος …, 'Επιλεγμένα ποιήματα. ('аθήνα: Εχδόσεις Ροδαμός, 1992).

  2. A markedly unsympathetic account will be found in Stephen Willett's review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (28 Feb. 2000), along with an embarrassingly long list of Carson's supposed lapses, most but not all of them trivial. Many have to do with incorrect footnote references, missing bibliography, etc. Willett is right that Carson should have gotten all this right. And there was a time when Princeton University Press cared enough about its “classics” list to provide exemplary and thorough copy editing that would have eliminated a lot of these rough edges. That time seems to have passed.

Phoebe Pettingell (review date March-April 2000)

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SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Meanings for the Millennium.” New Leader 83, no. 1 (March-April 2000): 34-6.

[In the following review, Pettingell argues that Men in the Off Hours remains a highly original and coherent poetic work, despite the wide variety of forms in which Carson writes.]

It is too soon to tell what the major poetry trends of the 21st century will be. One hundred years ago, W. B. Yeats was still writing airy lyrics. It would be 13 years until Robert Frost wrote A Boy's Life; almost two decades before Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot began to publish at all. Representative poets of 1900 included moody E. A. Robinson, bumptious Rudyard Kipling, and the classicist A. E. Housman, whose combination of irony, cutting wit and pathos created a tone that lasted well into the early decades of the new century. Verse still sang, carried along by flowing meters. Rhyme was a powerful mnemonic element, helping people to memorize their favorite poems. Volumes of poetry were as accessible as novels, and sometimes sold equally well.

By the 1940s, this attractive, approachable kind of lyric was damned by modernist critics as frivolous. The outbreak of World War II coincided with the death of easy poetry. The new objective was to say something profound but cryptic, packed with multiple meanings and arcane references. A poem's virtue now seemed to lie in how much could be read into a single line. If meaning seemed too obvious, then the work was either superficial or else possessed hidden depths that needed to be painstakingly dug out.

After the War, fashion turned against metaphysical complexity, though no one dared return to simplicity. The audience for verse became more and more fragmented as schools multiplied. The concept that an average person could simply pick up a book of poetry and read it for pleasure appeared lost; you had to learn the language first, and for many readers that seemed like too much effort for too little enjoyment.

Contemporary cultural curmudgeons lament that no poetry today could compete for an appreciable audience against prime time television. Nevertheless, the climate of current entertainment may be beginning to contribute to a broader understanding of certain aspects of poetic construction. The disjointed cutting back and forth between disparate images popularized by music videos, the surreal touches enlivening Ally McBeal (the snakelike tongues, for instance) or the mysterious incantations of Xena: Warrior Princess, correspond to techniques much favored in modernist and postmodernist verse. What once confused audiences accustomed to sequential narrative today coincides with the devices of pop culture.

You may think that readers haven't noticed this congruence yet. Maybe so, but poets are on to it. The books I am about to discuss all make strong connections between visual and auditory arts—especially cinema and song—and the construction of their own lyrics. Writers throughout much of the 20th century saw the past as a series of uninhabitable ruins whose very significance was disappearing from cultural memory, but new poetic voices are making building blocks from those ruins, hoping with such fragments to reconnect past and present cultures.

Anne Carson is a classicist, noted for her work on Sappho. A year ago, she published Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse—a remarkable poem in which a myth about the Greek hero Heracles and a monster becomes a contemporary love story. She has followed this with an equally original volume, Men in the Off Hours (2000). The book includes individual poems, poetic sequences, prose musings, autobiography, and a scholarly essay (with footnotes) on the nature of pollution and boundaries in ancient Greek culture that culminates in a brilliant reading of two Sappho poems. Most verse collections are a miscellany of pieces written over a number of years, without much connection, and of uneven consistency. Carson's latest compilation should be read as a whole, for images and concepts accumulate meaning throughout the work, like a rolling snowball. A peruser might wonder why such diverse forms belong together, yet upon closer reading the work's coherence becomes luminous.

Men in the Off Hours opens with a brief essay titled “Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War.” As Carson explains, “How people tell time is an intimate and local fact about them.” The ancient historian of the Peloponnesian conflict (450 to 400 BCE) “sets us on a high vantage point … so that we look down as if at a map of the Greek states and see lives churning forward there—each in its own time zone, its own system of measures, its own local names. Soon this manifold will fuse into one time and system under the name of war.”

Woolf herself wrote an essay at the outbreak of the European conflict in 1914 called “The Mark on the Wall.” It is an Edwardian woman's perspective on an event she will never experience firsthand as a man might. She cannot fight or make decisions, but she knows her life will be deeply affected nonetheless. Full of seeming irrelevancies, circumlocutions and distractions, it recreates the mental process of reflecting on climactic horrors, despite the fact that it is not possible to tell what the changes will entail. To the male in the room with Woolf, the mark on the wall is merely a snail. “Even in the off hours, men know marks.” To her, though, it becomes the sign of demarcation between the peaceful era that is ending and the future.

As the book progresses, we become increasingly aware of the difference between Virginia Woolf's perspective and how we encounter events at present. Now television bombards us with pictures of disaster—no need to wonder what it might look like. If nothing has happened yet, we are treated to file tapes of similar disasters. Carson finds the way television shapes our sense of time and place fascinating. A long series of poems called “TV Men” transports Sappho, Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, Lazarus, Antigone, and Anna Akhmatova into the world of camera scripts. Here phrases from a lengthy interview can be spliced and reordered for concision, or to change the point being made; images are transposed to illustrate or editorialize on what is said. People being filmed cannot control audience reaction the way they might before live viewers. Instead, the director manipulates words and visuals to impose his vision on the material.

Ultimately, we come to “Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the Set of The Peloponnesian War,” where he becomes the director telling her how to narrate and emote the horrors most effectively. But themes from earlier poems and essays keep emerging. Akhmatova, during the siege of Leningrad, notes the mark on the wall. Tolstoy's philosophy is reshaped by war. In her introduction to the sequence, Carson remarks cryptically, “TV makes things disappear. Oddly the word [television] comes from Latin videre ‘to see.’” By the finale, we have seen her meaning: What these scripts omit is as vivid as what they contain. Both prologue and epilogue are given to Sappho, a poet we know through fragments, whose voice fades in and out like a weak radio signal. Her utterances become all the more mysterious for their elisions.

Two subtexts, in particular, run throughout Men in the Off Hours. One is the impulse that makes us seek a love we feel will complete us, yet at the same time fear will compromise our autonomy. The second is the pain of loss: a past no longer entirely comprehensible to us, relationships that decay, holes in our memory, regret over missed opportunities. In “New Rule,” the poet watches a squirrel trying to negotiate an ice-covered branch while, at the same time, she recalls her desertion by a longtime lover.

The squirrel bounced down a branch
and caught a peg of tears.
The way to hold on is

The final absence is death. In the last pages, an “Appendix to Ordinary Time” reveals the book to be an elegy for Carson's mother. The poet concludes with a meditation on crossed-out passages in Woolf's letters which she read while mourning. “Crossouts are something you rarely see in published texts. They are like death: by a simple stroke—all is lost, yet still there. … Now I too am someone who knows marks.” This illuminating book thus ends like a fragment of Sappho, communicating intimacy through its very brokenness.

Derek Walcott's latest poem, Tiepolo's Hound, at first seems to hark back to an era where storytellers began at the beginning and described a sequence of events in order. Walcott has been perfecting the extended narrative form since his Omeros—a retelling of Homer's epic in a Caribbean setting. Yet the Nobel Prize winner's newest work is also concerned with disjointed time, loss, exile.

Tiepolo's Hound follows the career of Camille Pissarro, who left his native island, St. Thomas, to become one of the French Impressionists. Walcott interweaves his own story—he grew up on St. Lucia and now lives principally in the United States—with that of the painter. Black, but with an English father, the poet can identify with Pissarro, who came from a Jewish Sephardic family that fled from Portugal to escape the Inquisition's persecution. The refugees became successful merchants in the Virgin Islands and intermarried with the local populace. Involved with the arts, both men feel out of sync with the colonial culture of the islands. But as half-breeds they do not quite fit into the cultures of France or the United States, either. Each sees himself as a mongrel, at home nowhere, pursuing an elusive idea.

Walcott always manages to evoke Caribbean landscapes and customs in all their contradictory facets. Here is his description of the world he grew up in—virtually unchanged since Pissarro was born in 1830, just a century before the poet:

Despite their middens' excremental stench,
their pristine rivulets so clogged with garbage,
the villages clung to a false pride, their French
namesakes, in faith, in carpentry, in language,
so that the harbour with its flour-bag sails,
the rusted vermilion of the market's roofs
made every wharf a miniature Marseilles
when, slow as a cloud, a high cruise ship arrives.

Walcott's title refers to the detail of a painting by the Rococo master Tiepolo, which the poet believes he remembers seeing on his first trip to the United States, but has not subsequently been able to find. Throughout the poem dogs are a symbol for outsiders—those who stand on the edge of the action, observing. Canines are often so portrayed in 17th-century paintings. Their viewpoint is the same as the spectators who look at the artwork—usually a religious scene, full of activity, but not for the animals or for us who only watch passively. Walcott sees himself and Pissarro as such figures. The “slash of pink on the inner thigh / of a white hound” he keeps trying to rediscover may not, indeed, have been part of a painting at all, but something transposed from childhood skyscapes that he and the Impressionist artist can never shake off:

not Oise, where a wind sweeps famous savannas,
with farms and poplars and a piercing steeple,
but cobalt bays and roads through high bananas.

Walcott searches paintings—not only those of Rococo and Impressionist masters but his own too, because all of his recent books have been illustrated with his own watercolors—for what has been left out. Pissarro's rabbinic ancestry, his childhood in a mixed race society, the blue-green sea surrounding palm-fringed islands, must surely be part of his depictions of sparse French hills and villages. Looking is an art, no less than painting or writing, but in the end we vanish while the canvas and page are there for future generations. Walcott's mellifluous voice echoes in the holes made by those omissions, singing a lament for our own disjointed, mongrel selves.

Robert Pinsky has certainly thrown himself into the task of trying to create a broader audience for poetry. The promotional material for his latest book, Jersey Rain 2000, dubs him “America's most public poet.” Whatever that may mean, there is no question that his hucksterism for verse has made people sit up and pay some attention. Fairly popular magazines print his articles. He gets on television and radio to read with the brio of a sports announcer, to discuss like a pundit, to exhort like a tent revival preacher. Last summer, on Cape Cod, he organized a “reading of favorite poems” in which writers, known and less so, declaimed everything from John Keats to Edward Lear, to the delight of a standing-room-only crowd.

Pinsky's evangelistic zeal comes from his conviction that poetry records and helps formulate how we see ourselves. In an article published last October in the Atlantic Monthly, he wrote that Americans are famous for being “perpetually in the process of devising ourselves as a people. An improvised, eclectic, synthesizing quality pervades our cultural products. This quality seems unmistakable in both the most glorious and the stupidest of our cultural manifestations—in the transcendent music of Charlie Parker and in the embarrassing dumbness of Super Bowl halftime shows. The improvisational, provisional spirit is in the poems of Wallace Stevens and in the denim pants of Levi Strauss.”

Pinsky's poems often seem to be bridging the gap between popular and high art. “The Tragic Chorus” compares the ancient Greek dramas with the rites of our own era—a combination of sublimity and vulgar spectacle, idealism and commercial sellout—where the celebrations of civilization ignore the injustices that underpin its lifestyle:

                                                                                                                                            eminent citizens
Sponsor the dramas, paying the chorusmaster and writer. …
And since the tragedy makers the rich men commission
Vie for prizes awarded at the drunk god's festival
It also resembles Academy Awards, Emmys, Pulitzers,
All focused on the City arena—city of slavery, of
Of women willed by their husbands, who got them from their fathers,
As property to their own sons. City of actual sacrifice,
The scapegoat slave crowned with horns. Feel it at the revival,
Train station, ballgame: the breathing public organism.

Appropriately for an era in which communication increasingly comes not through voice or printed page, but in bombardments of visual and aural stimuli, Pinsky defines meaning as lying “not in the words, not even / Between the words, but a torsion, / A cleavage, a stirring.” Like Anne Carson and Derek Walcott, he realizes that when we try to separate our own thoughts and feelings from the content of what we read or watch, much is suppressed. His poems form a kaleidoscope of pictures and sensations. If you paraphrased them, the way students used to be assigned to do with Shakespearean monologues, the effect would not come through very well. Thoughtful and passionate, Robert Pinsky is determined to record impressions of who we are—we Americans—on the cusp of this fresh millennium. More important, he wants to help us understand how to appreciate the role poetry plays in the historical and contemporary record.

Stanley Corngold (review date April 2000)

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SOURCE: Corngold, Stanley. Review of Economy of the Unlost, by Anne Carson. Modernism/Modernity 7, no. 2 (April 2000): 322-24.

[In the following review, Corngold describes Carson as “a continental treasure” and praises Economy of the Unlost as a marvelous collection of diverse poetic essays.]

I wrote a book on general literary aesthetics called Complex Pleasure, and if there was ever an example in the high sense of the word of such a thing, it is this magnificent and lovely essay by Anne Carson. I dare to include myself because Carson begins by arguing generally and by example the inescapable subjectivity of writing. In her arresting image, writing is a clearing and sorting of your own windowless room; and to pretend such writing as hers was made “out there,” “in the landscape of science and fact where people converse logically and exchange judgments,” is just “a notion” (vii). (With “clearing” she is thinking of gathering, reading, opening.) Opening the Economy of the Unlost, which means “reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan,” is to begin walking a tightrope: you are as much interested in seeing how it will be done, as much concerned that it be done, since you are caught up on this rope-bridge with her, as you are absorbed in the (marvelous) things being said—: on sails, grace, cash, etchings, epitaphs, distichs, alchemy, Yes and No, sand art, snow art, death.

To start with the title: the “unlost” are those who are saved by the grace of the poet. “Economy”—that is a riven thing: it is the cash economy that came to replace the economy of grace, friendship, and hospitality, the “equivalent,” if this might be said of a thing without equivalents, of poetry. The argument of this book is its own agile economy; it teaches economy to be a new name for a new thing (Carson's own writing on economy).

Despite the private “dashing back and forth,” the pace of Carson's exposition is calm (vii). What's daring and inspired is modulated into lakes of fact and explanation: wit—the startling image or phrase—into scholarly exposition of, for example, the xenia, the gift and grace economy in Greece preceding the fifth century, whose turn into the cash nexus Simonides witnessed and professed—and Marx's description of alienation and commodity exchange, of whose nefas (sin) in technically-applied terror Celan was the victim and distinguished witness. The terms of grace, gift, and cash are key because it was Simonides with whom the idea arose that a poet should be paid in coin; with him arose the peculiar imbrication of the economies of verse and money. It is not irrelevant that Simonides excels in riddles, “an innately stingy form of discourse” (23); and Celan is the most parsimonious of poets: he will use the same line two or three times in the same poem. Carson's images remain calmly in the mind like sculptures see in the Greek wing of the museum: the two aristocrats—one a poet, Anakreon, and one a tyrant, Polykrates—lying beside each other, holding discourse: “We can only imagine its delicate internal workings” (15).

This is a work of comparative literature in the original sense: pieces of poetic language in Greek and German are put together in oscillatory vibration, and you can feel the delay in translation. It is not only or chiefly that the strangers Simonides (556-467 B.C.) and Paul Celan (1920-1970) are translated, and interpreted, side by side; but that, before they are translated and interpreted, they are held together in the mind and allowed to resonate together in a space vacated by one's “native” language—a space akin to the “pure language” (celebrated by Walter Benjamin) whose capture is “the tremendous and only capacity of translation.”1 At first Carson has no language to articulate her intuition of kindred; and then there is language that rises up from her work of clearing in this dim carrefour—like Simonides' own, full of “movement, light, and unexpectedness” (85)—and it is not “made up,” for the act of critical attention, like “the act of poetic attention, gathers to itself a directional force as mysterious as gravity from the poet's instinct for true relationships” (94). Here, a critical language starts to unfold its own long history as traditional intellectual knowledge (Karl Marx, Marcel Mauss, and the authors of the 200+ books in Carson's bibliography). If this commentary is also unexpected and incisive, like Simonides' own, “with its clean machinery of appositions, vanishing points, and conceptual shocks” (55), it is because it comes first from the unsaid and then into language—not from one language into the other, an affair of stereotyping.

It is a reflection on the unobvious: Celan, in Carson's view, did not “write” in German, he translated into German what he “saw” in a “native” language pure, like the Self, pure of, and before, all empirical determinations. Perhaps its closest identification is the mythical German that was thought in (I don't say “written down”) before its Nazi contamination. Celan translates from it into a contaminated language, and so he must stalk about and pick and select among “the ashes of burned-out meanings” (thus Celan, as quoted by Carson), where only small pieces are shining and usable, rather outré pieces, what Carson calls “nuggets” (30). You feel this delay.

The last delay: Carson's bringing the sense of the poem by Celan to an historical crossroads where it can encounter the sense of Simonides of Keos, who lived 2400 years before. You feel her bringing Celan there. That is a delay allowing you to sense the exact shape of the thing being conveyed, whence your freedom to decide whether the fine metamorphosis it receives in the course of coming to the place of an encounter, where it can be compared, is just.

Things I'd want to give Carson: that the “Wunde, Rosa” (“Wound, Rose-Red”) of Celan's “Coagula” is a decisive image in Franz Kafka's story “A Country Doctor”: “Near the hip was an open wound … Rose-red, in many variations of shade. …”2 That, following Pierre Bertaux, “i pallaksch” might be Friedrich Hölderlin's (Swabian) enunciation of è pallax.3 That the figure of narrative economy informs a good deal of the modern literature, progeny of Simonides, that Celan read. The hero of André Gide's The Immoralist (1902), Michel, lets himself go “in a dream of lands where every force should be so regulated, all expenditure so compensated, all exchange so strict, that the slightest waste would be appreciable.” Applied to life, this dream could produce “a code of ethics—one that would institute the scientific and perfect realization of a man's self by a controlling intelligence.”4 The eponymous hero of Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) literally employs the diction of bookkeeping, saying that in contradistinction to the few facts at our disposal, all our “surmises” (Vermutungen) and “insights” (Einsichte) are only “subsequently” (nachträglich) added on to empirical experience: they are “supplements,” supplied only “afterwards,” as something “belated, as payment in arrears.” Like entries in a ledger, they are registered after the factual experience of what they are about, they are a settling of accounts, “balance-sheets” (Abschlüße), nothing more. Thereafter “a new page begins, with a completely different account, and no sum is carried forward,” meaning that when the facts of the case (Existenz) are again encountered, they are encountered as if for the first time.5 Facts and insights don't tally; thought shows no appreciable profit. Esch, the hero of Hermann Broch's Esch or the Anarchist, the second volume of The Sleepwalkers (1931), “perceived that it was purely coincidental if the addition of the columns matched.”6 Even today, another Michael, the hero of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, “rationalizes” his behavior, “making my desire an entry in a strange moral accounting, and silencing my bad conscience.”7

The Canadian poet, Anne Carson, is a continental treasure. I never wanted her book to end, I never ceased thinking of gifts I wanted to give her.


  1. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 1:261.

  2. “A Country Doctor,” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glazter (New York: Shocken, 1971), 223. The original reads, “In der Hüftengegend hat sich eine handtellergroße Wunde aufgetan. Rosa, in vielen Schattierungen …” (“Ein Landarzt,” in Ein Landarzt und andere Drucke zu Lebzeiten, in Franz Kafka, Gesammelte Werke in zwölf Bänden, nach der kritischen Ausgabe, ed. Hans-Gerd Koch [Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1994], 1:204).

  3. Pierre Bertaux, Friedrich Hölderlin (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1981), 209-10.

  4. André Gide, The Immortalist, trans. Dorothy Bussy (New York: Vintage, 1958), 61.

  5. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1990), 176. Quotations from the original refer to Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, in Rainer Maria Rilke, Werke in drei Bänden (Frankfurt: Insel, 1966), 3:270-1.

  6. My translation. Hermann Broch, Esch oder Der Anarchist in Die Schlafwandler (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979), 380.

  7. Bernhard Schlink, The Reader, trans. Carol Brown Janeway (New York: Vintage, 1997), 19.

Anne Carson and Stephen Burt (interview date 3 April 2000)

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SOURCE: Carson, Anne, and Stephen Burt. “Anne Carson: Poetry without Borders.” Publishers Weekly 247, no. 14 (3 April 2000): 56-7.

[In the following interview, Carson discusses her background and education, her body of work, and the complexities of the publication process.]

At poet Anne Carson's house in the Berkeley hills, hard by the university campus, a mint-green fence defends the high, pale greenery of a raw Bay Area spring. The plants hide the glass front door from the street, so Carson can work at her front window unseen. On her diminutive, sunlit writing desk is Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Sources of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful. Sinuous '50s jazz fills the kitchen. It's a neat, bright space for a scholar and poet, but Carson is quick to explain that it's not really hers: after spending the fall at the University of Michigan writing an opera, Carson is staying here for one semester in Berkeley: in the fall she returns to McGill University in Montreal, where she teaches ancient Greek.

Like her borrowed household, Carson—tall and intent, with glasses that look slightly askew—can seem both deliberately solitary, and brightly connected to everything she's come across. She lives alone; she married once, but has been divorced since 1980. Welcoming and unpretentious, she is happy to explain her multifarious projects: “I do lots of things at once of different kinds,” she avers, “and they tend to spill into one another.” Among her latest projects is her first book of short poems in five years, Men in the Off Hours: its serious and eclectic pages include “epitaphs,” love poems, verse-essays, commemorative prose, “shooting scripts” for purported TV dramas and poems addressed to paintings. In addition, Princeton University Press has just published Carson's Economy of the Unlost (Forecasts, July 26, 1999), a book-length essay on the ancient Greek poet Simonides and the modern German-language poet Paul Celan.

Carson's literary accomplishments have been as various as her residences. Her first book, Eros the Bittersweet—a startling, lucid argument about love, lust and jealousy in Greek poetry—emerged from her doctoral dissertation. (Princeton published Eros in 1986 as an academic book; in 1998, Dalkey Archive reissued it as a handsome trade paperback.) Readers of poetry discovered Carson in 1995 with two genre-defying books of essays and poems, Plainwater (Vintage) and Glass, Irony and God (New Directions); Ben Greenman in the Los Angeles New Times called Glass “perceptive, beautiful, sexy, neurotic, lyrical, and hilarious.” Carson's 1998 novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red (Vintage), became a National Book Critics Circle Awards finalist; Time called its “success d'estime … both timely and timeless.” Carson now has an audience in Great Britain, where she's published by Jonathan Cape; translators are also bringing Carson's work into Danish, Dutch, German and Italian.

Born in 1950, Carson grew up in “various towns in Ontario.” She devoted herself to classics long before she cared about writing poems: “I started to learn Greek when I was in high school, the last year of high school, by accident, because my teacher knew Greek and she offered to teach me on the lunch hour, so we did it in an informal way, and then I did it at university, and that was the main thing of my life.” Carson chose the University of Toronto for her undergraduate and graduate studies; she taught from 1980 to 1987 at Princeton. She continues to write about ancient poets with unorthodox vigor; of the Greek epic (most of it lost) on which she based Autobiography of Red, Carson writes that “the fragments of the Geryoneis … read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem, then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat.”

Carson's entry into literary publishing came through renowned New York essayist and editor Ben Sonnenberg, who founded the journal Grand Street. “I lived in New York at the 92d St Y one year, [in] '86-'87, and somebody told me, I think it was Robert Fagles or Bernard Knox, who are both scholars, one of them told me that I should call [Sonnenberg] since he lives in New York and meet him, since he was a man of letters and I was a person of letters, and so I did that and then I went and visited him, which is a very marking experience, and we've been friends ever since, and he was the first person, as I've said, who published me.” Carson adds that Sonnenberg's response to her writing was crucial. “It's very important to have someone you trust tell you your writing is good,” she says, “especially if you trust them first, if you know who they are and have an image of that and then come into it. I knew of Grand Street before. It was amazing then. And he did it all himself, it was just a product of his mind and his cash … entirely his own. So that was changeful.”

What Sonnenberg accepted was a long work called “Kinds of Water,” a series of prose pieces (like Japanese haibun) which followed the route of the Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Carson calls it “something in between a story and an essay.” Sonnenberg's acceptance “made me validate that way of writing, because up until that time I think I thought I had to make things be either an academic thesis or else fiction, and I couldn't write fiction. So it was good to discover that form.”

By then Carson had also begun the prose-poem sequence Short Talks, which appeared as a chapbook in 1992 from Brick, a Canadian magazine and press associated with Michael Ondaatje. Other Canadian poets tout networks of writers up north; for Carson, though, “There was no scene. Just me and my notebook!”

Carson has been largely content with her U.S. trade publishers: “It's been all Knopf since '95. Plainwater and the New Directions book [Glass, Irony and God] came out at the same time. And since then it's all Knopf, Vintage is Knopf, it's all one big happy family.” One chronic family quarrel concerns book covers: at her insistence, none of her books show her readers what she looks like. She even hates “the blurb thing. I just loathe it. They want to cover the whole back of the book with junk from other people's bad language about what I wrote, and it just drives me crazy, and I struggled for a long time to persuade them to not put any on the front—they like to put it on the front, too—but at least I got it to the back, and with the next one I want to have a blank book. This is my aim. Nothing. No biography, no author's photos, no quotes from whoever, just the book.” Carson says it's important that she not notice readers' reactions: “I think I cancel them as soon as they come in to me. I don't read reviews and I don't know what to do with opinions, so I just lose them. They take up space, they become a process of manufacturing a persona, which I want to avoid.

“I never had much education in English poetry as such,” Carson maintains. She returns to the Greeks to describe kinds of poems she has written—short and long poetry, lyric and narrative. In Greek literature “a lyric aims to capture a moment of change from one time to another, from one situation to another, so it's not that you describe any moment in the day and make it intense, you choose the moment in the day when everything changed because of some little thing or thought or mood. Homer can tell you the whole history of the fall of Troy, he has 24,000 words to do it, and there's no necessary choice of frame, of the critical moment, as there is for a lyric poet.” Narrative poems like Homer's—or like her own Red [Autobiography of Red]—can move the reader through time, from event to event. Carson contrasts these events to the freeze-frame effects of short poems—“lyric [poetry] attempts to enter so deeply into history at a particular point that time stops.”

Carson's mother died in 1997, and the last few pages of Men commemorate her. Is Men in the Off Hours all about death and grief? Carson says she didn't plan it that way: “I didn't sit down and say okay, now I have to write a book with a lot of epitaphs and organize it around death. But as I was putting together different parts, it seemed to me that there was a possibility of shaping this book in a way I hadn't done with the others.” Simonides has it (in Carson's translation) that “We are all debts owed death.” Carson says she took her epitaph form from his: “that's what he mainly wrote—he's fifth century B.C.—so he more or less solidified the form. And the form that he used, which was conventional for ancient poets, is that couplet, usually it's two lines or four lines, long and short, long and short. So I was trying to imitate that in the little ones I did.”

The poems in another of Carson's series, “TV Men,” pretend to be teleplays and notes for documentaries about such unlikely celebrities as the French playwright Antonin Artaud. Carson describes the genesis of “TV Men”: “In 1993 or '94 PBS asked me to do a program they were formulating called the Nobel Legacy, about the Nobel science prizes, and what they wanted was three programs about science, chemistry, physics, biology, with a kind of sarcastic overlay by some representative humanist. We did three programs, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

That bad? “The process is just dehumanizing. We did a show in Paris, for example. I had to walk into traffic on the Place de la Concorde, at 8 a.m., into rush-hour traffic, while talking my speech for the scene—they wanted a scene of the stress of modern life! But the thing with TV is that nothing happens right the first time, and you have to do it over and over and over. We did that 26 times, into traffic, saying the same things, and the worst part of it is not the death-defying scenario itself but having to repeat your own language. Nothing deadens language like repetition. So you write a sentence and you really like it and you have it in your mind and then you say it once, twice, three times. By the seventh time it's just the worst sentence in the world and then you hate it and you have to go on to number 26.”

Does Carson hate movies too? “I love movies. [Italian actress] Monica Vitti is one of my personal heroes.” She's also a recent discovery: Carson had “absolutely no knowledge of film till last fall. Because I've never owned a TV, and I went to movies only sporadically. But last fall I lived in Michigan in an apartment that was rented for me and it had a TV in it and a VCR so I started to watch movies, three a week.”

What was Carson doing in Michigan? “The course I taught was about mystical literature of women, but the background of the course was a libretto for an opera I was writing, which I brought with me just because I had it in my backpack, and then I was talking about it with people there in Michigan at the institute and they said, Why don't we try to do this? So I did it with my students as an art installation.” The seven-room installation-opera, The Mirror of Simple Souls, may be seen and heard on the Web at; those with slow connections should set aside a few hours for loading.

Even as she explores newer media, Carson remains committed to classical scholarship. A few years ago McGill eliminated its graduate programs in Greek and Latin, folding its undergraduate classics program into the department of history. “That was kind of a shock for all of us. … They moved people, some to administration, some to retirement, all the part-time people they let go. It was really ugly and stupid because it's part of at least the prestige of a good university to offer classics as a real degree.”

Opera, TV, painting, collage, all kinds of prose and verse, personal essays, classical scholarship: Are there genres Carson hasn't worked in? “I don't know what I want to work in, it just falls from the sky. I've never done any architecture!” She is at work on a multimedia project about “longing”: one goal is an artist's book, including poetry, aphorisms, drawing, collage, glitter and found photographs. Her visual preoccupations are nothing new: “I didn't write very much at all until I guess my 20s because I drew. I just drew pictures, and sometimes wrote on them when I was young but mostly I was interested in drawing. I never did think of myself as a writer!” Even now, with six books, “I don't know that I do yet. I know that I have to make things. And it's a convenient form we have in our culture, the book, in which you can make stuff, but it's becoming less and less satisfying. And I've never felt that it exhausts any idea I've had.”

Ian Rae (essay date autumn 2000)

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SOURCE: Rae, Ian. “‘Dazzling Hybrids’: The Poetry of Anne Carson.” Canadian Literature, no. 166 (autumn 2000): 17-41.

[In the following essay, Rae examines Carson's reworking of ancient mythology in Autobiography of Red and argues that the volume is particularly effective due to Carson's series of “literary allusions that intertwines ancient and modern, masculine and feminine, Greek and Quechua, Egyptian and Canadian” influences.]

The subtitle of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse only hints at the variety of genres that the Montreal poet employs. In Autobiography of Red, Carson brings together seven distinct sections—a “proemium” (6) or preface on the Greek poet Stesichoros, translated fragments of Stesichoros's Geryoneis, three appendices on the blinding of Stesichoros by Helen, a long romance-in-verse recasting Stesichoros's Geryoneis as a contemporary gay love affair, and a mock-interview with the “choir-master”—each with its own style and story to tell. Carson finds fresh combinations for genres much as she presents myth and gender in a new guise. Although men appear to be the subject of both the romance and the academic apparatus that comes with it, Carson sets the stories of Stesichoros, Geryon, and Herakles within a framework of epigrams and citations from Gertrude Stein and Emily Dickinson that, far from being subordinate, assumes equal importance with the male-centred narrative when Stein supplants Stesichoros in the concluding interview. The shift in speakers and time-frames in the interview, as well as the allusions to the myth of Isis, emphasize Carson's manipulation of mythic forms. Carson's retelling of the Geryoneis (itself a lyrical revision of an epic myth) draws inspiration from Stesichoros's portrait of Helen of Troy in the Palinode (a recantation of the poet's earlier, Homeric portrait), as well as from the mythic scenes in which Isis reconstitutes the fragmented body of Osiris. Negotiating this complex arrangement of literary allusions, Carson uses shifts in gender and genre to foreground her extensive alternations to the myths that underlie and frame Autobiography of Red.

Because it employs fragmentation and “radical recontextualization” to “overturn the conventional distinction between a framing ‘master-text’ and a cited text that exists in supplementary relation to it” (Jones 14), Autobiography of Red could be situated in the Canadian tradition of “documentary-collage” (Jones 14) that Manina Jones traces in works such as Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic. Indeed, Marlatt has written a favourable review of Autobiography of Red (Marlatt 41) and the cover of Carson's novel-in-verse bears a strong endorsement from Ondaatje: “Anne Carson is, for me, the most exciting poet writing in English today.” However, the primarily Greek derivation of Carson's fragments has prompted Guy Davenport to situate Carson's poetry within a revived classicism. Introducing Carson's Glass, Irony and God (1992), Davenport displays his professional interest in the McGill professor of ancient Greek by arguing that Carson “is among those returning poetry to good strong narrative (as we might expect of a classicist)” (x). Carson's romance certainly upholds Davenport's argument for “good strong narrative,” but the scholarly framework of Carson's novel-in-verse also borrows from her non-narrative experiments in poetry “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings” (Plainwater 1995), as well as her essays on lyric form in Eros the Bittersweet (1986).

The reception of Autobiography of Red highlights the diversity of readings made possible by what Melanie Rehak calls Carson's “dazzling hybrids” (39), in a feature-length article on the poet in the New York Times Magazine. However, one should note the media dazzle that accompanies the discussion of Carson's hybrids when Rehak's article includes a full-page fashion shot of Carson in red (37). The success of Autobiography of Red has rocketed Carson from cult status in small literary magazines to international prominence, creating a mystique summed up by the opening question of an article in the Boston Review. “What if a Canadian professor of classics turned out to be a greater poet than any living American?” (Halliday). Assessing her most recent collection of poetry, Men in the Off Hours (2000), the New York Times Book Review calls Carson the “most instantly penetrating of contemporary poets” (Bedient 44), Time Magazine1 declares that Carson “fulfills poetry's highest calling” (Bruck 98), and the Globe and Mail (scrambling to respond to the New York Times Magazine feature) proclaims that “Carson is where the action is in contemporary poetry” (Wilson D19). While Carson can mix and match with the best postmodernists, her ability to write essays, lyrics, narrative and non-narrative poetry with equal facility distinguishes her. This ability also creates contradictory appraisals of her talent. For example, in a review of Autobiography of Red for the TLS (3 Dec. 1999), poet Oliver Reynolds praises Carson's attempt to blend intellect with emotion, but laments that the romance at the heart of her novel-in-verse could not “sustain the expectations created by its extraordinary first half” (24). In the same issue of the TLS, critic Karl Miller chooses Autobiography of Red as his book of the year on the strength of its “single magnificent and perplexing poem [the romance]” while suggesting that it “might have shed the gnomic appendices which both precede and round off the romance proper” (Miller 6). The reception of Autobiography of Red has been overwhelmingly positive (among reviewers such as Marlatt, Rasula, Miller, Moses, Siken, Macklin, and Beam), but some critics of the novel-in-verse find it either “top-heavy with its absurd apparatus” (Logan) or “so devoted to the emotional fluctuations of [the] protagonist” of the romance that the novel “ends up feeling like a lyric poem fantastically extended” (Halliday). However, a closer look at the manipulation of myth in Autobiography of Red reveals that the mock-academic apparatus surrounding the romance is neither absurd nor a simple extension of the lyric sequence.

The first section of Autobiography of Red, a poem entitled “Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?” introduces the reader to the ancient Greek lyricist. Stesichoros (also Stesichorus) was born in Himera, on the coast of Sicily, between 650 (Red 3) and 628 (Davidson 197) BCE. Of the “dozen or so titles and several collections of fragments” (Red 3) remaining from Stesichoros's works, Carson is particularly interested in a “long lyric poem in dactylo-epitrite meter and triadic structure” (5) called the Geryoneis. The eighty-four surviving papyrus fragments and half-dozen citations of the Geryoneis expand on the story of Geryon from the tenth labour of Herakles (also Heracles or Hercules). The fragments “tell of a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia (which is an adjective2 simply meaning ‘The Red Place’) quietly tending a herd of magical red cattle, until one day the hero Herakles came across the sea and killed him to get the cattle” (5). Instead of adopting the “conventional … point of view of Herakles and fram[ing] a thrilling account of the victory of culture over monstrosity,” Stesichoros offers a “tantalizing cross section of scenes, both proud and pitiful, from Geryon's own experience” (6). Stesichoros gives Geryon an “unexpectedly noble” (Davies, “Stesichorus” 277) character and marks the transition from epic deed to lyric encounter as a shift from heroic conquest to subjective engagement. In the lyric sequence “Autobiography of Red: A Romance,” Carson furthers this evolution by transforming the Geryoneis into a contemporary gay love affair between a leather-jacketed Herakles and his little red admirer. However, as the organization of Autobiography of Red implies, it is necessary to understand Stesichoros's deviations from the epic form before engaging with Carson's romance. “[R]anked with Homer by some of the ancients” (Barnstone 109), Stesichoros achieved considerable fame by re-framing the epic narratives of Homer and Hesiod, as well as by reconsidering the targets of their abuse, such as Geryon and Helen of Troy.

Although Quintilian remarks that Stesichoros “sustained on the lyre the weight of epic song” (10.1.62; trans. A. Miller 77) and Carson has Longinus—in a slight manipulation of Longinus 13—call Stesichoros the “[m]ost Homeric of the lyric poets” (Red 4), Stesichoros's primary contribution to literary history lies in his alteration of epic for lyric purposes. Stesichoros was probably the first to combine elements of lyric monody (solo song), epic narrative and dance in order to recast the ancient myths as choral performance:

Although he may well have been preceded by Terpander (and others unknown) in the invention of musical settings for the traditional epics, his poems on epic themes appear to have been distinctive in their completely “lyrical” form, composed as they were in a triadic structure and adapted to nomoi for the lyre.

(Maingon 1)

Malcolm Davies cautions that Stesichoros's compositions were not strictly choral (“Monody” 601), but his verse differs from the monody of Sappho, Alcaeus and Anacreon in its preference for “an artificial language with a strong Doric flavour” and its triadic structure—in which “a strophe is followed by an antistrophe in the same metrical pattern, the antistrophe by an epode in a related but different rhythm” (Campbell 2: 262). Thus, instead of relying solely on the conventions of either lyric or epic, Stesichoros—like Carson—creates his own hybrid form.

In “Stesichorus and the Epic Tradition,” Maingon examines Stesichoros's treatment of Homeric form and diction and offers these conclusions:

Retaining the heroic theme, he amalgamated traditional and original material in narrative poems of about 1500 lines in length to be performed to the accompaniment of the lyre, either by solo voice or by chorus, or even both. Held within the bounds of this structure the poems were far more narrowly defined as far as content was concerned and less digressive than epic. The musical accompaniment in itself, the nomos which was traditionally divided into seven parts, imposed a finite structure on the theme.

(Maingon 355)

Toying with these numerological conventions, Carson divides Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse into seven sections (in the manner of lyric performance) and the lyric sequence “Autobiography of Red: A Romance” into 47 numbered sections (one short of the Homeric corpus). This kind of generic play becomes increasingly important towards the conclusion of Autobiography of Red, where the lyric/epic evolves into a “photographic essay” (Red 60) that gives way to an interview which appears to be part of a drama. In Western literature, this manipulation of genres begins, according to Carson's proem, with Stesichoros.

Carson explains Stesichoros's achievement in terms of adjectives, which she calls “the latches of being” (Red 4). “Homer's epithets,” Carson writes in her proem, “are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption” (4). For example, in Homer “blood is black,” “God's laughter is unquenchable” (4), and the name Helen of Troy is attached to “an adjectival tradition of whoredom already old by the time Homer used it” (5). As a young man, Stesichoros followed Homer in “mak[ing] the most of Helen's matrimonial misadventures” (Davidson 200) in his lost Helen. However, for “no reason that anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches” (Red 5) in mid-career. Suddenly there was “nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved” or a “river being root silver” (Red 5) and the fixed characterization of Helen as a whore was affected as a result. Whereas Homer has Helen qualify her speech in the Iliad with disclaimers such as “slut that I am” (Lattimore 3.180),3 Stesichoros reconsiders the denigrating effects of these insults. By rejecting the presentation of Helen as a (self-described) “nasty bitch evil-intriguing” (Lattimore 6.344),4 Stesichoros implicated the men who made her both the prize and scapegoat of the Trojan War.

Legend has it that Stesichoros's changed attitude towards Helen resulted from his blinding at her hands. Newly deified, Helen revenged herself on the epic tradition by blinding Stesichoros when he engaged in the standard Homeric slander of her name. To regain his sight, Stesichoros spontaneously composed a palinode or counter-song, and performed a kind of public retraction. In its use of inversion, the Palinode parallels other innovations by Stesichoros in style (strophe/antistrophe/epode) and diction. To cite one example of relevance to Autobiography of Red, Stesichoros assigns Helen her husband's distinctive hair colour, ξανθός or reddish-brown (Oxyrhynchus 43), in fragment 2619 14.5 (probably from the Iliou Persis). By Maingon's count, the epithet “ξανθός belongs primarily to Menelaus (16 times in the Iliad and 15 in the Odyssey) while it is used in the feminine of Demeter (twice), of Agamede (once) and Ariadne (once, in the Theogony)” (86). Homer leaves Helen's exalted beauty unspecified, enabling her to stand in more easily as a synecdoche for all women of treacherous beauty. Undoing this particular latch, “Stesichorus probably intended the relationship between Menelaus and Helen to be accentuated (perhaps ironically) by th[e] transference of the epithet regularly expected with Menelaus to his misguided wife” (Maingon 87). This simple verbal transgression not only speeds Helen's conversion from archetype to individual, but also sets a precedent for Carson's manipulation of epithets and proper nouns in her final interview, where Gertrude Stein answers questions in place of the “choir-master,” Stesichoros.

Stein maintains a strong presence in the academic frame of Carson's novel-in-verse. Carson begins her proem with an epigram from Stein, “I like the feeling of words doing / as they want to do and as they have to do” (3)5 and then immediately situates Stesichoros “after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet” (3). Between the epigram and interview, Carson develops the connection between Stein and Stesichoros as a shared talent for fragmentation. Just as Stesichoros's adjectives broke with the standard diction of Homeric epic, Stein's experiments in sentence structure changed the face of twentieth-century narrative by “repudiat[ing] the conventions of syntactical causality” (Kostelanetz xiv). In Stein's “cubist” (xxiii) treatment of the verbal surface, “nouns … are used in ways that obscure their traditional functions within the structure of a sentence,” adverbs that “customarily come before a verb now follow it, and what might normally be the object of a sentence either becomes its subject or precedes it. Instead of saying ‘someone is alive’, Stein writes, ‘Anyone can be a living one’” (xiv). For Stein as for Stesichoros, fragmentation serves as a means to destabilize fixed modes of representation and perception. Thus, when Carson returns rhetorically to the proem's titular question—“What difference did Stesichoros make?” (4)—she offers a comparison that directly links early Greek lyric to high modernist portraiture: “When Gertrude Stein had to sum up Picasso she said, ‘This one was working’. So say of Stesichoros, ‘This one was making adjectives’” (4). The theme of working—as in working with, belabouring, modifying—fragments serves as a bridge to the proem's conclusion, where Carson invites her readers to create their own work:

[T]he fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box. “Believe me for meat and for myself,” as Gertrude Stein says. Here. Shake.


The interjection of Stein's voice here completes her framing of the proem. Stein's quotation also makes her words essential to the semantics of Autobiography of Red because they provide a clue to the meaning of “Red Meat” in the first two chapter titles.

Stein's disturbing conflation of meat and self in a paragraph about the fragments of Stesichoros jars momentarily, but the interjected quotation points back to “The Gender of Sound,” the final essay in Carson's Glass, Irony and God (1992), where Carson contemplates sexual double-entendres in antiquity and asserts that “putting a door on the female mouth (mouth/vagina) has been an important project of patriarchal culture from antiquity to the present day. Its chief tactic is an ideological association of female sound with monstrosity, disorder and death” (121). In the midst of discussing epithets attached to the voices/mouths of Helen, Aphrodite, and Echo, Carson asks her reader to consider this description of the sound of Gertrude Stein by the biographer M. D. Luhan:

Gertrude was hearty. She used to roar with laughter, out loud. She had a laugh like a beefsteak. She loved beef.

These sentences, with their artful confusion of factual and metaphorical levels … projec[t] Gertrude Stein across the boundary of woman and human and animal kind into monstrosity. The simile “she had a laugh like a beefsteak” which identifies Gertrude Stein with cattle is followed at once by the statement “she loved beef” indicating that Gertrude Stein ate cattle.

(Glass 121)

When compounded with details of Stein's “large physical size and lesbianism,” Carson argues, Luhan's allusion to cannibalism completes the “marginalization of [Stein's] personality” as a “way to deflect her writings from literary centrality. If she is fat, funny-looking and sexually deviant she must be a marginal talent, is the assumption” (121). Autobiography of Red redresses this slight by giving Stein's voice increasing prominence in the story of a monster who tends a herd of mythical red cattle and whose name means “roarer” or “speaker.” Stein's epigrammatic voice in the upper margin of the first page resurfaces as reported speech in the body of the proem, as a stylistic echo in “Appendix C,” and eventually as an active voice in the final interview.

In the novel's second section, “Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros,” Carson offers her own experimental translation of the Geryoneis. Carson does not simply render the Greek into English. Instead, she blends details from the Geryoneis and her upcoming adaptation of it to create a hybrid translation. Her translations exaggerate the “strangeness … of language” (Economy of the Unlost 28) by incorporating foreign elements into fixed narratives and refusing the smooth transition of Greek into English. To alert the reader that scenes where, say, Geryon's mother takes him to his first day of school are not features of Stesichoros's text, Carson inserts anachronistic details such as “the ticking red taxi of the incubus” (“III”) into the gaps of Stesichoros's narrative. Painting fragments in the manner of the cubists, Carson combines glimpses of ancient and modern narratives in a style that foreshadows the perspectival shifts of the novel's concluding interview. Translation, in this way, becomes an act of composing elements from different epochs and speech genres, rather than an exercise in maintaining a uniform identity for the text across languages and periods.

Even Carson's direct translations are highly unconventional. For example, Carson translates only the latter half of fragment 15 (which she numbers 14), focusing on the moment of penetration in the conquest of Geryon by Herakles. The clipped diction in Carson's translation contrasts sharply with the heroic tone in Andrew Miller's version:

(Fr. S15)
[T]he arrow held its course straight
          through to the top of his head
and stained with crimson blood
          his breastplate and his gory limbs.
Then Geryon's neck dropped
          to one side like a poppy
which, disfiguring its tender beauty,
          suddenly sheds its petals. …

(Miller 77)

XIV. Herakles' Arrow
Arrow means kill It parted Geryon's
          skull like a comb Made
The boy neck lean At an odd slow angle
          sideways as when a
Poppy shames itself in a whip of Nude

(Red 13)

Traditionally, the three-bodied grandson of Poseidon posed a formidable threat to Herakles. The Greek folk hero, as Carson notes ironically, “[g]ot the idea that Geryon was Death” (37). Although Herakles and Geryon are descended from immortals, both suspect they are mortal. Malcolm Davies therefore speculates that “the labours involving Cerberus and the Hesperides are recent in origin” and reads the tenth labour of Herakles as a “heroic journey to the land of the dead” (“Stesichoros” 278) in which the hero must attain “immortality and triumph over death” (279). Carson's translation, on the other hand, makes Geryon a “boy” and sexualizes his encounter with Herakles by limiting the imagery to penetration, nudity and shame. Carson's version of the Geryoneis remains a “matter” of life and death, but the contemporary poet explicitly eroticizes the border between mortality and immortality. As translator and author of the romance, Carson foregrounds a homoerotic subtext that would have been obvious to the Greek audience of Stesichoros, but under the generic title of autobiography, Carson's work as a whole suggests a heterosexual subtext.

Carson pioneered this kind of experimental translation in “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” a long poem in Plainwater (1995) that is the stylistic prototype for Autobiography of Red. The translations in “Mimnermos” combine fragments from the Greek lyric poet Mimnermos (also Mimnermus, c. 630 BCE) with contemporary details such that poet and translator seem to be engaged in a kind of cerebral copulation, or brainsex. To this unorthodox translation, Carson adds an essay and three mock interviews with Mimnermos, as she explains to Mary di Michele in “The Matrix Interview”:

When I was working on [“Mimnermos”], I started from a translation of a body of fragments, then added to the translation an essay, in some degree historical, explaining the background of the poet and how the fragments have come down to us. And in dealing with that historical material, I found a whole lot of what they call, in Classics, “testimonia,” which means anecdotal stories about the poet or about the poem, that are passed down and aren't really regarded as credible history. But they shape our notion of who the poet was as a person. … So the interviews are about this interstitial matter that comes down to us in semi-historical sources.


Elaborating on the model of “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” Autobiography of Red plays on the double-meaning of “body of fragments” by inserting the “body” of Gertrude Stein into the fragments of Stesichoros, at first as an intertext and later as a character. On a formal level, these fragments of “Red Meat” begin to cohere when Carson also works the myth of Isis (conventionally represented with cattle horns) into the story of Geryon. While Carson's use of the Isis myth is not conventional, the Montrealer insists that “[c]onventions exist to be re-negotiated” (di Michele 12). Instead of modifying the story of Geryon to match the Egyptian myth, Carson appropriates formal elements of the myth and uses them to shape her narrative framework.

Numerous elements of the Isis myth resonate with the Geryoneis—the characters, the fetishization of red, the goddess' journey and triumph over death—but one story does not transpose onto the other. With her husband/brother Osiris, Isis ruled Egypt in its earliest epoch, introducing magical incantation, justice, and weaving in the company of the “watchdog of the gods,” Anubis, with his “dog's head and spotted dog's coat” (Goodrich 30). Osiris taught writing, astronomy, poetry and “traveled throughout the world with his kinsman Heracles, spreading the science of agriculture” (Goodrich 30). Periodically, the siblings' peaceful kingdom suffered droughts brought on their evil brother Seth, father of “Orthus the hound of Geryones” (Hesiod 101). Seth “haunted the delta region, his red hair flaming” (Goodrich 33), and consequently Egyptians “abhorred the color red, considering it a manifestation of all the forces of treachery, murder, and jealousy” (Goodrich 33). According to Plutarch, the inhabitants of Coptos hurled asses off cliffs because the animals had red coats and Egyptians generally “sacrifice[d] red cattle” (165). Turning Egypt into a “Red Place,” Seth trapped Osiris in a coffin and sent him floating down the Nile. Isis recovered her husband's coffin in Syria and revived him through a kind of necrophilic magic, only to have Seth chop him into fourteen fragments and cast them into the Nile. Isis retrieved the fragments of Osiris, but “did not find … his male member. … In its place Isis fashioned a likeness of it and consecrated the phallus, in honour of which the Egyptians even today hold festival” (Plutarch 145). Revived, Osiris ascended to the sky and left his wife to rule in his absence, her power confirmed by the symbolic phallus entrusted to her priestesses.

This theme of a reconstituted “body of fragments” provides the most important link to the structure of Autobiography of Red. The ordeal of Isis pertains to “Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros” because Carson's chapter title makes an explicit connection between authorial corpse and literary corpus. These terms are similarly interchangeable in Plutarch's De Osiride et Iside where the historian writes that Typhon (Seth) “scatters and destroys the sacred Word which the goddess [Isis] collects and puts together and delivers to those undergoing initiation … of which the end is the knowledge of the First and the Lord” (121). In this context, Carson's “brainsex” is a kind of necrophilia. “Words after all are dead,” Carson tells di Michele, “[t]hey impersonate life vividly but remain dead” (14-15). Lacking the presence of Stesichoros's original text, Carson must work—Isis-like—with likeness (that is, citations, testimonia) and absence (textual gaps). “No passage longer than thirty lines is quoted from [Stesichoros],” Carson explains, “and papyrus scraps (still being found: the most recent fragments were recovered from cartonnage in Egypt in 1977) withhold as much as they tell” (6). The fragments of the Geryoneis—like the fragments of the story of the house of Oedipus by Stesichoros recovered from a mummy case in 1974—are pieces of the Stesichorean/Osirian body that Carson must summon all her poetic and academic craft to revive. However, Carson does not, like Isis, use the power of inscription entrusted to her to uphold patriarchal codes.

Carson's translation are not simply a re-membering of the Greek poets in English. In choosing to work with fragments of Mimnermos and Stesichoros, Carson deliberately chooses texts that have been dis-membered—as the missing book in Carson's “epic” underscores. While Carson's scholarly work resuscitates these nearly forgotten poems, the fictional elements of her writing actively resist any attempt to restore the authority of “the First and the Lord.” Thus, ironically, Stesichoros's “master-text” undergoes the same overhaul to which the lyricist subjected his epic predecessors and the Mimnermos interviews run aground over the Greek's insistently phallic language. In the first interview, Mimnermos corrects the interviewer's use of the word “mystical”: “M: Mystical I don't think we had a word mystical we had gods we had words for gods ‘hidden in the scrutum [sic] of Zeus’ we used to say for instance, proverbially” (Plainwater 20). Similarly, the second interview terminates when Mimnermos (named for his grandfather) objects to the interviewer's question on disguises:

M: Well eventually someone has to call a boat a boat you can't dismember everything
I: Dismember
M: Sorry I meant remember
I: Freud was named for his grandfather too


In Autobiography of Red, Stesichoros and Helen engage in a similar linguistic power struggle, but one which suggests a paradigm for Carson's translations. The red-headed Helen of the Palinode offers Carson a second role-model for reconstituting the male corpse/corpus with a difference.

Carson's “Appendix A: Testimonia on the Question of Stesichoros' Blinding by Helen” lets citations such as Isokrates's Helen 64 demonstrate how Helen goes from being the object of language to an active agent (in)forming it:

Looking to demonstrate her own power Helen made an object lesson of the poet Stesichoros. For the fact is he began his poem “Helen” with a bit of blasphemy. Then when he stood up he found he'd been robbed of his eyes. Straightaway realizing why, he composed the so-called “Palinode” and Helen restored him to his own nature.

(Red 15)

Carson offers no commentary here, but it is clear that in her appendices and “Red Meat” fragments Carson is also making “an object lesson of the poet Stesichoros.” Carson restores the “vision” of Stesichoros by reconstituting his literary corpus and presenting it to the eye of the modern reader. But just as Helen's magic altered Stesichoros's impression of her, Carson's translation of the Geryoneis creates a new portrait of the ancient Greek lyricist.

“Appendix B” consists solely of a translated fragments from Stesichoros's famous retraction. The thrice-repeated “No,” unique to Carson's translation, “measures out the area of the given and the possible” (Economy 118) along a margin of negatives:

No it is not the true story.
No you never went on the benched ships.
No you never came to the towers of Troy.

(Red 17)

Such fragments withhold as much as they tell, as Carson observed earlier. Although Carson does not state it explicitly, Stesichoros's revised story of Helen amounts to “a revolutionary version of the legend of Helen. … Such an innovation called into question the entire mythical basis for the legend of the Trojan War” (Maingon 300). Contradicting Homer, Stesichoros argues in his Palinode that the eidolon (image, phantom) of Helen goes to Troy with Paris, while the real Helen waits out the war in Egypt, where Euripides finds her in his Helen. Carson, too, follows Stesichoros's version of the Helen story in her uncollected poem about the daughter of Tyndareus. Carson's “Helen” begins with the statement, “Nights of a marriage are like an Egypt in a woods,” and proceeds to imagine Troy vanishing, “murmuring, stain / is a puzzle you do not want / the answer to” (Boston Review). Although there is some debate in the matter, A. M. Dale argues—in a view corroborated by Maingon (307)—that there can be “no serious doubt that, as all antiquity believed, the eidolon-story was the bold invention of Stesichorus, a volte-face in mid-career, possibly the outcome of a visit to Sparta” (Dale xxiii) where Helen was worshipped as a goddess. Stesichoros's Helen story never supplanted Homer's version, but it created a rival interpretation well-known throughout antiquity. Thus, in The Republic, Plato can remark without embellishment that “as Stesichoros says the wraith of Helen was fought for at Troy through ignorance of the truth” (9.586e). Using absence to define presence, the eidolon story stresses the fact that the Trojan war was fought, not over a woman, but over the way a woman was imagined.

In Helen: Myth, Legend and the Culture of Misogyny, Robert Meagher explains the crucial and codified role Helen played in the mythological foundations of Greece:

Helen—goddess, wife, consort, whore—[figured as] the epitome of woman to the Greek eye. In ancient Greek poetry and art, Helen was indeed always more than a woman who brought on a war. The Trojan War, whatever its actual insignificance may have been, stood as the paradigm for all war and Helen, its reputed cause, was the avatar of the feminine, the provocatrice of all mischief and pain, the original femme fatale. This synecdoche by which Helen was seen as all women and by which all women were seen as “Helens” was a simple liberty taken by the ancient tradition and operative, in one guise or another, ever since.

(Meagher 10)

Stesichoros's challenge to the received “truth” about Helen—the paragon of that “deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble” (Hesiod 123)—called her vilification into question. However, Carson is not content with a simple reversal of value judgments. Having apprenticed in “No,” Carson attempts to go beyond the rigid opposition of truth and falsehood in “Appendix C: Clearing Up the Question of Stesichoros' Blinding by Helen.”

In fact, the twenty-one syllogisms in “Appendix C” clear up nothing at all. On the contrary, the mock-syllogisms “induce a narcosis of logic” (Rasula 188) by manipulating the binary movement of statement and counter-statement. Pressuring the gaps created by language, Carson begins with the simple syllogism, “1. Either Stesichoros was a blind man or he was not” (18), and proceeds to more vertiginous and Steinian statements:

10. If we are now in reverse and by continuing to reason in this way are likely to arrive back at the beginning of the question of the blinding of Stesichoros either we will go along without incident or we will meet Stesichoros on our way back.


Circling and supplementing, Carson draws out the phantom of doubt in deduction's linear movement towards truth. Welcoming this spirit of doubleness, Carson then launches her reader into “Autobiography of Red: A Romance,” the principal narrative in Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse.

The romance within the roman suggests a duplicity befitting the novel's second version of the Geryon myth. Likewise, the multiple potential meanings of “autobiography”—of red, of Geryon, of a concealed “I”—make a fitting introduction to the story of a monster whose “triplicity makes him a natural symbol of deceit” and whose spirit “presides over the second of the three lowest regions of Dante's Hell, the circles of those who sinned by fraud” (Robertson 210). Carson's “duplication” of Geryon makes little attempt to be true to the classical version. Gone are two of Geryon's three conjoined torsos, his blue hair and his yellow skin, familiar to classicists from his sculpture (c. 560 BC) at the Athenian Acropolis (Boardman 77; “Geryon”). The red cattle and the “little red dog” of the fragments also disappear. Instead, Carson makes red a symbol of sexual drought in the romance and colours her anti-hero in the ochre of desire. By reducing details and narrowing the narrative focus to a lyric subjectivity that frequently approximates the first person, Carson makes Geryon the representative of passion in extremis in “Autobiography of Red” and concentrates the reader's empathy on her little red misfit.

Although Carson sometimes claims not to “fee[l] easy talking about blood or desire” (Plainwater 189), Eros is in fact the subject of her first collection of essays and the principal theme of her poetry. “The vocation of anger is not mine,” Carson writes in “The Glass Essay”:

I know my source.
It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,
when one's lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore.

(Glass 30-31)

By translating the power struggle between Herakles and Geryon in the Geryoneis into a story of sexual conquest and unrequited love, Carson once again addresses “that custom, the human custom / of wrong love” (Red 75). Geryon's love is not wrong because he is gay. On the contrary, Carson offers sensitive renderings of same-sex desire in several of her long poems, most strikingly in “Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve” (about a professor of ancient Greek who falls in love with one of her female students). Geryon's sexuality serves instead to complete his alienation. His desire pushes him away from his (otherwise) supportive mother and makes him dependent on Herakles at the very moment that Herakles terminates their love affair. It is from this perspective of powerful desire and disempowering attachment that Carson prefers to explore “How people get power over one another, / this mystery” (Red 79). Dominant-subordinate relations—particularly their inversion—fascinate Carson, whether the relations be between men, between women, between men and women, or between a master-text and its adaptation.

Carson's genre-mixing is appropriate in this context because, as she explains in Eros the Bittersweet, the “terms ‘novel’ and ‘romance’ do not reflect an ancient name for the genre. Chariton refers to his work as erōtika pathēmata, or ‘erotic sufferings’: these are love stories in which it is generically required that love be painful” (78). Most of Geryon's “erotic suffering” takes place in Erytheia, a combination of Stesichoros's mythic “Red Place” and contemporary Montreal.6 “Somehow Geryon make[s] it to adolescence” (39) in this setting, surviving his brother's sexual abuse and the humiliation that a public school would hold for a winged red child. Then, in “one of those moments that is the opposite of blindness,” “Herakles step[s] off / the bus from New Mexico” (39) and Geryon falls in love. The term “wrong love” acquires a double-meaning in this scene because of the echo in Carson's metaphor of blind Stesichoros “restored to his nature.” In Geryon's visionary moment of sexual awakening, he sees that gay love is right for him, yet he is blind to his choice of lover. It takes Geryon the entire course of the narrative to admit that his unrequited desire, his “wrong love” for Herakles, is “[d]egrading” (144).

There is a hint of national allegory here as Herakles makes a quick conquest of Geryon and, tiring of him, moves on to more exotic challenges in South America. Carson's portrait of Herakles matches his traditional profile as “the heroic individual, performing incredible feats, single-handed, in remote corners of the earth” (Maingon 292). In Stesichoros's Geryoneis, Herakles represents the unitary subject battling hybrid monsters at the edges of Greek empire. With a club and arrows dipped in the gall of the many-headed hydra (slain in the second labour), Herakles kills the two-headed guard dog Orthos and then destroys (the fragments suggest) each of Geryon's three heads individually. Similarly, in “Autobiography of Red,” Herakles “slays” the man-dragon of the north and then assumes control over his Quechua-Peruvian lover Ancash—“a man as beautiful as a live feather” (112) whose name suggests both economic and cultural currency (Ancash's name occurs in a Quechua folk song that Herakles sings against Ancash's wishes). As if to confirm Herakles's covetousness, the “master of monsters” (129) enlists Geryon and Ancash to help him steal a statue of Tezca the tiger god when Geryon runs into the couple in Buenos Aires years later.

However, one should not push the national allegory too far. Carson has also taught at Berkeley and all but one of her books—Short Talks (Brick 1992), recollected in Plainwater—have been published in the United States. A recipient of the prestigious Lannan and Pushcart prizes, Carson has not yet been honoured with a Governor-General's award in her own country. Her border-crossing reputation is such that one American poetry editor calls Carson, without qualification, “our new Emerson” (Beam). While this is a high compliment in some circles, little in Carson's work suggests an interest in nation building, either Canadian or American. As the contemporary North American setting for her Geryon story indicates, Carson uses myth to span the borders of time and space, not to entrench national boundaries.

Furthermore, Carson's topography remains resolutely mythic. “Herakles' hometown of Hades” lies “at the other end of the island [Erytheia] about four hours by car, a town / of moderate size and little importance / except for one thing” (46), it has a volcano. On an early visit to this volcano, Herakles breaks up with Geryon and the molten, volatile volcano immediately becomes a metaphor for Geryon's emotional life. Years later, when Geryon runs into Herakles and Ancash in South America, they are recording the sound of volcanoes for a documentary on Emily Dickinson. The couple take Geryon with them to record the volcano Icchantikas in Peru, where Geryon finally frees himself from Herakles. Along the way, however, Ancash discovers Geryon's wings and tells him the Quechua myth of the Yazcol Yazcamac, eyewitnesses who descend into the volcano and “return as red people with wings, / all their weaknesses burned away— / and their mortality” (129). This mythic frame transforms Geryon's status as an outsider to that of a liminal figure—“One Who Went and Saw and Came Back” (128)—whose role is to transgress boundaries that others cannot cross.

The association of Geryon with volcanoes, “Lava Man” (59) and the Yazcol Yazcamac is not coincidental. In Hercules' Labours Jan Schoo argues that Geryon personifies the volcano El Tiede on the Canary Island of Tenerife. Schoo cites as evidence the meaning of Geryon's name (“roarer”), the winged images of the volcano Talos on Crete, and the fact that Geryon's dog Orthos is the “brother of Kerberos, the hellhound, one of the most outstanding representatives of the underworld” (Schoo 86). Maingon furthers the equation of Geryon with volcanoes by pointing out that in fragment 4 of the Geryoneis, Stesichoros uses the epithet κορŭφή in its “less common sense of ‘head’. … [R]etaining the epithet most frequently associated with the word in its sense ‘mountain’[,] he has deliberately suggested both potential meanings, magnifying the dimensions of the monster” (Maingon 60). This monster occupies a critical position between nature and culture, disorder and order, inhuman and human.

However, if one tries to determine the gender of this volcano/monster, an important fissure emerges in the narrative. The first reference to a volcano in the romance occurs in the opening stanza of its epigram, a heavily allegorical poem about speech and immortality by Emily Dickinson, #1748. The first stanza of #1748 offers a surprising variation on Dickinson's “often reiterated analogy of the self as a dormant volcano” (Dobson 107):

The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan—
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.

(Red 22)

While the masculine adjectives in this stanza may refer to the “Jehovah” of the second stanza, I choose to apply them to the volcano because Dickinson usually (see, for example, #1651, #1686)—though not always (see #1601)—capitalizes adjectives and pronouns referring to God. In either case, as an epigram, “his projects pink” alludes to Geryon's “autobiography” which begins as “a sculpture” (Red 35) when the reticent monster is five years old. Ultimately, Geryon's autobiography “take[s] the form / of a photographic essay” (60) and helps Geryon to get over the precarious Herakles. However, the fact that Geryon's “photographic essay” is a thinly veiled metaphor for Carson's lyric sequence (which culminates in a series of eight “photographs”) undermines Geryon's masculinity. The final two stanzas in Dickinson's poem compound this ambiguity. Like the antistrophe and epode in Stesichoros's verse, Dickinson's second stanza introduces a female counterpart to the male volcano, while the third stanza changes the mood with an abstract aphorism that reconciles male and female figures as “people” with a shared secret:

If nature will not tell the tale
Jehovah told to her
Can human nature not survive
Without a listener?
Admonished by her buckled lips
Let every babbler be
The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.

(Red 22)

The prize of immortality for which Geryon and Herakles struggle is, in Dickinson's hymn, a secret divulged by neither the reticent volcano nor the woman with “buckled lips.” While this secret is not directly verbalized, Dickinson none the less conveys it as a property of “lyric time” (Cameron 4)—that sudden eruption of past and future into the poem's present tense that Carson calls “Volcano Time” (Red 144). Both Dickinson and Carson prefer these lyric flashes of eternity to the plodding flow of continuous narrative: “Much truer / is the time that strays into photographs and stops” (Red 93). One of these moments occurs in photograph “#1748,” the synchronic and synaesthetic climax of Geryon's erotic suffering, where Geryon takes Ancash's tape recorder to the summit of Icchantikas to record an instant that blurs the borders between acoustic and visual, female and male, nature and culture. “Photographs: #1748” stands out because, in addition to sharing the numbered title of Dickinson's epigram, it “is a photograph he [Geryon] never took, no one here took it” (Red 145). Following this ambiguous preamble, in which Carson once again casts doubt on the identity of the autobiographical subject, the “eyewitness” descends into eye/I of the volcano:

He peers down
at the earth heart of Icchantikas dumping all its photons out her ancient eye and he
smiles for
the camera: “The Only Secret People Keep”

(Red 145)

The picture taken of the eyewitness by “her ancient eye” in this scene is a kind of mirror image—a self-portrait that borrows its title from the final lines of Dickinson's poem. Dickinson's interjected fragment, like the Stein quotation earlier, enters the narrative abruptly, yet comes close enough to the end of the romance to frame it. The once-reticent male volcano thus concludes the romance using a feminine adjective and speaking in Dickinson's voice. Carson completes this transition from phallic to labial imagery in the concluding lyric where the three men stare at “the hole of fire” in the side of the volcano and Carson explicitly distinguishes between the men and the fire to which they are “neighbors” (146).

Such “lateral fissures”—“called fire lips by vulcanologists” (105)—permeate Carson's romance. The most striking example occurs in the poem “She,” where Geryon finds himself in the bedroom of Herakles's mother and asks, “Who am I?” (57). Surveying the mother's pearls and slips, Geryon is shocked to see himself “in the mirror cruel as a slash of lipstick. … / He had been here before, dangling / inside the word she like a trinket at a belt” (57). While this simile seems to disparage a sense of femininity as passive and ornamental, the pronoun “she” carries extra weight coming from a poet who tells di Michele: “I cannot stand reading reviews of my work (I skim) or in general sentences in which I appear as ‘she’” (di Michele 17). Di Michele pursues the question of why Carson presents herself as “a person of no particular gender” (Plainwater 123) in her writing:

In “The Anthropology of Water” you write: “I am not a person who feels easy talking about blood or desire. I rarely use the word woman myself … The truth is, I lived out my adolescence mainly in default of my father's favour. But I perceived I could trouble him less if I had no gender … I made my body hard and flat as the armor of Athena. No secrets under my skin, no telltale drops on the threshold.” What is the relationship of your writing to this word “woman”? To being a woman?
A relationship of dis-ease as I suggested in the passage you quote.
Are “feminisms” of interest to you?
Not currently. Particular females are of interest to me.


Although Carson names Stein and Dickinson among the writers of interest to her, she clearly does not present herself as a proponent of an écriture féminine.7 It is important to note, however, that Carson's relationship to patriarchy in “The Anthropology of Water” is also one of “dis-ease.” This long poem begins with Carson struggling to understand the “word salad” (Plainwater 120) of her ailing father, who suffers from dementia, and concludes with Carson writing from the perspective of her estranged brother. As in Autobiography of Red, Carson treats gender here as a phenomenon to be explored through fictional guises. If Carson presents herself as a person “of no particular gender” in her writing, it is because she refuses to restrict herself to the perspective of a woman. Similarly, if Carson's novel-in-verse is of no particular genre, it is because Carson wants to explore what Manina Jones calls That Art of Difference: collage.

The fundamental question in Autobiography of Red is thus not whether Geryon is “he” or “she,” but rather how this “monster” can negotiate the conflicts entailed by loving and existing in a world more complex than its social, linguistic, and literary conventions would suggest. “Gay, red and winged,” Geryon “wants to know how to survive in a world where difference equals pain” (Marlatt 42). Herakles's photographer grandmother suggests one solution to this dilemma by redefining Geryon's question during a conversation on women and art: “Question is / how they use it—given / the limits of form” (67). Nowhere is Carson's questioning of gender as a question of genre more explicit.

The final section of Autobiography of Red tests the limits of gender and genre. Titled simply “Interview”—with “(Stesichoros)” set below the title and divided from it by a double line—it unfolds as a dialogue about literature:

I: One critic speaks of a sort of “concealment drama” going on in your work some special interest in finding out what or how people act when they know that important information is being withheld this might have to do with an aesthetic of blindness or even a will to blindness if that is not a tautology
S: I will tell about blindness
I: Yes do
S: First I must tell about seeing

(Red 147)

Carson sets up the reader to expect Stesichoros to describe his blinding by Helen. However, the conversation makes a sudden chronological leap:

S: Up to 1907 I was seriously interested in seeing I studied and practiced it I enjoyed it
I: 1907
S: I will tell about 1907 … Paintings completely covered the walls right up to the ceiling at the time the atelier was lit by gas fixtures and it glowed like a dogma but this is not what I saw

(Red 147)

This shift in time-frame alerts the reader that returning to Carson's “scholarly apparatus” entails entering “a wickedly parodistic parallel universe to the novel inside it” (Macklin). The proem and interview surrounding Carson's romance prove not to be merely a passive frame, but rather active agents in determining the course of the larger story. As Jacques Derrida argues in “Parergon,” an essay on framing in The Truth in Painting, those elements marked as extrinsic to the ergon, or principal artwork, in fact perform an intrinsic function in mediating the borders of that artwork (71). Carson employs this mediating power to shift the focus of the story and resituate Stein, Helen, and Dickinson—women marked as extrinsic to the history of Stesichoros, Geryon and Herakles—in more intrinsic positions. This manipulation of frames is a question of self-definition for “ex-centric” (Hutcheon 4) writers because, as Derrida notes, “Parergon also means the exceptional, the strange, the extraordinary” (58), revealing how easy it is for exceptional writers such as Stein and Dickinson to be dismissed as merely strange.

With the temporal frame destabilized, the reader's eye turns towards the left margin of the interview transcript for several reasons. First of all, the references to a gas-lit atelier, paintings and 1907 make it clear that the “S” in the column stands for Stein, not Stesichoros. Second, Autobiography of Red has been, thus far, an autobiography without an “I.” Suddenly the reader is confronted with an interviewing “I” speaking in the first person. Remembering that Stesichoros often “spok[e] in his own persona in the introduction and conclusion of his poems” without “intru[ding] within the framework of the narrative itself” (Maingon 358), one is to presume that the interviewing “I” is Carson's academic persona returning from the proem. Thus the women's voices framing the male narrative have moved from the extrinsic positions of epigram and proem to occupy more intrinsic positions in a story they actively create as direct speakers.

Carson achieves this subversive manoeuver within the limits of literary form. According to myth, each of Herakles's 12 althoi or erga, labours or works, included minor deeds called parerga or side-works (Schoo 7). Thus, the ergon of stealing the red cattle included the parerga of killing Geryon and Orthos. Stesichoros transforms the myth of Herakles into the Geryoneis by moving the parergonal figure of Geryon from the myth's periphery to its centre stage. Carson duplicates this parergonal movement by having Stein supplant Stesichoros in the mock-interview. Just as Carson's opening section on Stesichoros begins with an epigram from Stein, the final section on Stein begins with the proper noun “(Stesichoros)” suspended in parentheses. The choir master unmastered figures as the starting point in a word play between Stein and Carson where the contemporary poet accentuates the epithetic origins of the Greek proper noun. Once famous for his adjectives, Stesichoros looks on from the wings as the women's concealment drama takes centre stage. The reputed inventor of the choral hymn (a form of performance involving multiple singers and dance and a precursor of drama) finds himself listening silently to a duet of female voices, neither of which appears to command control. This hymn become her casts an ironic pall over the title of the romance's final lyric, “XLVII. The Flashes in Which a Man Possesses Himself.” Clearly, women's voices have taken possession of the narrative at this point.

Carson, like Stein, parodies autobiography's pretense to objective self-expression by using the genre as a means of fictional disembodiment. In Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, for example, Stein tells the story of her life through the fictional voice of her lover, Alice Toklas. Only on the final page of Toklas's autobiography does Stein concede her authorial ruse. Stein's originality—as Shirley Neuman argues in Gertrude Stein: Autobiography and the Problem of Narration—lies in her “repudiation for literary purposes of the continuity of the self”:

Once [Stein] reconceptualizes narrative as that written as though by someone else, as analogous to translation, she begins to free herself to write about the “self” without concern for its duration and consequent identity.

(Neuman 17)

Carson, likewise, dons several literary disguises—Athena, Stesichoros, Geryon, Stein—in search of “another human essence than self” (Glass 137). Each of the distinct voices in her identity collage offers a kind of testimony that, while it cannot be “regarded as credible history,” none the less shapes “our notion of who the poet [i]s as a person.”

And Carson's concealment drama has a final act. Reading the interview's marginal inscription vertically, one finds that the Steinian “ISISISISISISISISISIS” transforms—through the difference generated by repetition—from an assertion of being “Is is” to an ontological question “Is is?” And who could the subject hiding behind these verbs be but Isis, “she of the thousand titles” (Goodrich 27)? As a clue to this encryption, the Montrealer disguises her voice in vintage Montmartre and shifts “Isis” from the left margin to the main narrative:

I: Description can we talk about description
S: What is the difference between a volcano and a guinea pig is not a description why is it like it is is a description

(Red 148, my emphasis)8

Isis is not directly named here, she is de-scribed, her name fragmentarily crypted in a passage that stresses the difference between surface appearance and a dynamic understanding of form. Such concealment pays homage to the goddess, as Plutarch explains: “At Saεs the seated statue of Athena, whom they consider to be Isis also, bore the following inscription: ‘I am all that has been and is and will be; and no mortal has ever lifted my mantle’” (131). The secret Isis keeps, having struggled hard to win it for Osiris and herself, is immortality.

Thus, Carson does not use the Geryoneis or the myth of Isis as a fixed template, but rather sets in motion a series of literary allusions that intertwines ancient and modern, masculine and feminine, Greek and Quechua, Egyptian and Canadian. These surprising juxtapositions are the hallmark of Carson's style, whether in long poems such as “The Glass Essay,” where she “weaves and conflates one theme with another … tell[ing] two strong stories with Tolstoyan skill” (Davenport ix), or in academic works such as Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan), where Carson explains her technique in a “Note on Method”:

To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once. They keep each other from settling. Moving and not settling, they are side by side in a conversation and yet no conversation takes place. … With and against, aligned and adverse, each is like a surface on which the other may come into focus.

(Economy viii)

In Autobiography of Red, Carson manipulates and conflates her source material, “exploding genres and making literature from shrapnel” (Greenman). Drawing female and male literary figures into closer focus through a series of alternating frames, Carson combines the Osirian art of writing with the Isian art of weaving to create “good strong narrative” through constant fragmentation and displacement of material. These shifting frames of reference are far from settle, as the reappearance of the “little red dog” (149) in the final lines of the interview underscores. Autobiography of Red thus demonstrates that the frameworks of myth, genre, and gender are volatile and constantly subject to revision.


  1. This review of Men in the Off Hours appears only in the Canadian edition of Time, however.

  2. In translation, at least, “The Red Place” is a noun. However, the confusion of nouns and adjectives plays a key role in Carson's treatment of the epithetic proper noun “Stesichoros.”

  3. Also translated as “whore that I am” (Fagles 3.128) or “shameless bitch / that I am” (Lombardo 3.190-191). It should be noted that the translators make no attempt to lessen the pungency of these remarks. On the contrary, Lattimore's use of “slut” in a 1951 translation suggests a certain inventiveness and relish in the task.

  4. Also translated as “bitch that I am, vicious, scheming” (Fagles 6.408) or “scheming, cold-blooded bitch” (Lombardo 6.362).

  5. I have not been able to locate the text from which this quotation derives. It would not surprise me if the epigram is, in fact, Carson imitating Stein (as in “Appendix C”) or Carson paraphrasing Stein (as in the interview).

  6. Carson's Erytheia is a North American island where older brothers play hockey (34), where baby-sitters read from “the loon book” (32), where an American dollar bill is a novelty (29), and where schoolchildren examine “beluga whales newly captured / from the upper rapids of the Churchill River” (90).

  7. Carson's reluctance to be identified as a feminist appears to stem from her general refusal of categories. Asked whether her multi-genre approach to writing poses a problem for bookstore clerks, Carson replies: “Not a problem but a question: What do ‘shelves’ accomplish, in stores or in the mind” (di Michele 10).

  8. This statement is a paraphrase of Stein's meditations on style in “An Acquaintance with Description.” Carson's syntax echoes a construction that Stein uses repeatedly in the piece: “What is the difference between a hedge and a tree. A hedge and a tree what is the difference between a hedge and a tree” (Stein 508).

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Elizabeth Lowry (review date 5 October 2000)

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SOURCE: Lowry, Elizabeth. “The Man Who Would Put Out to Sea on a Bathmat.” London Review of Books 22, no. 19 (5 October 2000): 13-14.

[In the following review, Lowry discusses the themes of love and economy in Economy of the Unlost and Autobiography of Red, commenting that both volumes are “musings on the exigencies of human greed and need.”]

I am going to end up talking about love, but let me start by talking about money. Money, as Marx tells us, is the enemy of mankind and social bonds. ‘If you suppose man to be man and his relation to be a human one,’ he writes, ‘then you can only exchange love for love, trust for trust.’ Money, on the other hand, ‘changes fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, slave into master, master into slave, stupidity into wisdom, wisdom into stupidity. It is the universal confusion and exchange of all things, an inverted world.’ Money commodities; it enables the exchange of like with unlike. It remains always potential, open-ended. What happens when love and money get mixed up? And can love be said to have its own economy?

In Economy of the Unlost and Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson has proposed answers to both these questions. Economy of the Unlost is a compact yet supple series of essays (first aired in the Martin Classical Lectures series delivered annually at Oberlin College) complementing her previous long essay on a classical theme, Eros the Bittersweet (1986). Erudite and entertaining, effortlessly able to play across a range of associations, the book traces a number of similarities in artistic approach between two writers who would seem, on the face of it, to have inhabited very different worlds: Simonides of Keos, a Greek composer of lyrics and epitaphs who was active in the fifth century BC, and the Jewish Romanian poet Paul Celan.

Simonides was an original. His epitaphs, designed to be cut into stone and punctiliously composed according to the width of each letter, were lapidary in the original sense of the word. ‘An inscriptional poet,’ Carson explains, ‘has to measure his inspiration against the size of his writing surface. Out of this material fact—which is also an economic fact because stones and stone-cutting cost money—evolved an aesthetic of exactitude or verbal economy that became the hallmark of Simonidean style.’ Simonides was also the original literary critic, the first poet to theorise about the concept of artistic illusion. Like his great predecessor Hesiod (who informs us, in his Theogony, that the Muses ‘know enough to make up lies / Which are convincing’), Simonides understood that trickery and illusion are inbuilt functions of the written word, that any poetic representation of the world depends on a principle of selective economy that is pure sleight of hand—what he called apate. He was an early master of the mimetic economy of metaphor, and a brilliant manipulator of the synthetic properties of the poetic line. One of the strengths of Carson's study is the microscopic attention it brings to bear on the physical dimensions of Simonides' Greek, amply providing her contention that ‘Simonides requires of his reader a different kind of attention than we normally pay to verbal surfaces.’ The Simonidean line generates its complex effects much in the way that a modern Expressionist poem does, through the wrenching of its syntax, violent elision, and the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements. But Simonides was also economical in a literal sense, being the first writer in Western history to charge money for his output. Stories of his avarice abound in Greek literature. Xenophanes called him a ‘skinflint’. ‘That Simonides would put out to sea on a bathmat for profit!’ complains one of Aristophanes's characters in Peace. To Aristotle he was an example of aneleutheria or miserliness. Exactly how much he earned is a mystery, which points to the fact, as Carson argues, that ‘Simonidean greed was more resented in its essence than in its particulars.’ Its essence was the very commodification later defined by Marx, the putting of a price on what had previously been (in Carson's words) ‘a reciprocal and ritual activity, the exchange of gifts between friends’.

The first part of Economy of the Unlost offers an elegant dissection of the gift economy of the ancient Greeks, and the shattering or ‘alienating’ effect on it of entrepreneurs like Simonides. As the earliest poet to demand cash for verse, Simonides deliberately sacrificed love to money: he has gone down in history as the first person to turn literature into a commodity. He was in fact born into a world which was slowly making the transition from an economy of guest-friendship or xenia to the cash economy which we know today. Xenia was a non-mercantile system of exchange, a ritualised form of hospitality which bound the ancient Greek world together in a mesh of personal alliances. It was a pre-monetary system in which the relations pertaining to kinship, marriage, hospitality and artistic patronage were expressed through the exchange of gifts. As a concept, xenia was linked with the idea of grace or charis, which constituted ‘the necessity’, as Aristotle tells us, ‘both to repay a grace done to oneself and also to initiate gracious action on one's own’. This exchange was always governed by a certain noblesse oblige on the part of the giver: the idea was to maximise your own outgoings, not to make a profit by the transaction. Carson puts her finger on the crucial paradox that the Greeks regarded wealth as ‘a good thing to have but not a good thing to go after’. When practised in the right spirit xenia preserved a relationship of alternating but constant indebtedness. The stranger arriving at an unknown house and receiving charis could depend on his dual status as xenos—the word meant both ‘guest’ and (potential) ‘host’—just as a poet might venture gifts of poetry to a powerful patron in exchange for lifelong protection and hospitality. The creeping shift to a monetary economy after about the sixth century BC, muddied the waters of xenia. The rules of charity that informed the unitary reality of everyday social life began to fall to pieces. Carson's summary of this bewildering collapse has a succinctness which Simonides would have envied: ‘Where love is the structure of hospitality, neither host nor guest withholds what is seemly from the other. But money changes the relations between people, makes a riddle out of human philia.

Simonides at composition was forever ruling mental lines, cutting and paring. His professional success as a writer of epitaphs and his commercial approach to his output impressed on him the exact value, both in a financial and a literary sense, of each word. ‘Gold,’ he once wrote, ‘does not become defiled. / And truth is totally strong.’ At the same time, he was profoundly estranged from the manners and mores of the society in which he worked, a society which was itself in a slow state of upheaval.

The concepts of poetic economy and alienation which Carson brings to bear on his life and writing turn out to be a fruitful starting point for her discussion of Paul Celan. Celan was born in Czernowitz (now Chernovtsy in the Ukraine), a part of Romania which suffered both Soviet and German occupation during the Second World War. Both his parents died in a concentration camp; Celan himself spent a year in a labour camp before Czernowitz came under Soviet control again in 1943. He moved to France in 1948 and settled in Paris, where he continued to write poetry in his native German. In 1970 he drowned himself in the Seine. Celan was not literally a poet of the epitaph, but there is a sense in which his poems, with their stress on negation, their hardbitten insistence on the transitory nature of poetic truth, are all epitaphs. Like Simonides, Celan is often presented to us in a series of anecdotes that allegorise his relation to his writing. Carson relates the most famous of these, the story of the removal of Celan's mother and father:

One Friday evening in June 1942, so the story goes, when weekend deportation action had begun against the Jewish population of Czernowitz, Paul Celan tried to convince his parents to hide out with him at a factory on the edge of town. They refused. He left without them. Returning Monday morning he found the house sealed and his parents removed. He never saw them again. To confront an empty space, where there were people the last time you looked, may make you think very concretely about negation.

Writing in the aftermath of the Nazi death camps, at a time when the bonds of human philia had broken down, Celan commemorates the lost gestures of a spent world, a world of severed relationships. He does so in a pared down idiolect that is, as Carson says, ‘so extreme a formation it bears about the same relation to standard German as a crystal of granite to a range of hills’. He is a master of poetic apate, of elision, his dismembered words existing in critical relation to a linguistic community whose moral life has become fouled. Simonides was still able to believe in the truth-telling powers of language, to write that ‘truth is totally strong,’ and to put a value on it. Celan makes no such claims for his poetry. ‘Gold does not become defiled,’ Simonides wrote; in answer, Celan points to the gold taken from the mouths of the dead in the concentration camps (‘in every other / tooth- / cavity / awakes an unravageable hymn’). Always implicit in Carson's comparison between the two poets is the notion that the commodifying spirit of Simonides had its natural outcome in the defining crisis of the modern industrial age.

Economy of the Unlost is a beguiling piece of work, both scholarly and persuasive. It is a shame, then, that it is prefaced by a staggeringly pretentious ‘Note on Method’ in which Carson apologises (entirely unnecessarily) for the fact that ‘there is too much self in my writing,’ assuring us: ‘I do not want to be a windowless monad … I have struggled since the beginning to drive my thought out into the landscape of science and fact where other people converse logically and exchange judgments—but I go blind out there.’ Don't be fooled by this. Carson's habit of interpretative free association, her ability to discern fresh and startling connections, is one of her most distinctive critical strengths. This disclaimer reads like a parody of the worst kind of academic preciousness: the sort of parody, in fact, that Carson has so brilliantly written in the appendices and afterword to her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red. The afterword purports to be an ‘interview’ between an earnest critic and Stesichoros of Himera, the seventh-century author of what is known to classicists as the Geryoneis or ‘Matter of Geryon’. The Geryoneis, a long poem in dactylo-epitrite metre, of which only 84 papyrus fragments survive, is a lyric version of the story of the tenth labour imposed on Herakles by the King of the Argives.

Ancient Greek legend has it that Geryon was a winged red monster with three heads who tended a herd of magical cattle, helped by an equally monstrous two-headed guard dog. Stesichoros repeats the story of how Herakles stole Geryon's herd after killing him with an arrow, but he does so with a difference, preferring to locate his narrative perspective in Geryon's own experience (and his apparently contented life on Erytheia—an invented island whose name means ‘the red place’), rather than in Herakles'. Carson provides a free ‘translation’ of 16 Stesichorean fragments, backed up by the spoof ‘interview’ with the author and three mock-sententious appendices relating to the tradition of Stesichoros' blindness, but all of this is only a frame for the real matter of the book, which is her own plangent, updated retelling of the Geryoneis. ‘One critic speaks of a sort of concealment drama going on in your work,’ the interviewer pronounces glibly in the afterword. The joke is that nothing in Carson's radical reworking of the Geryon story (which in its turn is a reworking of the standard legend) is what it seems.

‘Wings,’ Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet, her fine collection of essays on representations of eros in ancient Greek culture, ‘mark the difference between a mortal and an immortal story of love.’ Carson's Geryon is winged and, like her Herakles, immortal, but both also have a dual incarnation in Autobiography of Red as modern teenagers. Her Erytheia is a Canadian town, where Geryon's biography unfolds in familiar stages: first kindergarten, then school, followed by a job at the local library. Carson's rendering of the powerlessness of childhood, of its rigidly defined claustrophobic spaces, is all the more disturbing for describing a world which is both instantly recognisable and fantastical:

School was a long brick building on a north-
                                                            south axis. South: Main Door
through which all boys and girls must enter.
North: Kindergarten, its large round
                                        windows gazing onto the
and surrounded by a hedge of highbush
Between Main Door and Kindergarten ran a
                                                                      corridor. To Geryon it was
a hundred thousand miles
of thunder tunnels and indoor neon sky
                                                            slammed open by giants.

That bush is a cranberry, of course, because Erytheia is red. At times the poetry seems bitten-back, at times sprawlingly inclusive, but its detail is never casual, operating consistently in the service of a double effect. Take this gothic close-up, a spare and utterly authentic blend of the mythical and the drably familiar, in which Geryon's mother begins to nudge him out of the nest:

Outside the dark pink air
was already hot and alive with cries. Time to
                    go to school, she said for the third time.
Her cool voice floated
over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the
                    shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood
at the screen door.
He would remember when he was past forty
                                                  the dusty almost medieval smell
of the screen itself as it
pressed its grid into his face. She was behind
                                                                                him now. This would be hard
for you if you were weak
but you're not weak, she said and neatened his
                                                            little red wings and pushed him
out the door.

Geryon's ambiguously typical suburban life implodes early on when the 16-year-old Herakles steps off a bus from New Mexico. In Carson's poem Geryon is not slain by Herakles, or only metaphorically: it is the arrow of desire that Herakles looses from his bow (‘it was one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness. / The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice’).

As Geryon and Herakles become lovers and embark on a picaresque tour of a landscape that shifts seamlessly from the classical to the contemporary, the poem expands on a theme first introduced by Carson in Eros the Bittersweet: the idea that the perpetuation of desire depends on a principle of ‘triangulation’. The Greek word eros properly denotes ‘want’, ‘lack’, ‘desire for that which is missing’. Carson suggests in the earlier book that the economy of eros, as depicted in classical Greek literature, depends on three structural components: ‘lover, beloved and that which comes between them’. These three elements make up a triangle that guarantees the absence of the beloved, and keeps the tension of desire constant: eros triangulates. Autobiography of Red is faithful to this model in being a tale of pursuit and flight, the standard topos of Greek erotic poetry. By describing a lover who is both man and monster, Carson reminds us of the monstrous truth that erotic love often thrives on negation and despair. After seducing Geryon and taking him to visit his grandmother in Hades, Herakles dismisses him. Years later, they meet again by accident in Argentina, where Geryon, still besotted and bereft, discovers that Herakles has a new lover. Together the three complete a fraught journey to Peru. At the lip of a simmering volcano in the Andes, Geryon finally accepts that it is the nature of eros to be what Barthes has called ‘a pure portion of anxiety’. In doing so, he begins to come to terms with his own ambiguous nature. ‘We are amazing beings,’ he thinks, ‘we are neighbours of fire.’ It is a resolution of a kind for Geryon, but Carson resists helping herself to platitudes about the transfiguring power of love. As the lovers ‘stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces’, we are also made to feel the pressure of the approaching ‘night at their back’.

Autobiography of Red is a compelling tale grippingly told, and is unusual among ‘verse novels’ in realising both parts of its hybrid nature equally well. Aristotle thought that metaphor was the one unteachable component of poetry. When reading Carson, one is often reminded how right he was. Herakles' voice bounces through the lovesick Geryon ‘on hot gold springs’. The awkwardness of a group of adolescent boys at Geryon's high school dance is perfectly conveyed in the observation that ‘the petals of their cologne rose around them in a light terror.’ In Geryon's Argentinian hotel an ancient lift, descending, crashes ‘like a mastodon within its hollow cage’. Yet the rich poetic texture of Carson's writing is never achieved at the cost of characterisation. Herakles' grandmother, an eccentric cross between Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein, all gnomic utterances and cryptic reminiscences, is entirely convincing, as are Herakles, a casually sadistic playboy redeemed by moments of real tenderness, and the suffering Geryon himself. Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet that ‘What the reader wants from reading and what the lover wants from love are experiences of very similar design’—to be seduced, to be drawn on. In their musings on the exigencies of human greed and need, Economy of the Unlost and Autobiography of Red prove that she is one of the most seductive writers around.

Harriet Zinnes (essay date February 2001)

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SOURCE: Zinnes, Harriet. “What Is Time Made of?: The Poetry of Anne Carson.” Hollins Critic 38, no. 1 (February 2001): 1-10.

[In the following essay, Zinnes explores the recurring themes of fear, language, and time throughout Carson's oeuvre, noting the author's preoccupation with postmodern elements in her writings.]

“What is the fear inside language? No accident of the body can make it stop burning.” So writes Anne Carson in an essay called “Kinds of Water: An Essay on the Road to Compostela,” in her most popular book, Plainwater (1995), that contains poetry as well as essays. Perhaps in that quotation lies the secret of the genius of the Canadian poet and classical scholar Anne Carson. She points to fear (and despite her productivity, her forthrightness about herself, she is shyly examining fear, the human fear manifesting itself in sex, love, travel, other people, other literatures). Here she specifically points to the fear “inside language.” Is it not strange that her phrase is not “of language”? It is “inside language,” as if language itself were a living entity, embodying the ability to change and develop as if it were an embryo. (She does not, as with the Language Poets in the words of the poet Gabriel Gudding in another connection, represent by means of language “an aesthetico-political project.”)

And then there is the seemingly irrelevant comment that “No accident of the body can make it stop burning.” Does one ordinarily think of an “accident of the body” in relation to language? What have the movements of the body, its desires and its actual anatomy to do with so abstract an object as language, that is, language as a form of articulation, not its expressive function. Does the concrete object of combined letters of the alphabet have the power to stop a feverish body from burning? Apparently, to Carson, language is not only the sound, the manipulation of an alphabet, but a power imbued in its concretization to battle the body itself, to destruct by fire the more commonly understood powerful flesh. Language simply cannot “stop burning” one who lives almost carnally the words of the ancient Greeks. It is not only a Sokrates, a Plato, whose words grip Anne Carson, but the myriad of the ancient poets and philosophers whom most of even literate readers simply have never encountered.

But there is an amazing paradox for the reader of this poet. If language, especially the language of the ancients, so possesses her through fear and a kind of omnipotence, is it not a token of her own conquest of this fear that her words are relaxed, colloquial, not multisyllabic, not filled with scholarly jargon (and she is a classics professor and the director of graduate studies at McGill University in Canada)? She can, and easily, assume the bodies and minds of Emily Dickinson, Freud, Tolstoy, Lazarus, Sappho, as in her book Men in the Off Hours (2000), without heavy-handed academic arrogance or wan subtlety. Consider even the title of an essay in that same book, “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity.” (All right, the word “phenomenology” is there, but I bet it even occurs in the New York Daily News.)

It may be that one of the reasons for the comprehensibility of her work despite her very erudite background is that Carson is a postmodernist. Her use of the ancients and the modern canon as well is for the purposes of appropriation. They become not what they were but what they are now, easily absorbed by way of this poet's ingenuity into contemporary forms and values. Words that have become common among contemporary poets are common in the writings of Anne Carson—with a twist. Consider the word “desire.” In her book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), there is no letup on the discussion of desire, a word as important to the American poet Frank Bidart as to this Canadian poet. A word even important to curators today. The Museum of Modern Art actually held an exhibition in 1998 called “Objects of Desire.” Anne Carson considers desire not only through Fragment 31 of Sappho but through W. H. Auden, Calvino, Emily Dickinson, Flaubert, Kafka, Foucault, let alone Simone de Beauvoir, Kundera and Keats. And, it seems to Carson, it is all a matter of what she calls “triangulation,” a term that does not relate to the usual sexual triangle but to a matter of the “edge” that Eros imposes as the third term in the urgencies of this “bittersweet” emotion. With a modern flair, Carson knows the mixture of love and hate in the conflagration that Eros directs. It is Catullus's “odi et amo” all over again. And it is Sappho's burning language that draws Eros in:

… oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, a moment, then no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks, and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.

Paradoxes certainly glow in the work of Anne Carson. What a strange paradox lies in her discussion of Eros in the book with Eros as its very name. The Sappho quote quivers with the flame of sex, but, in Carson's discussion of Eros itself, that its source or at least its demonstrable symptoms lie in sexual desire is somehow not mentioned—and surely not for any inhibiting moral or puritanical reasons. Instead there are illuminating passages about the equivalence of the desire for knowledge and the passion of love. (Apparently the phrase, “the passion of love,” is Carson's equation for the more usual “sexual desire.” Unless, of course, she is making a distinction between sexual desire and a more mystical notion of “love.”) In sum, “As all paradoxes are, in some way, paradoxes about paradox, so all eros is, to some degree, desire for desire.” In the whole scheme of desire as described by Carson there are “ruses.” And the interception of that rather vague Carson term “triangulation.” In addition—and of course how can one define that most impossible of impossible emotions—there are, we are told, those vague “edges.” Carson quotes Aristotle to the effect that “All men reach out to know” (her own emphasis reinforced here on the relation of desire for love and the desire for knowledge), and then there are the “edges.” “As you perceive the edge of yourself at the moment of desire,” she writes, “as you perceive the edges of words from moment to moment in reading (or writing), you are stirred to reach beyond perceptible edges—toward something else, something not yet grasped. The unplucked apple, the beloved just out of touch, the meaning not quite attained, are desirable objects of knowledge. It is the enterprise of eros to keep them so.” It is this kind of “enterprise” that seems to foster for the poet “a necessarily triangular design, and it embodies a reach for the unknown.” And we are left at that. It seems to be all a matter of “triangulation.” With the manipulation of the “ruse.” With the “unknown.” And who can say more? Or does it help when Carson tells us that “the blind point of Eros is a paradox in time as well as in space.” Let us leave it at that.

In 1992 Carson published a book with another Carsonesque title, Glass, Irony and God. It is a book chiefly of poems and includes one essay with the usual Carson provocative title, “The Gender of Sound.” Guy Davenport introduces the book with a characteristically brilliant sprightliness. He describes “The Glass Essay,” the title of the long poem included here, as “a boldly new kind of poem, but neither its boldness nor its novelty make it good. It is good because of its truth and the sensibility of its telling.” It is also very original in its form and tone. As a true classicist, the poet is nimble as a narrator. She loves to tell a story in her poems. Clearly, the prosody, even surprisingly the diction, are not the chief interest. There is really little lyricism. Her interest is not in the lyric. It is only occasionally, as she is a true postmodernist, that a line stands out for what used to be called beauty. But a line can be startling in meaning and implication. Consider: “A stranger makes no fissure.” (XIII) Her lineation is functional, and is more similar to prose than poetry. And it can be quite personal without the stickiness of the confessional. She writes: “I think I will call my nightmare The Fall of Rome.” (XX) And she does. It is “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller's Guide.” Her comments in the poem on her visit to Rome are witty, sad, observant, watchful. Here is section XXIV in its entirety:

A stranger is poor, voracious and turbulent.
He comes.
From nowhere in particular
and pushes prices up.
His method of knowing something
is to eat it.

Here is a poet who like Wordsworth can walk along, observe, and write, though in a very Unwordsworthian way. There is no eloquence, no self-consciousness of a poet writing a poem for an audience that is listening to words of wisdom, matter of fact as they may be—though Harold Bloom calls Carson a “wisdom writer.” In her three-line stanzas (one can't say of poetry, since they resemble a flowing prose rather than a heightened poetic line), she goes from subject to common subject as the mind might when one walks along the moor. Feeling so close to her “favorite” author, Emily Brontë, at times she even feels “I am turning into Emily Brontë, / my lonely life around me like a moor.” And so it is that she calls the 38-page poem of a devastating love affair, “The Glass Essay,” for to her Emily Brontë, unloved, inscrutably lonely, in some way reveals something about a woman dropped by a lover whose “soul” too now is “trapped in glass, which is her true creation.” It seems rather fitting then that she can turn away from the moor and enter the kitchen where the narrator's mother is at the kitchen table. The dialogue with the mother only enhances the sense of the ordinary always there despite catastrophe, here a heart-breaking catastrophe, even as she speaks about her relationship with the man she calls “Law.”

Perhaps that is what is so fascinating in this book. Somehow even the autobiographical details seem so downright honest and concrete that one is taken aback. The author's mother “never liked Law much,” we are told or the narrator says, “I had not been in love before,” or “When Law left I felt so good I thought I'd die.” These confessions almost make one feel that one is reading a cheap romance. Yet it is the very lure of these disclosures, fictional or not (along with, of course, Carson's casual references to Proust or to Sokrates as if they were contemporaries) that gives the poem a distinctive, contemporary touch. Or is it because the poet mixes Catherine and Heathcliff with the narrative of her own loss of the love of “Law” and with comments on the Brontë sisters and on her own mother's banal life that the poem beguiles with its unusual asides that depict a lived, unglamorous life? Or is it a note emerging like a hint of the early women's lib with its hostility to men? Her introduction of God (as in the book's title) is a case in point. She writes in stanzas titled “God Stiff”:

God gave an onomatopoeic quality to women's language.
These eternally blundering sounds eternally
blundering down
into the real words of what they are
like feet dropped into bone shoes.
“Treachery” (she notices) sounds just like His zipper going down.

Carson does not hesitate to attack God's love that she describes as chaos and hell, and even attacks Christ “calling himself the Son of Man.” As for “God's Mother,” she writes: “She doesn't get to say much in the official biography— / I believe they are out of wine, etc., / practical things—” Or are these comments to be covered under the word “irony” of the book's title?

What is characteristic in Carson's poems is her making all time contemporaneous. Proust can enter contemporary TV. The ancient Greek poets exist with current ones. There is a certain kind of play with this arrangement, but the contemporaneity of all time has its serious side for Carson. It is as if Sophocles were her usual breakfast mate. The classical Helen of Troy appears on TV (and not as an actress) as does Hector in a “Death Valley Shoot” but all references to his life become part of current time. Artaud and Sokrates are TV men, but this is not a writer praising TV. “TV is made of light,” she says, “like shame.” Anne Carson herself does not own a television set.

One is always aware of humor in Carson's writing, even when the subject of death, as in this book, is an undercurrent. Here is an example in a section labeled LII:

For, if you think about it,
all first hatred of strangers
contains this idea of death,
of your death which will one day walk up to you
in just such a fashion.
Buon giorno, death will say.

It is not surprising that Anne Carson's reputation grew in the nineties when book after book was published. In 1996 she won a Lannan Literary Award, a Puschart Prize the next year, and in 1998 a Guggenheim Fellowship. Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award that same year for her Autobiography of Red, she is now the recipient of the MacArthur Award.

Famously, Susan Sontag, whose favorite book of Carson's is the Autobiography of Red, said that “she is one of the few writers writing in English that I would read anything that she wrote. If there's a magazine that has something of hers in it, I buy it automatically. So she's in a less-than-fingers-on-one-hand group of writers for me.”

Autobiography of Red is called “A Novel in Verse.” I suppose it doesn't matter what it is called. It certainly reads like a narrative, and it certainly flows with fluent prose. Its strange hero, Geryon, a monster with wings (a stand-in for the author herself?) where “everything about him was red,” is familiar to classical scholars. His attitudes, language, and desires are not strange, however, translated as they are in contemporary terms, but his homosexuality as handled by the woman poet Anne Carson stretches a bit. His love for Herakles does not usually resonate as a love affair between two gay men. But any page despite the supposed contemporary characters may contain references that engage all time. But it isn't the love affair that does this. Unlike the Greek legend, Geryon is not murdered by Herakles except through a metaphoric murder of love that is too sweetly described. As Herakles looses the arrow from his bow, Carson writes, “it was one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness. / The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice.” Of course that last phrase is parodic as well. On page 4, for example, the reader will find Carson's usual breaking down of time. Longinus, Homer, Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Hermogenes, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Baudrillard. Nothing is static in a work of Anne Carson. Nor is it here. For a classicist, she is amazingly on the move. And amazingly for a classicist, with obviously heavy erudition, her language as I have noted earlier is always colloquial, simple, direct. In this novel her sophisticated characters become knowable, familiar as characters of a common household. But behind the simple tone and language lies a sophisticated narrative. The characters may be monstrous and super beings—they may break down time and meet Charlie Parker and Matisse and bump into Herakles, who is the lover of Geryon (with whom he goes to Hades!) but their actions are motivated by normal human desires. Love, jealousy, deceit all enter Geryon's life. And time is accepted and mysterious. “What is time made of? Geryon said suddenly / turning to the yellowbeard who / looked at him surprised. Time isn't made of anything. It is an abstraction. / Just a meaning that we / impose upon motion. But I see—he looked down at his watch—what you mean. / Wouldn't want to be late / for my own lecture would I? Let's go.” Whatever profundity Carson wants to make of her questioning of time is cast off and allowed to stir only in the structure of the novel where time is a potpourri of past and present. As an aside I might mention that the prosody, if that is what it can be called, is rather nondescript. Forty-seven sections with no regular meter, containing alternating long and short lines, with line breaks that seem particularly without reason from the point of view of sound or sense.

Even the classical references that seem to add authority and weight to a rather romantic narrative have been questioned. Actually ancient Greek legend involving Geryon, a winged red monster with three heads, as told by Stesichoros is freely interpreted by Anne Carson. Adam Kirsch in his review of the book in the New Republic (May 18, 1998) severely criticizes, however, even the ancient learned references. He writes:

They are ostentatiously announced and then simply left behind; any or all of them could be dropped without significantly damaging the Geryon narrative. Their purpose, then, is only to call attention to themselves; and it is the sterility of this learning, not the learning itself, that is injurious to poetry, and gives Carson's allusions a stale air of pedantry and puzzle.

These are harsh words and overlook Carson's singular manipulation by way of the ancient Greeks of the question of time, but they should be remembered in the reading of the poet's newest book, The Beauty of the Husband, where the weakness of the narrative, deprived of the author's usual sophisticated bitter ironies and surprising open sensuality, is not enhanced here by casual entrances of the ancient Greeks.

It is certainly clear, however, why Anne Carson's earlier books have led her reputation to soar among contemporary poets and critics who have perhaps become disenchanted with the rampant cold style of the Language poets and may be looking for a new star. Anne Carson, after all, is a poet whose intelligence has no pretension and is not ideological, so that language is not a tool toward condemning our corporate society as with the Language poets. Perhaps she would agree with the poet Kent Johnson who wrote in another connection about the Language poets that to mistake “linguistic for social structures tout court is an illusion without a future.” In a sense her very lack of ideology in these tempestuous times may be a weakness. She has other preoccupations, however.

Even as she quotes from the Greek and then translates these passages, they add a kind of visual pleasure to her pages and never do they lead to boredom. One simply meets another glamorous guest. She is certainly an original poet. Michael Ondaatje describes her as “the most exciting poet writing in English today.” She is easy to read, and even though she has not disdained confessional poetry, it is not the poetry of an Ann Sexton. It is not frontal. The self is there but not arrogant, and more elusive than narcissistic. Furthermore, the confessional is almost incidental to other kinds of disclosures—in fact, more narrative, interspersed, after all, with descriptions of place or with literary or philosophical figures long since dead but so alive to the poet that on the page they exist as if contemporary. Her lover can be as suddenly cogent as Catullus. In Men in the Off Hours (2000) we meet such figures as Emily Dickinson, Artaud, Sappho (again), Catullus, Audubon, Akhmatova, Tolstoy, and Hector. Some of these, in defiance of time, even become “TV Men,” so that Carson can show what she feels is the destructiveness of the world of television. “TV makes things disappear,” she writes, and adds, “Oddly the word comes from Latin videre, ‘to see.’”

Carson can imagine conversations—again ignoring time and history—between Virginia Woolf and Thucydides or like the true scholar that she is she can without pedantry ponder the writings of St. Augustine or Catullus. As I have noted earlier, Anne Carson's mind is always in motion, and that motion, as in the fascinating essay that I have mentioned earlier that she calls “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity,” as in all her books really has its source in Eros, in her own sensuality as a woman who is woman, not a fighting feminist, but a woman with characteristic feminine desires. She writes in clear despair at ancient attitudes toward women:

In such a society, individuals who are regarded as specially lacking in control of their own boundaries, or as possessing special talents and opportunities for confounding the boundaries of others, evoke fear and controlling action from the rest of society. Women are so regarded in ancient Greek society, along with suppliants, strangers, guests and other intruders. But the threat which women pose is not only greater in degree than that presented by other transgressors of boundaries, it is different in kind. “Let a man not clean his skin in water that a woman has washed in. For a hard penalty follows on that for a long time,” Hesiod advises.

One of the attractions of the poet Anne Carson is her wide interests. If in Men in the Off Hours she can bewail the early fate of women, in the Economy of the Unlost by way of “reading Simonides of Keos [Greek composer of lyrics and epitaphs in fifth century BC] with Paul Celan [Jewish Romanian poet 1920-1970]” she can discuss verbal economy. Verbal economy may be an almost indecent topic to consider in relation to the tragic poet Paul Celan who committed suicide in the Seine after the lingering effects of his loss of parents in the Holocaust and his own time in a Nazi labor camp. But it is certainly true that there is no “waste” of words in the excruciatingly fragmented, frequently unreadable lines of Celan. Even his native German becomes foreign to a German. As Carson describes it, his language becomes “so extreme a formation it bears almost the same relation to standard German as a crystal of granite to a range of hills.” At this moment in time of poetic celebrity, it is rather remarkable that two poets, so different in manner, are receiving wide recognition in the Western poetry world, namely, Carson and Celan. It wasn't many years ago that few knew their names. Now eyes light up at their mere mention.

But who would have thought of Simonides in connection with Paul Celan? Perhaps only a classicist and a remarkable contemporary poet. Yet there is a similarity. As Elizabeth Lowry writes in a review of the Carson book in the London Review of Books (October 5, 2000), “The Simonidean line generates its complex effects … through the wrenching of its syntax, violent elision, and the juxtaposition of apparently unrelated elements.” Lowry could have said the same thing of Celan. What is striking about Simonides, however, was his notorious greed. He was the first writer in Western history to charge money for his work. Poems were for him a commodity. His verbal economy led to a far more sophisticated economic economy. We do not know how much he earned for his work so that, as Carson suggests, “Simonidean greed was more resented in its essence than in its particulars.” But it seemed an outrage to Greek society because his commodification was, as Carson notes, putting a price on what had been “a reciprocal and ritual activity, the exchange of gifts between friends”—a guest friendship called xenia. Simonides was defying the customary Greek paradox regarding wealth. He was ignoring, as Carson puts it, the accepted idea that wealth was “a good thing to have but not a good thing to go after.” All that was beginning to change. Simonides merely led the way. Carson sums up this change in economic relations. She writes, “Where love is the structure of hospitality, neither host nor guest withholds what is seemly from the other. But money changes the relations between people, makes a riddle out of human philia.

It is more difficult to see a parallel between Simonides's employment of commodification and Celan, whose life and poetry were marked by the atrocities of the Nazi era and not by any revolutionary economic tactic. It is of interest, however, again to note that there is no verbal “waste” in both poets from very distant ages but whereas one's verbal German “economy” was the consequence of a poet's reaction to a savage extermination of the Jews, the other, the Greek poet Simonides, was more in the nature of personal greed. But through the juxtaposition of poets from different ages, time again is made contemporaneous. The motion of time makes past and present a circuitous yet related route when a classicist and ingenious poet decides to put an end to time's vagaries.

Anne Carson and Mary Gannon (interview date March-April 2001)

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SOURCE: Carson, Anne, and Mary Gannon. “Anne Carson: Beauty Prefers an Edge.” Poets & Writers 29, no. 2 (March-April 2001): 26-33.

[In the following interview, Carson discusses her literary style, the role of language in her work, and the inspirations behind The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos.]

After setting up an interview with Anne Carson through her publisher, I telephoned her to finalize the details of where we'd meet. It was a short, efficient conversation. We settled on her place in Montreal, but in closing she mentioned something about how we'd have to contend with the howling of dogs.

That final, surprising comment—I only learned later she was referring to her neighbor's pack of hounds—epitomizes a fundamental unpredictability about Carson and her work. When I saw her in person she looked every bit the classics scholar that she is. With crossed arms, glasses, and a cardigan sweater draped over her shoulders, she watched me from the landing of her second-story apartment while I fumbled to pay the cabbie in Canadian dollars. She looked serious, stately, and, I feared, humorless. Once we were inside she led me to one of her desks (she has three, each with a different purpose), where we sat by an open window. It was then that I noticed the vibrant pink of her lipstick, her unmatched earrings, and, pinned on the wall, her rendering in acrylic of a llama on wheels, details about her that conveyed an unexpected playfulness.

Born in Ontario in 1950, Carson usually splits the academic year between Canada, where she teaches classics at McGill University in Montreal, and the U.S., where she has taught the same at Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and, this year, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. The simultaneous publication in 1995 of Plainwater (Knopf) and Glass, Irony and God (New Directions), both intermingled collections of essays and poems, introduced her to American poetry audiences. Her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998), is a retelling of the fate of a red-winged monster, Geryon, from Greek mythology. In Carson's version the myth becomes a poignant tale of sexual awakening. The book gained her not only wider recognition, but also a National Book Critics Circle award nomination. Her other publications include Eros the Bittersweet (Princeton University, 1986; Dalkey Archive, 1998), a scholarly work about the history of romantic love, and two more hybrid collections of essays and poems, Economy of the Unlost (Princeton University, 1999) and Men in the Off Hours (Knopf, 2000).

In 1999, she worked collaboratively with her students at the University of Michigan to create The Mirror of Simple Souls, an opera presented as a seven-room installation that can be viewed online. She has received an array of prestigious awards, including the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Pushcart Prize for Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur “genius grant.” Her latest work, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, is the tale of the dissolution of a marriage told in two voices. It has just been published by Knopf.

[Gannon]: How are the dogs?

[Carson]: Right now they're quiet. It's a full moon coming up, so you have to get ready for the dogs to register that.

Do they really howl at the full moon?

They have some remarks about the moon.

How do you like living in the U.S. when you're there to teach?

It's mixed. I like the sort of vigor of the places that I've been, especially Michigan. There's a lot of intellectual work going on and people are very alive to ideas, which is nice. I find the Bay Area a bit scary presently, partly because it's so wealthy. Every other person you see drives one of those moving vans. It's amazing to live in a context of wealth like that. It changes people. Even in the five years I've been going there I've seen it change; the way people impinge on each other in public spaces is becoming gradually more brutal. So, I have some reservations about America as a project. [The dogs begin howling in the background.]

I guess you would say that kind of impingement doesn't happen in Montreal.

It doesn't seem to. It may just be that there's a lot fewer people, and there's less wealth, but there's also a different kind of politeness here. And here, especially in Quebec, which is mostly French, there's a different standard of that. French people are very polite. It's a formal thing. The downside of it is that formality can be a barrier, but it also is graceful in a way that seems to me to be often lost in America.

Do you find that being here informs your writing?

I think being in a province where I'm a marginal person, where I'm a minority, makes a difference. It's hard to be a minority as an Anglo in other first world countries, so that's different. I'm not inside French culture, in Quebecois culture, and I never will be; you just don't get in unless you're born here. I'm an observer of it, and I guess that's a position I feel comfortable in.

Do you speak French?

I don't very well, because McGill is an English institution and everything's conducted in English. You will notice if you go to the stores around here that as soon as they hear your voice, if you have an English accent of any kind, they switch to English. So, there's no way you can practice in real life.

How many languages do you speak or read?

The languages I read are dead. I read Latin and Greek mainly and, for scholarly purposes, French and German, but I can't speak them.

What drew you to the dead languages?

I think the magical way Greek looks on the page. I read it first when I was fifteen in a bookstore in Hamilton, Ontario—which is a medium-sized town where we lived—in a shopping mall just by accident. It was a book of Sappho that had the Greek and English on facing pages. I looked at it and was just seized by it. Then I met this lady in my last year of high school who could teach Greek. She taught me unofficially, and it just took hold.

Do you think that a language like Greek has more room for coexisting and maybe warring meanings?

I think every language has its own set of possibilities, and you gradually grope out what they are over years of inhabiting it. When you're in Greek you can somehow dig down to the very earliest morning of the words, which gives you a different sense of validity when you're messing around with those meanings.

There's a construction in Greek where it can mean either or and; I think it's a set of words …

There's a connective particle kai that means and usually, or if there's two of them both and or either/or.

I guess that's what made me wonder if there was more room …

That's one aspect of Greekness that's fixed in their language that we can't get. We have to decide between and and either/or. For them they're just two sides of one coin—as soon as you think into that fact you realize that the world could be completely other than it seems. There are a lot of those little things in Greek. I wouldn't feel confident saying there are quantitatively more, but there are a lot of those moments where you enter a fact but then you just think, “Oh, there's a whole other way to look at this element of reality,” and then you think of the world through that lens for a while and everything is slightly different.

Do you think using language in that open way has any connection to writing for you?

I think it has educated me to always go as far as I can go in a thought or in a sentence and then go around the corner to try to find some pocket of it that hasn't been apparent yet, in the faith that there is going to be one there. That's what the Greek experience gives—the faith that there's always another corner in a word or in a thought that you haven't gotten to yet. It doesn't close off.

My experience of reading Autobiography of Red was like that. At the end it didn't seem like a door shut. Maybe poets are more comfortable with that than fiction writers?

Possibly. Fiction is all about beginning, middle, end, but that's the strange thing about Autobiography of Red. I thought I was trying to write a very conventional fiction. I thought that I could write a novel, an Alex Haley novel, that would become a best-seller, and then I couldn't even end it. It sort of fades off.

Why is Autobiography of Red written as a novel in verse?

That chose itself. I first had it written as prose—I had regular paragraphs—and it was really, really boring. I looked at it and played around with it on the computer. I started to break it up, and it came alive. To make prose into verse you have to really concentrate the language and the thought because poetry doesn't have the patience for all the stuff that goes into prose. That concentrating made the thought come forward.

It's very powerful the way the lines are broken.

For some reason it released the real story that was in it. It's a little mysterious how that happens, that releasing, but it often is the case that it has to do with purely technical matters like the length of the line or the shape of the thing on the page. Now that I've done that I think about it all the time for prose, too, and I suspect the end result will be that I end up writing something that can't be one or the other, which is a problem … for copyeditors, who want to correct it all.

Yeah, there's not a lot of standard punctuation.

I tend to think about the punctuation profoundly and to make it say exactly what I want for the rhythm of the thought. But that doesn't conform to standard rules, so usually in the first galleys it has all been corrected, and I have to rub out a thousand million commas, but we're coming gradually to a negotiation about that.

Is there consistent scansion in Autobiography of Red?

No, but there's long and short lines, which I call couplets because in antiquity that's the form that a lot of poets used, elegiac meter, which is a six-beat then a five-beat line, so a long and a short, long and a short. You have a sense of difference and of thoughts that form into two-line units, which I think is good for explaining something that's fairly long and also concentrated. So it's basically elegiac couplets, but not scanned strictly.

And that popped up organically?

It did, but most of the things I end up doing pop up. That's how they happen.

It makes more sense to me that a form would pop up organically out of an idea than to jam an idea into a form.

It does unless you're working within a living tradition. I don't think we have any living traditions left, in poetry anyway. It's always a matter of forcing the form on, which always feels a bit wrong. I don't know … I might try it. When I hear myself enunciating principles I realize I will now have to break them. Go and try the other things. I'll be writing sonnets, rhyming couplets …

In terms of your background, I know you don't offer much in the way of a bio on your book or photos.

Not if I can help it.

What do you think of the way that books like Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters, for example, are talked about or promoted?

Well, I wouldn't want to make that use of my own life. I would feel uneasy going back to my life after I packaged it that way. But maybe that was different for him.

As a notion is it offensive to you?

Well, I have to say I don't like it. And I'm trying to think succinctly why. There has to be a line between my life and art. You don't want to sell the one as the other.

So when you're using the first person in your work, it's a device?

Yes. I couldn't say what device it is. I've often, while doing it, wondered, “Who is this I?” It's not identical with me. It's continuous but yet constructed. I don't exactly know how to define that quality that's in I. It's all mixed up with autobiography, but it's not the same.

Why isn't it the same?

I guess because I don't simply want to tell what is. I want to tell what is with all the radiations around it of what could be. So it's not simply a transcription of anything that actually happened but what actually happened, plus all the thoughts that one could think about it if one could walk around it, stop time and walk around the moment. And once you add in all that gradation of the moment it's no longer the event. The event is just the raw material that goes into your observation of what you see when you walk around it. It could be any subject matter. But personally, I don't think very well about things that I haven't actually touched. I can't think abstractly. For example, I can't enter into conversations with philosophers when they're talking without examples. I have to say, “Give me an example of that concept,” and then I can get inside and think. And that's just a drawback of being me, maybe.

Do readers ever make assumptions about you based on your work?

Yes, I think people from Ontario who have read “The Glass Essay” [from Glass, Irony and God]—which is about my mother—when they learned that my mother lived in Ontario, they say, “But there are no moors in Ontario.” That's true—the moors in the essay are Emily Brontë's moors, and they're just kind of added in to Ontario. People do literalize.

How do you respond to that?

I just carefully correct these misperceptions one by one. There's no point in flying into a principled rage about it. You just won't get anywhere. Besides, there's no real justification for the principled rage, because I would have to then be able to draw a line and say, “See, here's the line between me the fact and me the persona of the writing, and you can easily see this line and don't cross it again.” I can't do that. There's no such line. So it's quite justifiable for them to wander back and forth in a manner of bewilderment.

Some of your works are fictional essays, some are novels in verse. It seems that your forms overlap as well.

They do. Overlap is a generous term. I think the forms are in chaos. I seize upon these generic names like essay or opera in despair as I'm sinking under the waves of possible naming for any event that I come up with. I really don't know what to call anything. And if I can ever get some generic name that seems close enough that nobody will laugh out loud, I clamp it on. It's like closing the windows on a rainy night. It just feels a little safer to have a genre to be in, but I don't think most of them work.

Does it help you revise, saying, “This is now an essay”? Or do you define it at the end?

No. I think what I do is define it pretty early, and then, having defined it, I have to defy that form as I go. So it's a matter of thinking, “How else could one do this?” which makes the result totally ambivalent but still related to the form.

Do you read reviews?

No, not if I can help it. I find them very unnerving—good or bad. It's not about the content—it's just the idea of being paraphrased is always hard. My agent reads them. Other people read them.

Is it just that or are you worried that they will get in your head and affect your process?

I don't think I worry about that. There's just no place in one's head for that kind of information to be stored, so it just sort of rackets around without any place to sit down in there and makes you restless. Plus the people I know who read reviews are always upset. It's just one horrible crisis after another, so who needs that? My agent tells me if they're good or they're bad. I say, “Fine.” That's enough.

But what if you can't see your work objectively?

There is no objectively. There is no objective seeing.

What if you can't even recognize what your obsessions are?

Well, all the better! I mean they're supposed to be enjoyable. If you have obsessions they have to seem like reality. I don't think that any of that is going to help anyone, kidding aside.

In Autobiography of Red and in Eros the Bittersweet you talk about triangulation, and in your new book The Beauty of the Husband there's also triangulation.

Yes, there's lots of triangulation. I think that's the main subject of it, actually. It's about a marriage breaking down, failing because of infidelity. So, I guess it's just an ongoing preoccupation. An obsession. [Laughs.]

Why did you include so many references to Keats in The Beauty of the Husband?

When I was writing it, it turned out to be about beauty. And I thought, “I don't know anything about beauty. Who's thought intelligently about beauty in our tradition?” And then I thought of Keats. I've never understood that sentence, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” And I thought, “Maybe I should just put that in and see if I can get inside it by having it in there.” So I put it in mentally; I thought of it as being the center of the concept of the work. As I was working through it again it seemed that it needed more Keats, so I read all the strange, lost, bad Keats from when he was nine years old or whenever he started writing that stuff. It is pretty bad, a lot of it, but nice in excerpt. I just took some bits here and there, and I think it helped me work that concept through.

Did you come to understand it in the end?

Not really, no. But I felt that I'd rotated it as much as I could, which was probably the best I could do.

You call The Beauty of the Husband “A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos.” What do you mean by twenty-nine tangos?

Before I left here for Berkeley [where Carson wrote The Beauty of the Husband while teaching at the University of California] a guy broke in the back door and took all my CDs, so when I went to Berkeley I just had one that somebody had given me for Christmas, and it was a tango. I played it every day and I got tango in my head, as one will. I started to think how tangos work and what they are, and I just got fascinated with them, and so I thought, “I'll try to write some and see how that would be.” And I don't know exactly what it is to write one but somehow the idea of the form, how it contains the thoughts in shapes …

In rhythms or just shapes?

I think just shapes. I don't really think much about rhythm, and I don't know much about music. But I did like the idea of the tango as I was using it, the idea of how it works as an emotional history, and it seems like it's a form—just like marriage—where there's a prescription to the steps, and once you get into the dance you have to dance it to the end. There's no way out. There's no way to change the steps. It's set. I shouldn't say that every marriage is like that, but romantic expectations are like that. [The dogs begin barking again.] There are certain rules that are made, they lead to other rules, and before you know it the dance is on.

In the book is the concept of breaking that pattern addressed?

No. I think the pattern breaks down, but I don't believe either of the people find a way to creatively or healthfully adapt it from within. I wonder if one could. I guess successful marriages do. Maybe someday I could write a book about that, should I ever have one.

And did you have the idea of the two voices back and forth prior to the tango?

I didn't think of that actively, but when I was doing it it must have arisen from the notion of the tango—that back-and-forth thing—that there had to be both voices represented, and I wanted to catch one voice within the other so that the reader thinks that he's in one voice and suddenly thinks, “Maybe that was the other one talking?” I like that.

Why the beauty of the husband?

Beauty is somehow underneath most erotic affections. Most people think the beloved is beautiful or have to believe the beloved is beautiful in order to fall in love with them, and I want to know what that force is in human life, in interaction. Because it appallingly isn't identifiable with truth in lots of examples one could think of, and yet we keep following it as if it were. It seems impossible not to.

Why is it not related to truth?

Well, I'm just speaking empirically. I think that most people have experience with situations where what seemed beautiful and therefore true suddenly is not. So it can switch back. And if truth can switch to falsehood then it can't have been truth, or at least it's a dangerous kind of truth. So there's an instability in our identification of it. It worries me.

Do you think truth is absolute?

I don't know, but I guess if I believed it existed at all I would want to think of it as an absolute.

Why is The Beauty of the Husband called a fictional essay?

To avoid people saying, “Well, so, and how was your marriage?” To me, calling it an essay means that it's not just a story but a reflection on that story, which is also a way of making it less personal or not only personal. But I also just like the absolute inanity of calling anything a fictional essay. Something about that appeals to me.

It does draw attention to the form.

I think it's good for people to be drawn into that space.

In Eros the Bittersweet, you talk about Eros as lack, as longing, as loss. Those things pop up again in this book.

I guess our subjects call us. I wouldn't be able to think about romantic love any other way, and that may just be a casualty of being me. I tried to make it seem a general, universalizing truth in Eros the Bittersweet, but people have pointed out to me that that's a tad biased. And it's also part of the truth that nobody writes about happy love because it's boring. The Odyssey is the only example we have in great literature of a marriage that lasts, and for the first twenty-three books they're not together. I think it's partly a demand of the story. The story as story needs to be about struggle and dissatisfaction and suffering because happiness doesn't have much to say for itself, sadly.

Why do you think there's so much of that loss?

Because it happens to everybody and you need to have it formulated. You don't really need to have your happiness made okay for you, but if there's an area of life where you feel you keep screwing up then you want to read books about how other people screwed up too and then you feel not so bad. It's part of what literature is for.

Do you think there's something Freudian in that? Like what he says about nightmares, for example: By experiencing our worst fears, we feel control over them.

It could be. I'm not sure. It doesn't feel like control to me. I guess I would say it feels like a way of being able to inhabit a space that seems uninhabitable because it's too scary or too painful. Writing about loss is the same as writing about death, which I have tried to do with my father and with my mother. To write about them isn't really to control that but just to let it in the room and sit with it and realize that nothing more can happen there. Death takes a person away and there's nothing more awful that's going to happen, so you might as well sit with it and think about how that works. It's not exactly control, more just like befriending. I don't think Freud was very interested in friendliness.

Do you like Freud or Jung or any of those guys?

It's just so all around our world, our mental horizon, it's hard to see what it is. I mean, towering intellects are always good to have in a room with you. I don't think it's ever helped me much, either Freud or Jung or any other theorist of the psyche, whereas things like poetry have helped me.

Okay. I'm going to say a list of words and you respond however you want. Red?



Is best.









Josephine Balmer (review date 25 May 2001)

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SOURCE: Balmer, Josephine. “Ancient Ladies.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5121 (25 May 2001): 26.

[In the following review, Balmer lauds Carson's original poetic voice in Men in the Off Hours and commends the volume for breaking down “barriers between past and present, male and female, literary and visual, translation and original.”]

“Save every bit of thread”, the Canadian poet Anne Carson advises the ghost of Emily Dickinson in “Sumptuous Destitution” from her weighty new collection, Men in the Off Hours; “One of them may be / the way out of here.” Women poets throughout the ages have taken Carson's suggestion to heart; stranded without a coherent literary history, without their own spool of wool to follow out of the maze, every scrap of the past becomes important—past lives, past poets, past mythologies, all of which are often acknowledged, imitated, or deconstructed in their work.

Certainly, this new book, which follows Carson's acclaimed volumes Glass, Irony and God and Autobiography of Red, is littered with figures from the near and distant past, including fellow women writers Anna Akhmatova and Virginia Woolf (as well as Dickinson) alongside painters and philosophers. But, as one might expect from a professor of classics, what interests Carson most is the ancient—or rather, the interface between ancient and modern: Sappho as a television anchorwoman, a Mojave desert graffito as preface to her radical new versions of Catullus (“I LOVE YOU JOHNNY AND I DIDN'T DO ANYTHING”), or a bag-lady Antigone, filmed for a documentary, her dialogue cut and distorted for “sound-bite purposes”.

These scenes are typical of a collection which breaks down barriers between past and present, male and female, literary and visual, translation and original; which inhabits the borders not just between poetry and prose but between scholarship and literature: new definitions arise of what poetry is or does. To those unfamiliar with Carson's work the twenty-three pages and fifty-nine attendant footnotes of “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity” for instance, might come as a (possibly unwelcome) surprise. But why not stand it alongside her poems? Its expression is just as eloquent, its conclusions just as profound. If psychoanalysis, for example, is an art form rather than a science, as Adam Phillips has recently argued, then why shouldn't our definition of “poetry” include the scientific and the scholarly? Carson's erudition might give the impression of a dry, difficult text. But her poetry is also full of wit and empathy, whether recording a passer-by's comment on a literary funeral cortège (“Is it the late George Eliot's wife going to be buried?”) or her epitaph in “crossouts” (“they are like death: by a single stroke—all is lost, yet still there”) for her own mother's recent death. And just as you think you might be tiring of her tricksy, knowing style, she lobs in a tender and intimate poem such as “Father's Old Blue Cardigan,” catching a parent on the very brink of dementia, buttoned up on a hot July day like a child “dressed by some aunt early in the morning / for a long trip / on cold trains and windy platforms / … riding backwards”. Moving, exhilarating, amusing, infuriating, but constantly inspiring, Carson's collection asks two age-old questions—where else can poetry go and what more can literary or classical scholarship have to say to us?—and answers them both with aplomb.

Like Men in the Off Hours, Jorie Graham's Swarm looks to the classical past, although this time not so much to its history but to the archetypal female figures of ancient mythology: Daphne, Calypso, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, even Eve. The fractured lines and deconstructed forms of Graham's verse, however, suggest a more ambiguous, fragmented relationship with this inherited tradition, which she casts as both blessing and curse: “let the other mouth heal yours over”, she advocates in “Daphne”, while the watchman in “Fuse” (transposed from Robert Fagles's translation of the Agamemnon) complains, “It is a sentence the long watch I keep.” For Carson, the classical world can be ironically reimagined (and, as in “Catullus: Carmina,” sometimes directly translated) through the filter of contemporary media mores or theoretical dialectic. In Swarm, the past is a constant presence, which, in order to survive, we have both to escape and to understand—a burden we can neither baulk at nor evade, a treat we have long been denied: “To be told best not to touch. / To touch”, as “Eurydice on History” explains, “For the farewell of it. / And the further replication”.

Eurydice also appears in Louise Glück's new collection, Vita Nova, a symbol of her lyrical exploration of love and loss, death and rebirth, a figure who must live with the tension of moving between two worlds: “A passage / filled with regret, with longing, / to which we have, in the world, / some slight access or memory.” Like Glück's previous volume, The Wild Iris,Vita Nova celebrates the beauty of the upper, living world (“Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms”), which both negates and intensifies the shadow of inevitable death. And as with the passing seasons, there is a cyclical movement to the collection: titles recur, lines, characters, even images, are carried over from poem to poem. “Such moments”, as Dido, another lover trapped in the Underworld, comments in “Queen of Carthage” “… are the same, they are both eternity.” At barely fifty pages—half the length of Swarm, and a third of Men in the Off HoursVita Nova might seem a less ambitious statement of artistic intent. But this is a strange, haunting volume, which shimmers on the edge of understanding, like a dream from which, as Louise Glück claims, “you'll wake up / in a different world”. This is a promise that all three poets fulfil in their different ways, each finding the ingenuity to gather up the threads—of history, of mythology, of poetry itself—and weave something new.

David C. Ward (essay date May-June 2001)

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SOURCE: Ward, David C. “Anne Carson: Addressing the Wound.” PN Review 27, no. 5 (May-June 2001): 13-16.

[In the following essay, Ward criticizes the bulk of Carson's oeuvre as well as the scholars who have celebrated her work. However, Ward asserts that The Beauty of the Husband represents a breakthrough in Carson's development as a poet.]

Here is Anna Akhmatova writing about herself in the Terror (in the ‘Epilogue’ of Requiem):

There I learned how faces fall apart,
How fear looks out from under the eyelids,
How deep are the hieroglyphics
Cut by the suffering on people's cheeks.
There I learned how silver can inherit
The black, the ash-blond overnight,
The smiles that fade from the poor spirit,
Terror's dry coughing sound.

Here is Anne Carson writing about Akhmatova in the Terror (in ‘Akhmatova Comes to the Wall’ in Men in the Off Hours (New York, 2000)):

She came to the wall to stand in line.
Inner prison of the NKVD on Shpalernaya Street,
Then Kresty Prison across the Neva.
Once a month a window opened in the wall.
Akhmatova—for Gumilyov, she said
                                        shoving her parcel through the grate.

There is such an evident gulf in emotion and technique from the original to the copy that it is hard to understand how John Kinsella, writing in the Observer, can call Carson's ‘Akhmatova’ pieces ‘stunning’. Yet Kinsella, despite this praise, is one of the few reviewers to be negative about the phenomenon that is Anne Carson. Recipient of multiplying honours and prizes (including a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant), Carson's brilliance is now established as fact. Harold Bloom, trading on his reputation as a critic even as he devolves into literary cheerleading, has passed enthusiastic judgement in Carson's favour. Even William Logan, who likes just about nothing being written today, ties himself into judgemental knots on the chance that Carson may make him look foolish by turning out to be regarded by posterity as a great poet/writer. Men in the Off Hours, he writes, ‘has the fatal attraction of being more provocative, more irritating and more gleefully obscure than most poetry in the off-hours of our prosaic age’. Prime blurb material! As is Logan's ‘Her poems have a fierce, indrawn mystery that lives off the fragments of lost empire, like papyrus dredged from the sands of Oxhrhychus.’ Logan then hedges his bet the other way, delivering some typically waspish dicta, ‘You have to wade through a lot of ideas to get to Carson's best work.’ Somehow, though, he never gets around to the ideas. Kinsella gets to the same point from the opposite direction, obliterating the poet under a stream of aesthetic tag-names. He calls Men in the Off Hours the end of one period of the ‘modernist experiment’ (why ‘experiment’, by the way?): ‘It's simply all been done before. The techniques of blurring the lyrical self and personae, of Bakhtinian shifts in narrative, of Derridean genre ploys …’ This is criticism which uses a mirror instead of a window, thereby repeating the writer's purported errors. Logan accuses Carson of ‘blather’, Kinsella of trendy theoretical shape shifting. Where is the poetry in all this?

As epithets and name tagging now pass for criticism, the creative acts of this particular part of the modernist ‘experiment’ are framed by invisible quotation marks. The marks indicate that what follows must be considered ‘ironically’ when not presented as ‘irony’ itself. In Kinsella's use of that wishy-washy ‘experiment’, there is a sense among both artists and critics of fin de siècle exhaustion. For artists, the use of dumb-downed irony provides a stance of critical distance even while he or she acquiesces in and legitimises modernism's driving force: appropriation. When every thing and every process is commodified and colonised by the market, irony loses its meaning as a rhetorical distancing device and becomes a survival stance. It's the complicit nod and a wink which suggests that we—artist and audience—know we are better than the dreck around us but that we have no choice but to swim in its polluted waters. Obviously, poets and writers have always ‘appropriated’ other poets and writers for source material and inspiration; Harold Bloom wrote an influential book on The Anxiety of Influence. The point though, as Bloom argues, was that the writer wrote against his source, destroying it and creating something new: Keats looked into Chapman's Homer; he did not copy it (and he proved another of Bloom's arguments by getting his explorer wrong). But what's happening now is an omnivorous usage of cultural artifacts, including the repackaging of established artistic brands, to use the current corporate ‘term of art’ (note how this locution, which is in vogue now, identifies creativity with marketing). While art used to establised the audience, these days it coddles it by wrapping the work of art with references that people ‘in the know’ will get; the arched eyebrow of recognition, the short laugh at the in-joke, becomes a critical response. And as all culture becomes pop culture (in distinction to popular culture which historically has resisted, in its prickly localism, the market), these references are not, as they once were, just occasional and esoteric but omnipresent, obvious, and endlessly recycled; from the shock of the new, we've devolved to the comfort of the familiar.

The artist gets around questions of who owns whose life or subject or text as well as matters of technique, style, and taste by inserting the hedge of irony. Carson's ‘Akhmatova’ poems are highbrow cases in point. Carson frames her series on ‘Akhmatova’ as a teleplay, calling it ‘TV Men: Akhmatova (Treatment for a Script)’. There are a couple of distancing devices here by which the poet shirks responsibility. First, by bringing in television the poet disavows any aesthetic judgement since we well know television's flattening effects on complexity; Carson's epigraph to the series is ‘TV makes things disappear’, a quotation Carson makes up, as she is wont to do, ‘from’ Longinus's essay on the sublime. Second, the poem is by ‘TV Men’ thereby laying the blame on another gender, a gender famously known for its inability to express itself; a theme, which recurs throughout Carson's writing. Third, it's only a ‘Treatment’, not even a ‘Script’, let alone an actual film, so if the depiction of Akhmatova is unfulfilled you can't blame the writer. Since this is video everything can be edited and pumped up in post-production. Music will help support lines that cannot support themselves: the middle bit of ‘Akhmatova Comes to the Wall’ sounds like the script of a bus tour. Finally, the series of ‘Akhmatova’ poems ends with a prose chronology like diary entries by the producer tracing the failure of the project from its inception in 1957 to the Russian's death in 1966. So Carson appropriates Akhmatova's life and work (she quotes liberally from the poet's writing) but then distances herself from the appropriation in all kinds of way to suggest that the project is aesthetically and intrinsically impossible as video or poetry. But the poems themselves don't support the reading that we cannot understand Akhmatova, that we are not blocked or ironically distanced from her and that our technology cannot recapture the histories of the 1930s. In other words, Carson should have followed the lead of her made up epigraph from Longinus. This would be a genuinely interesting post-modernist project, but one which would require the writer to be ironic about herself. Instead, trying to have it both ways, Carson adopts Akhmatova's point of view (or a semblance of that point of view) and rewrites her while enveloping the poems in extra-poetical paraphernalia to deny authorship. It's also worth pointing out that Carson rewrites and recycles herself, another post-modernist tic, as ‘TV Men’ first appeared in the earlier Glass, Irony and God (New York, 1995). She also publishes purportedly successive drafts of poems, creating her own archive of palimpsests and reifying her instabilities. Carson's reification of herself extends even to the information about herself that she withholds; the biographical note on the jacket of her most recent books reads: ‘Anne Carson lives in Canada.’

Of the forty poems (not counting every poem in a series like ‘TV Men’; the Akhmatova series alone has twenty-three separate poems) in Men in the Off Hours, twenty-five are borrowings from the life and writings of people ranging from the soldier who stabbed Christ on the Cross to Catherine Deneuve. Carson's appropriation of Akhmatova is an attempt at the tragic, as is the rest of the ‘TV Men’ series, which includes ‘treatments’ of Lazarus, Tolstoy, Sappho and Antigone. These and other poems provide Carson with the opportunity to display her formidable reading and erudition. Carson also plays off that erudition by frequently importing figures and texts into her verse to provide offbeat hiccups of anachronistic intrusion; she is particularly fond of presentism, having Socrates and Plato watch TV, for instance. Logan says that Carson is a poet of ideas but she actually is a poet of effects. A poem in Men in the Off Hours derives from one of Catullus observing a lover with her pet terrier and ends: ‘It's the one she calls Little Bottle after Deng Xiaping.’ Or another of Catullus reflecting on his piety: ‘Before my holy stoning in the wet kisses and the smell of sperm / I drove an ambulance for the Red Cross.’ (To raise a very old-fashioned point, based on these examples, how far can we trust Carson the Classicist in her translations or readings of Latin or Greek? Oh, I know, there are no texts! How ironic that I'm reviewing one!) At times, the text she's working from seems to have stopped providing inspiration, as in the Catullus series which contains more than one poem like this in structure if not subject; subtitled ‘Catullus in a Disparaging Mood’ the poem reads:

I've been looking up words for ‘anus’ to describe

And so on for thirteen more ‘lines’, concluding, ‘Smell it.’ Probably finding this format a little limited, Carson is not shy about borrowing styles from other writers. In her ‘Hopper’ series (as Logan points out, why read a poem explaining ‘Night Hawks’ when the painting is wide open for you?), she uses William Carlos Williams and e. e. cummings back to back. ‘Room in Brooklyn’ is the Williams albeit with trendy non-punctuation: ‘This / slow / day / moves / Along the room / I / hear / its / axles / go’ (this seems adapted from lines 3-4 of Larkin's ‘Deceptions’) and ‘The Barber Shop’ is cummings:

It takes practice to shave the skin off the light.
                                                  plus or

Since cummings is now almost totally neglected, it's nice to see this tribute. Carson can't resist showing off, however, and all her Hopper poems are tagged with epigraphs from Augustine's Confessions; the one to ‘The Barber Shop’ reads ‘Whatsoever of it has flown away is past. / Whatsoever remains is future.’ It's a good rule never to use an epigraph that overshadows the work it introduces.

The uncertainty revealed in Carson's need for a crutch to move her poems makes her self, not the verse, exhibit A of post-modern instability. Carson doesn't know where she wants to go and the result is a pastiche. She veers between high, even mandarin, scholarship and archly placed narrative shifts or facile juxtapositions. Classicists work from texts, post-modern poets from within their heads and Carson's unstable attempt at marrying the two disciplines continually jars. To me, in style and artistic impact Carson resembles not another poet but the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. Holzer has specialised in creating visual displays in which a gnomic, plausible aphorism is placed in a context that tends, ironically, to undercut the validity of the aphorism; not least because the installations are temporary and the aphorisms are flashed on like subliminal advertising. For instance, on the garish, neon sign at the entrance to Las Vegas's Caesar's Palace (Americans know the classics!) Holzer somehow convinced the casino management to flash her slogan ‘Money Creates Taste’. Of course it does and we get the taste our economy provides, including not just Caesar's Palace but also the confusions of Carson and Holzer. Other ‘Holzerisms’ which have been shown in ballparks, as billboards, and projected onto buildings are: ‘Lack of Charisma can be FATAL’; ‘Torture is barbaric’; and ‘Protect Me From What I Want’. Making a statement, Holzer's signage makes no statement, as it gets lost in the clutter of the competing visual and aural clutter of modern public space. Clever at first they end up dispiriting the viewer when one realises that clever is all they are. When not pure description or siting of the narrator, many of Carson's lines recalls Holzer: ‘War is clear and intricate’; ‘Are we our brother's keeper?’. ‘Interview with Hara Tamiki (1950)’ is a whole string of Holzer: ‘Death made me grow up’; ‘Passion bewildered me’; ‘Bureaucrats make me melancholy’.

Carson continually undersells her talent, another aspect of a period in which every emotion has to be defused with a joke and nothing, including scholarship or politics, is ‘serious’. Except that Carson is serious (in a good way as well as in her having no sense of humour at all) and there's nothing she can do about it. Her didactic lines continually subvert the instability of her subjects. So it is astonishing in Men in the Off Hours to run into a poem like ‘Father's Old Cardigan’ when Carson stops fiddling around constructing jury-rigged poems from the attic of western civilisation. The poem is about the onset of her elderly father's dementia:

His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.

Sometimes irony isn't enough, as Carson herself subtitles her essay on Catherine Deneuve as schoolteacher.

As the Deneuve subtitle shows, Carson may have intuitively felt the self-limiting fissures that underlay the first part of her poetical project. Carson has continually evidenced a concern for pollution and a desire for purification in her prose writings. As a scholar she has written on the body and concepts of cleanliness, linking physiology to ideology. In life, Carson's fixation on purification has taken the extreme form of the mortification of the flesh, as in her anorexia or in her sudden decision to undertake the pilgrimage of St John of the Cross across Spain. She now has attempted to purify her poetry, trying to shed it of its self-conscious intellectual staginess. In her latest book, The Beauty of the Husband (New York, 2001), Carson narrows the focus down to the anatomisation of a love affair and marriage (apparently her own) gone bust but which continues to live on, like light from an extinguished star, obsessing both partners. Passion does bewilder Carson and she has made the wise decision to write directly about its confusions instead of end stopping herself in a one-line slogan.

One thing that is apparent in The Beauty of the Husband is Carson's newly revealed sensuousness. Her previous poems are so dry they crackle like desert skin. Here is the beginning of the second stanza of ‘… HERE IS A DANCE IN HONOR OF THE GRAPE …’:

the grapes for wine.
You cannot imagine the feeling if you have never done it—
like hard bulbs of wet red satin exploding under your feet

and on to an ecstatically musky finish. And yet … After this orgiastic beginning Carson cannot help reverting to her didactic self. The poem concludes with a mini lecture on viniculture: ‘Well it so happens more than 90٪ of all cultivated grapes are varieties of / Vitis vinifera / the old World or European grape …’ Passion bewilders Carson and it must have bewildered her ‘husband’ too just as it bewilders these poems. As in her previous poetry, Carson's lines remain brittle, short, snapped-off, and unmusical. But here her form fits her content as her choked off lines, interspersed by sudden volubility, reflect an emotional state congruent with her subject. That Carson is now dealing with the dualities of a marriage reflects the society-wide retreat from the social. As we've lost confidence that we can control the wider environment, including even control of texts and history, we have turned inward to examine our private and internal lives; witness the recent popularity of the memoir. To that extent Carson is now scaling back her previous ambitions. But, in so doing, she has learned the lesson of Akhmatova that people don't always behave heroically, that people will act contrary to their interests, and that they even will become traitors in an effort to make Terror seem normal.

The jacket copy says that The Beauty of the Husband is taken from Keats's ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. Carson does preface all of Beauty's poems with an epigraph from Keats. Perhaps Carson did intend a rather undergraduate-level irony since one of the book's themes is that her husband was beautiful but ‘My husband lied about everything.’ But Carson is now after the deeper constructions of truth and lies. In the VII poem in Beauty she writes about Plato's distinction between the truth of the Gods and the lies ‘which live down below’:

Hence the notion found early in ancient thought that all
                                                                                                                        poets are liars.
And from the true lies of poetry
trickled out a question.
What really connects words and things?

‘Not much,’ says her husband, who ‘proceeds to use language / in a way that Homer says the gods do’. Carson has confessed in number V: ‘Like many a wife I boosted the husband up to Godhood and held him there.’ The wound sustained in that holding up, its festering, is what Carson now desires to examine and close:

A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it.

Turning herself into an expert surgeon, Carson now examines the wound, its causes and the light that simultaneously reveals and blinds.

On one level, Beauty is an elegant explication of gendered power in a relationship and the extent to which a woman acquiesces to the pain when she submits to beauty's passion and then tries to disentangle herself from the laacoön in which she has willingly entangled herself. The ‘husband’ not only abused her passion, her self-abnegation, but also stole and published Carson's writings. But Carson is not just making this political point. It's intriguing that most of her epigraphs come from Keats's obscure play Otho the Great. Choosing Otho as an emblematic text for Beauty is part of Carson's tic of scholarship; she cannot resist showing off her erudition. The play was written by Keats and Brown as a potboiler to make money; they were unsuccessful and Otho the Great was not produced until 1950. What's interesting about the play is not—or not just—that the men in it are mostly dopes who, lacking any moral centre, are not responsible for their duplicitous actions, unstable in their emotions, and wilfully blind to what is right in front of them. Rather it is the central, if unspoken, conflict between the characters of the two women: Auranthe, the bad, who actively manipulates events unnoticed by the men; and Erminia, the good, who is battered from pillar to post by man's error but who passively endures until her purity and virtue are finally recognised. Auranthe, of course, dies and the men congratulate themselves on their close escape: status quo restored. Conventional enough of a melodrama but Otho as used by Carson may be a clue. What if there is no ‘husband’ in Beauty and that Carson is struggling with her own nature; that she is both Auranthe and Erminia? And that, in her rewrite, she wants Auranthe to win? In ‘XXII. Homo Ludens’ her husband takes the narrator wife to ‘Athens. Hotel Eremia’ where she waits at dinner while he plays the game of marriage and betrays her again. Both husband and wife know the rules of the game they are playing but Carson is writing herself through to a game with new rules.

The Beauty of the Husband is a conditional breakthrough for Carson as a poet, instead of a scholar writing as a poet. She still cannot resist the classical reference but here, unlike Men in the Off Hours, the references are soft-pedalled tones in the full-throated organ of her bewildered passion. Even the initially irritating subtitle, ‘A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos’ ends up making sense—at first it just seems like an add-on for exotic colour—not in the jacket copy's banality that ‘A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.’ Rather, the tango is a dance of flamboyant masculine power in which the woman is not just led by the man but is displayed by him to his primary advantage, an advantage that is dominatingly sexual. When the dance ends, with this book, Carson suggests she will be free of its bruising entanglements.

It will be intriguing to see where Carson goes from here especially if she continues to wrestle with her divided selves: scholar/poet, transgressive/submissive, wife/woman, dancer/danced. Scholars live by rules and Carson has to break them now. As she scrapes away the lacquer of her erudition, perhaps she will do so by putting on her father's sweater, sit at a scraped and scarred kitchen table somewhere in Canada, and write as ‘Coldness comes paring down from the moonbeam in the sky.’

Ian Rae (review date summer 2001)

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SOURCE: Rae, Ian. “Flights of Verse.” Canadian Literature, no. 169 (summer 2001): 185-87.

[In the following review, Rae characterizes Autobiography of Red as a contemporary Canadian long poem.]

Bolder Flights represents the latest contribution to an ongoing critical enterprise that articulates why, as Michael Ondaatje stated thirty years ago; “the most interesting writing being done by poets today can be found within the structure of the long poem” (The Long Poem Anthology). Editors Frank Tierney and Angela Robbeson follow a strain of critical thought through Dorothy Livesay, Michael Ondaatje and others that sees “the long poem as distinctively Canadian in its documentary aspects, often serving a topographical and memorial function.” While the notion of a “distinctly Canadian” genre is disputed by one contributor (Margot Kaminski) and has been the target of parody from long poem writers such as George Bowering (in The New Long Poem Anthology), Bolder Flights nonetheless addresses a range of issues pertinent to the study of the long poem in Canada.

If there are any doubts about the omnipresence of the long poem in Canadian literature, D. M. R. Bentley dispels them in “Colonial Colonizing.” Bentley's introductory survey begins with “Now Reader Read …”, the “Jonsonian verse epistle in which Henry Kelsey recounts his journey in 1690-91 from York Factory (Churchill) to the Canadian plains” and argues that the oscillation between lyric and epic features in Kelsey's verse typifies a concern for balancing personal and communal expression that extends across three centuries of writing. While Bentley is necessarily cursory, the temporal range of his survey and the 128 works cited in his 17-page essay set an impressive standard for critics wishing to make comprehensive claims about the long poem in Canada.

As the collection shifts to more focused inquiries, however, the boldness of Bolder Flights comes into question. Already in the preface, the editors cast doubt in this direction when they state that their collection “extends and revises previous analyses by the leading scholars in the field.” If this collection is radical, it is radical only in the sense that Charlene Diehl-Jones employs the term in her essay on “Fred Wah and the Radical Long Poem”: “Radical: from the Latin, pertaining to the root.”

In fact, many of the essays aim to check overbold assertions—such as the “unmappability” of the long poem—in Smaro Kamboureli's On the Edge of Genre. Sandra Djwa challenges Kamboureli's dismissal of E. J. Pratt in an insightful essay that is, none the less, firmly grounded in a defence of early modernism. Similarly, Gwendolyn Guth re-assesses the picture of Pratt as “a bard banished to a poetic point of no return, with his clutch of unfashionable poems” by favourably comparing Pratt's Brébeuf and His Brethren to Eldon Garnet's 1977 A Martyrdom of Jean De. Further contributions include Stephen Scobie on definitions of the long poem, arguing for the inclusion of Bronwen Wallace as a “short long poem” writer. In a more poststructural vein, essays on Fred Wah, David Arnason, Kristjana Gunnars and Dennis Cooley focus on the long poem among Prairie writers.

Carson's novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, creatively engages with the Greek lyric tradition. A classics scholar, Carson has elsewhere cast new light on the works of Sappho, Mimnermos and Simonides of Keos, to name a few. This time she brings her talents to bear on the work of Stesichoros, most “‘Homeric of the lyric poets,’ according to Longinus.” Carson revisits Stesichoros's Geryoneis, the fragments of which relate the story of Geryon, “a strange winged red monster” who dies protecting his mythical herd of red cattle from the covetous Herakles. In her proem, Carson writes that “the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat.” Carson creates an analogous mix by adding a palinode, a mock interview, testimonia and translated fragments, to her core romance-in-verse, “Autobiography of Red.”

The romance at the heart of the roman recasts the Geryon myth as a contemporary homosexual love affair. In Carson's retelling, Geryon, not Herakles, provides the narrative focus. Plagued by shyness and acute sensitivity, Geryon resembles other artists-as-young-men except for a unique attribute: Geryon has wings. The wings play a largely metaphorical role until the story's conclusion. For the most part they symbolize Geryon's alterity, a difference he feels painfully when he meets and falls in love with Herakles. Not surprisingly, Herakles has his way with Geryon and then leaves him. At this point the narrative faintly echoes the “erotic sufferings” of ancient Greek romance. The echoes grow stronger as the Geryon-Herakles romance turns into a love triangle, a contest to which the winged monster is ill-suited. Geryon yearns for the soaring heights of love, but he achieves those heights only through art.

As befits the contemporary long poem, Carson combines poetry and narrative with references to visual media. The poet converts fragments of lost texts into “photographs” through the studied refinement and clarity of her lyrics. Yet Geryon begins his autobiography as a sculpture, a medium that underscores both Carson's sensitivity to classical form and her metafictive playfulness. As subtle fissures in the story widen and Gertrude Stein resurfaces from the proem to answer questions on Stesichoros in the final interview, one looks at the interviewing “I” and asks, “Autobiography of Whom?”

John Burt (review date autumn 2001)

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SOURCE: Burt, John. “Notes on Some Recent Poetry.” Southern Review 37, no. 4 (autumn 2001): 836-50.

[In the following excerpt, Burt asserts that The Beauty of the Husband, although not Carson's strongest work, is a “savvy and interesting” collection.]

Anne Carson earned her reputation as one of the most inventive and intelligent contemporary poets with Autobiography of Red (1998), in which classical mythology, the problems of romantic disappointment, and impish scholarship interwove to bind together a volume that is at once tartly idiosyncratic and learned in the byways and blind alleys of the life of the feelings. Had Autobiography of Red not existed, The Beauty of the Husband would seem a triumphant book. But what were innovations in the earlier book seem mannerisms or repetitions in the later one. The use Carson makes of quotations from Keats's minor work, which separate the sections of the poem, seems a derivative reprise of the brilliant use she made of Emily Brontë in “The Glass Essay” or of Stesichorus in Autobiography of Red. And too often, particularly in the long section titles, what was malicious wit earlier seems merely cute here. All of which is not to say, however, that the book is without interest or insight.

Like Autobiography of Red,The Beauty of the Husband is an extended narrative about a tangled sexual relationship, and both perhaps descend from George Meredith's marvelous nineteenth-century sonnet sequence about infidelity and divorce, Modern Love. As in Autobiography of Red the beloved is intensely desirable but also irredeemably narcissistic. The lover understands her beloved's ultimate shallowness but cannot quite leave off loving him, as if the narcissism and even the destructiveness were part of the attraction. The beloved (the husband of the title) never quite holds his own in the repeated face-offs between them—some of these almost classical stichomythias—since he can't help but resort to soap-opera clichés and easily punctured lies. But his letters, with their endlessly resourceful shifts of tack and methods of manipulation, show him in a more formidable light, particularly a letter he sends, with no return address, from Rio after a three-year separation, in which he plays not so much on his wife's feelings as on her wit about detachment from feelings (feelings to which she may still be vulnerable despite the wit) by conjugating the verb “to cry” and telling a humorous anecdote about a group of Brazilians who have accidentally set their washing machine on fire, the Brazilians being, like the husband and wife, at once incapable of getting anything straight and incapable of leaving it alone. After he stands the wife up on their wedding day, he sends a four-word telegram (But please don't cry—), knowing that she knows telegrams are five words for a dollar, and that he need not even use the fifth.

The point is how little the wife's insight into the husband ultimately buys her in the way of freedom from him—nothing he does surprises her, and his cruelty is part of his fascination. Even when what he does is not charged with the charismatic darkness of the demon lover but is only small and stupid, the wife can bitterly point that out, but she cannot not be vulnerable to him. Carson captures with acuity the way one becomes entangled in the toils of a relationship not only in the face of better knowledge but even in a way because of it: One recognizes in advance those follies that are too deep even for shame, but knowing alone doesn't enable one to stop desiring.

The wife keeps telling us that what binds her to her husband is his beauty, a beauty we can only surmise from his never-failing ability to attract new mistresses. But we do see something of his sexual magnetism, for instance in the scene where he sends the wife eleven white roses and one red, or in the memorably erotic scene in which they are crushing grapes together in a wine vat: “You cannot imagine the feeling if you have never done it— / like hard bulbs of wet red satin exploding under your feet, / between your toes and up your legs arm face splashing everywhere …” Some incidents, such as when the husband, in the midst of a rendezvous in Athens with the wife years after their divorce, is discovered phoning his girlfriend back in the States in order to keep up the illusion that he is still in New York, working late, are so implausible that they must have actually happened to someone. (About episodes like this, my colleague William Flesch quotes Dr. Johnson: “It is the odd fate of this observation to be the worse for being true.”)

As with almost everything Carson writes, the book's genre is an open question. The subtitle refers to it as “A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos,” each term of which deserves commentary. The book is fictional in that the wife is presumably not Anne Carson or any version of her; an essay (rather than, say, an Arthur Schnitzler story in verse) in that it moves back and forth between narrative and scholarly reflections both within the narrative (about Thucydides, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Beckett's Endgame) and in interchapters (all concerned with snippets and academic emendations of minor poems by Keats); and in tangos because a tango has the stylized eroticism of the husband's personality and must be, as Carson explains, danced to the end. Calling the sections “tangos” also evades the question of whether the book is written in verse or not. These are not prose poems, but most would not lose much had they been written without line-endings, and for the most part the versification seems at the same time ad hoc and forced. Consider the elbow-in-the-ribs quality of the stanza break here:

She is watching him.
I'm sorry he says. Do you believe me.
I never wanted to harm you.
This is banal. It's like Beckett. Say something!
I believe
your taxi is here she said.
He looked down the street. She was right. It stung him,
the pathos of her keen hearing.

That said, this very tango gives us a lightning aperçu into the wife's mind that is only possible in verse:

Do you know she began.
If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you.
To tell it to.

Even in a volume not up to her best work, Anne Carson remains a savvy and interesting poet.

Chris Jennings (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Jennings, Chris. “The Erotic Poetics of Anne Carson.” University of Toronto Quarterly 70, no. 4 (fall 2001): 923-36.

[In the following essay, Jennings examines the theme of desire in Carson's poetry, noting that Carson's “unchanging desire … for her immediate subject” infuses her work with a palpable sense of eroticism.]

To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves.

Anne Carson, ‘The Life of Towns,’ Plainwater

Discussing Sappho's fragment 31 near the beginning of Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson provides a figure for eros that illuminates a recurring pattern in her own poetics. In the fragment, Sappho's speaker observes the girl she desires speaking to an attentive man. The result ‘is not a poem about the three of them as individuals, but about the geometrical figure formed by their perception of one another, and the gaps in that perception … The figure is a triangle’ (13). This triangle makes ‘the radical constitution of desire’ visible.

For, where eros is lack, its activation calls for three structural components—lover, beloved and that which comes between them. They are three points of transformation on a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire so that they touch not touching. Conjoined they are held apart. The third component plays a paradoxical role for it both connects and separates, marking that two are not one, irradiating the absence whose presence is demanded by eros. When the circuit-points connect, perception leaps.

(Eros, 16)

Carson calls connecting the circuit ‘triangulation’ (Eros, 17), and taken as a paradigm, that suggests a poetics of lack that employs and enables duality as an essential component of its unity. Beginning with a ‘genius for juxtaposition’ (Cook, 327), Carson gives her writing a triangular structure by binding the terms juxtaposed not only to each other but to a liminal position between them. This perspective conceives connection from contiguity and serves as the ‘third component’ that ‘both connects and separates’ the terms in order to reveal ‘the lines that are there.’ Translation is her master trope. The familiar form of bringing the ancient in contact with the contemporary has its own three-part structure, situating the translator on the cusp between two languages. Carson's engagement with ancient Greek allows her, as an English-language poet, to draw on the tension between the two languages, to make both their interactions and their differences a source of poetic power.

The triangle figure is also a conspicuous feature of Carson's play with genre. In her hands ‘all the rituals of form are first and foremost an expression of their own limitations, the sign of what leaks out of them’ (Phillips, 117). Juxtaposing genres within a work not only enables her writing to slip between and beyond generic boundaries, it destabilizes those boundaries, defining genres by relation rather than internal coherence. Carson's poems, essays, and even interviews mirror this relation on a larger scale, informing one another as though they were fragments of a single masterwork. This triangular paradigm describes the ‘radical constitution’ of Carson's poetic vision, and the underlying structure of her writing.


The influence of Carson's engagement with ancient Greek, particularly her experience as a translator of fragmentary or unreliable texts, is complex. Carson suggests the role Greek plays in her poems when describing her poetics as ‘[p]ainting with thoughts and facts’: ‘I think probably my painting notion comes out of dealing with classical texts which are, like Sappho, in bits of papyrus with that enchanting white space around them, in which we can imagine all of the experience of antiquity floating but which we can't quite reach’ (‘A Talk’ [‘A Talk with Anne Carson’], 19). For Carson, Greek words are ‘pure, they're older, they're original … They just shine right out at you … It's qualitative, there's more life there’ (‘A Talk,’ 16), whereas ‘English is a bitch’ (Autobiography, 137).1 Comparing languages, Carson figures meaning as a tree. ‘When you're travelling around in Greek words, you have a sense that you're among the roots of meanings, not up in the branches’ (‘A Talk,’ 16). Opposing roots and branches stresses her qualitative distinction between the two languages, one gripping the earth, the other an ever-diminishing series of offshoots that moves both farther from ground and towards the periphery. Even when she is not working from a specific source text, Carson steeps her English in this veneration of Greek, brewing a ‘palpable tension between … classical and contemporary vernaculars’ (Graham, 13). This tension creates the particular energy of Carson's language. Positioned between the two languages, Carson's poetic idiom draws resources from both, making her knowledge of the ancient language a kind of occult authority that invests her English with much of its mystery.

Carson's use of Greek as a resource ranges from her translations and invocations of her literary predecessors to evocations of the subtleties of individual words. At either extreme of this spectrum lie structural triangles. By foregrounding translation as trope, and juxtaposing ancient and contemporary contexts to emphasize both similarity and difference, ‘Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings’ and Autobiography of Red, both built from the fragmentary remains of the work of a classical poet, cultivate relationships between texts.

Carson carves her ‘Mimnermos’ (which appears to be a formal prototype of Autobiography of Red) from the mysteries of unsatisfied curiosity. For example, the fourth fragment, ‘To Tithonos (God's Gift)’, is single-handedly incomplete.

They (on the one hand) made his chilly tears immortal
neglecting to tell him
                              his eyes were not.

(Plainwater, 5)

The elegiac fragment (Carson's imitation of the Greek elegiac couplet extends the hexameter first line by a syllable—precisely the length of the negating prefix of ‘immortal’—and splits the catalectic second line in two) encapsulates the mythic narrative in which it is embedded. Tithonos, who was granted immortality but not the endless youth that would make eternity a blessing, mistakes the relation between the ephemeral quantity of life and its equally fugitive quality. Tears and eyes take the place of life and youth respectively in the fragment, suggesting the longevity of his regret and his bodily decay. Syntax also decays—around the parenthesis. Carson calls attention to this fact in the essay component of the sequence:

Tithonos is someone stranded in a technicality. In his case it is syntax … that shapes the human predicament. The poem begins by setting out the first half of an unusually common Greek construction: the particle men (‘on the one hand’) is generally coordinated with the particle de (‘on the other hand’) to create a balanced sentence or two-part remark. It is as if some other side of Tithonos's story were about to be set in motion and carry him on past petrification. Sadly this does not happen. Of course, the fragment may be incomplete. But then so is Tithonos.

(Plainwater, 16)

The other side of the story leaves a gap, tantalizing in part because in the translation the co-ordinating phrase could attach to the subject ‘[t]hey’ (suggesting perhaps that Aurora, Tithonos's divine seducer, was of another mind), the verb ‘made,’ or the entire predicate. Carson situates her translation between the complete text suggested by the fragment that survived and the contemporary experience of fragmentary insufficiency. Insufficiency becomes part of a new whole, implying its lost completion in ‘that enchanting white space … in which we can imagine all of the experience of antiquity floating but which we can't quite reach’ (‘A Talk,’ 19). Supplying this imagining, Carson mediates between text and white space.

The poetic structure that results from Carson's mediation is, like eros, ‘an issue of boundaries … In the interval between reach and grasp, … the absent presence of desire comes alive’ (Eros, 30). Into this gap, Carson inserts her ‘essay, in some degree historical’ (‘The Matrix Interview,’ 12) and a meditation on what has been lost in the form of an imagined, three-part interview. This generic triangle mirrors a temporal one. Where the essay provides a historical frame for ‘the difference that hedonism makes’ (Plainwater, 15), modern details mark the interviews as cultivated anachronism. The interviewer invokes Freud and Foucault and segues into a discussion of a psychoanalyst in New York, while the poet speaks of his apartment, telephones, headlights. Following similar tracks in his analysis of ‘Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros’ (Carson's translation of the Geryoneis in Autobiography of Red), Ian Rae writes that this mix of details incorporates ‘foreign elements into fixed narratives and [refuses] the smooth transition of Greek into English’ (24). When ‘Carson inserts anachronistic details … into the gaps of Stesichoros' narrative’ or ‘combines glimpses of ancient and modern narratives’ she creates ‘perspectival shifts’ (24) which challenge the fixity of the narrative.

Friction develops where combining and shifting meet. The former attempts to bring the ancient and modern narratives together while the latter requires that they remain apart for perspective to shift between them. This friction acts as Carson's ‘third component’, ‘marking that two are not one’ (Eros, 16). Translation thus invokes metaphor's ‘ability to hold in equipoise two perspectives at once’ (Eros, 73).

Translation's dual perspective (temporal, linguistic) recalls the erotic origin of Carson's triangle figure. Carson describes the way the lover's ‘desiring mind’ shifts between ‘two poles of response,’ between ‘the ideal’ (union with the beloved) and ‘the actual’ (the beloved's absence). ‘Triangulation makes both present at once by a shift of distance … the people do not move. Desire moves. Eros is a verb’ (Eros, 17). Temporal distance shifts when Carson translates, but distance remains as an integral part of a translation defined in terms of an essential lack. A perfect (i.e. complete and accurate) translation remains unattainable owing to the (current) fragmentary state of her source material, but while the distance between the two languages prohibits their conflation, it can be bridged. Carson, like desire, bridges the gap between fragment and restoration, between Greek and English. She projects the possibility of fulfilment on its lack.

Carson provides insight into the creative tension that resides in the rift between Greek and English when explaining the Greek connective particle kai. The particle, which ‘means and usually’ but ‘if there's two of them both and or either/or,’ contains the seemingly oppositional actions of combining or shifting between, holding things separate (‘Anne Carson,’ 28). This ambidexterity is an ‘aspect of Greekness that's fixed in their language that we can't get. We have to decide between and and either/or. For them they're just two sides of one coin—as soon as you think into that fact you realize that the world could be completely other than it seems. There are a lot of those little things in Greek’ (‘Anne Carson,’ 28-29): xenia (ξενία) and pros (πρός), for example. For the conventional translator, a double kai means a decision must be made between two possible and generally incompatible ways of rendering the construction into English. Either choice closes off an element of potential meaning conveyed by the Greek. Creating and maintaining this resonance defines the influence of Greek on Carson's poetics. The ability to defer that fatal choice is ‘what the Greek experience gives—the faith that there's always another corner in a word or in a thought that you haven't gotten to yet’ (‘Anne Carson,’ 29). Carson explores this faith in relation to the two examples given above, pros and xenia, and their oscillations.

According to ‘Short Talk: On Major and Minor’ (Short Talks, 28), prepositions are ‘[m]ajor things,’ presumably because they are the semantic equivalent of Carson's third term, connecting circuits that characterize the relationships between words. Translation makes one acutely aware of the power that inheres in prepositions. For example, the Greek preposition pros, ‘[w]hen used with the accusative case, … means “toward, upon, against, with, ready for, face to face, engaging, concerning, touching, in reply to, in respect of, compared with, according to, as accompaniment for”’ (Economy, viii). Carson illustrates the dilemma of selecting from this catalogue by pointing to John the Evangelist's use of pros to indicate the relationship between God and The Word. ‘“And The Word was with God” is how the usual translation goes,’ which raises a translator's question, ‘What kind of withness is it?’ (Economy, viii). Carson asks the same question confronting similar subject matter in the section of ‘The Truth about God’ titled ‘God's Christ Theory.’

God had no emotions but wished temporarily
to move in man's mind
as if He did: Christ.
Not passion but compassion.
Com—means ‘with.’
What kind of withness would that be?
Translate it.
I have a friend named Jesus
from Mexico.
His father and grandfather are called Jesus too.
They account me a fool with my questions about salvation.
They say they are saving to move to Los Angeles.

(Glass, Irony and God 51)

The poem revolves around a prepositional prefix. The prefix com- has fewer potential meanings than pros, but its role is the same, it initiates a question of ‘withness’ that triangulates into familiar territory as a focus on the significance of the relationship between the juxtaposed terms and contexts. The prefix effects a semantic shift on the substantive which it modifies. Passion assumes its aspect as strong emotion in light of the first line, but its primary sense of suffering remains equally visible in the reference to Christ. ‘Not passion but compassion’ implies that one kind of ‘withness’ conjoins these dualities to create a new whole: strong emotion with suffering. ‘Translate it’ echoes the function of the prefix by linking the poem's two narratives. Double vision multiplies. Language shifts first, its duality emphasized physically by the space created in the break between lines 8 and 9. Jesus splits. The English pronunciation carries us back to a biblical context, the Spanish forward to a contemporary one, the name a fulcrum between the poem's conjoined narratives. Three generations of Jesus form a trinitarian analogue to the father and son above, and spiritual ‘salvation’ returns as economic thrift (‘saving’) and emphasizes the heavenly overtones of a desired destination named Los Angeles.

Sustained similarity suggests some shared identity between the two narratives rooted in their patrilineal, vicarious frames, as though the mortal analogue enables a greater understanding of the divine—reversing the direction of the anti-apotheosis, or incarnation, described in the first stanza. Carson maintains the resonance of the question of ‘withness,’ of relation, by allowing the intractable difference in scale to remain. Rather than resolving difference, Carson compels ‘you [to] think of the world through [its] lens for a while’ so that ‘everything is slightly different’ (‘Anne Carson,’ 29). ‘“If to you the invisible were visible,” says Simonides to his audience, “you would see God.” But we do not see God and a different kind of visibility has to be created by the watchful poet’ (Economy, 58). For the watchful Carson, the way translation catalyses a preposition is sufficient raw material to create this vision.

The precondition for reading Carson seems to be to accept that every significance (or insignificance) is potentially a unit of exchange for its opposite, or for an alternate from a wide range of possibility opened by her liminal perspective. Desire for knowledge of the unknown opposite or a desire to possess all alternatives leads to an ineffable disturbance, a constant shifting in which decisions about what you will or will not exchange loom. In effect, Carson evokes in her readers a desire for a stereoscopic vision. The stereoscope is Carson's metaphor for making the ‘difference between what is and what could be visible. The ideal is projected on a screen of the actual’ (Eros, 17) in a vision that defers the need to exchange one thing for another, instead comprehending all options and creating a multitude of potential relations between them. Prepositions such as pros (or the prefix com-) concentrate this desire into a liminal syntactic position. Carson mediates on their resulting vitality, and their propensity for disturbing shifts, in ‘By God.’

Sometimes by night I don't know why
I awake thinking of prepositions.
Perhaps they are clues.
‘Since by Man came Death.’
I am puzzled to hear that Man is the agent of Death.
Perhaps it means
Man was standing at the curb
and Death came by.
Once I had a dog
would go with anyone.
Perhaps listening for
little by little the first union.

(Glass, 41)

Because the repeated, speculative ‘perhaps’ links the readings of the preposition to an encompassing uncertainty, resisting resolution, the cause-and-effect that implies Man's responsibility for Death is reduced to a chance encounter and sin shifts towards coincidence. Like the dog, the preposition has no loyalty; it pushes around corners listening for, perhaps seeking, union. Prepositions insist on remaining clues, not evidence. In Carson's hands they become unstable focal points where the significance of the words they link depends on an endlessly deferred question of relationship. Meaning resides in the cusp.

Carson maximizes a similar potential for inversion or exchange contained in the word xenia. The word, ‘[u]sually translated “hospitality” or “guest-friendship” or “ritualized friendship,”’ designates a ‘mode of gift exchange’ founded on ‘reciprocation and the assumption of perpetuity’ (Economy, 13). As ‘either gifts given or gifts received,’ xenia formed ‘a kind of connective tissue between giver and receiver’ (Economy, 18). This word—by invoking perpetual reciprocation, a connective tissue of exchange that has its own reciprocal connective life—neatly accommodates Carson's poetic triangulations.

The mysterious, desired being known as ‘Anna Xenia’ in ‘The Fall of Rome: A Traveller's Guide’ mirrors the poem's speaking ‘I’ and turns reciprocity inward. In light of the discussion of xenia in Economy, the name Anna Xenia seems synonymous with alternative persona. Xenia, along with its cognate xenos, which can be either host or guest or stranger, reverberates in a travel narrative, and Anna translates Anne into an Italian context. This twinning appears physically in the form of the second section:

Anna Xenia.

(Glass, 73)

The journey, serving as both the geographic equivalent of translation and familiar topos of self-discovery, divides the I from Anna Xenia but is also the link between them.

An oblique Narcissus image performs a similar doubling when Anna Xenia first ‘appears.’

First meeting.
Pacing the sidewalk in front of my hotel
in a sweat, will she look different? do I look
different? what if I don't recognize—perhaps
she is here already!—I wheel:
She is. Smiling hard.
Holding five gigantic red flowers
upside down (Roman custom?) at which
I clutch,
all language vanished from my mind.

(Glass, 76)

Though the flowers (red flowers, echoing forward to Autobiography of Red), not Anna, are upside down, they appear to be mirrored in a horizontal surface. Anna seems to be the implied holder, but the speaker's clutch seeps into the implication as they are linked in a Carsonian moment of exchange. In the verbal fiat of the seventh line (‘She is.’), the floating verb appears to ignite the speaker's desiring mind and to create Anna ex nihilo. The third line develops the impression of co-dependence between the I and Anna by breaking into the parallel questions of difference—Anna will look different to the degree that the I looks different. Throughout the sequence, Carson's speaker projects her own self-examination onto a generalized ‘stranger’ (‘That stranger was myself!’ [104])—and the word ‘stranger,’ as one possible translation of xenos, furthers the impression of symbiosis between the speaker and Anna. In an interview with Dean Irvine, Carson connects this kind of alienation of self (alien as xenos) to travel narratives as a shared ‘compulsion to find that quality, that structuralists call estrangement, which is a way of getting slightly outside the membrane of your own normal life so you can look back at it’ (‘Dialogue,’ 82).

The effect is another kind of juxtaposition, another means of creating a cusp between the ‘normal’ and the unknown or occult to invest the poem with a dual focus. Like many of Carson's poems, the structure of ‘The Fall of Rome’ seems borrowed from the painter Pergino's method of rendering perspective, as described in Carson's other mysterious Anna poem ‘Canicula di Anna’:2

In perspective
he applied
the novel rule
of two centers of vision.

(Plainwater, 77)

The painter chooses
where to stand
and the ritual
totters forward.

(Plainwater, 80)

Carson reverses the painter's trick of perspective that allows parallel lines to meet on the horizon. She begins from that illusion of connection and looks back along the lines that radiate from her position to dual centres of vision. Like Simonides, Carson paints ‘a picture of things that moves inclusively over the negative and the positive … evoking the absent in order to measure it against the present’ (Economy, 103).


Carson assumes another kind of liminal position, and inscribes another triangle, when she makes genre disappear into sui generis.3 Her ability to override genre boundaries by creating ‘dazzling hybrids’ (Rehak, 36) extends her faith that there is ‘always another corner in a word or in a thought that you haven't gotten to yet’ (‘Anne Carson,’ 29). Lyric intensity ripples through the strong narrative frameworks of her poems, and she often binds both to an interpretive context or genre, such as an essay.4 In Autobiography of Red, for example, she adopts the three images of red in the fragments of Stesichoros that she takes as source matter—the place of Geryon's birth,5 the poppy that he resembles in the moment of dying, and the blood he loses—and infuses the colour into her entire book. She frames her Geryon between a chthonogenetic approach to the place name that makes Geryon born of red and the poppy metaphor that marks the moment of his death. As a result, the blood Herakles spills in Stesichoros becomes an emblem of Geryon's meditation on the question of his possible mortality, immortality, and lineage. Translated by Carson it becomes one of a sequence of red emblems for inner life. The lyric intensity built through repetitions of these red images takes on increasing structural importance when prefaced by an essay (‘Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?’) on the power of adjectives to fix or to release ‘being.’ The narrative frame, in turn, builds relations that not only establish connections within the narrative but reach beyond it to connect it with the essay and the appendices. The volcano is the exemplar. An image of a boundary between interior and exterior, a normally placid surface punctuated by intense bursts from its core, it mirrors the pressure that builds within Geryon himself, his interior always threatening, or promising, to surface. It also mirrors the structural relationship between narrative and lyric in the book's central romance. The image culminates in the concluding interview with the poet's suggestion that, in Erytheia, ‘there is a link between geology and character’ (Autobiography, 149). In effect, Carson positions herself on a generic dividing line that defines both individual limits and greater unity, and her genres threaten to erupt across their local boundaries and make each an inherent part of the other.

‘TV Men: Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the Set of The Peloponnesian War’ takes advantage of the tensions created when generic juxtapositions reveal a striking thematic contiguity. Men in the Off Hours begins with an essay called ‘Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War’ where Carson distinguishes between the historian's perspective above ordinary time and the essayist's perspective within time. Carson moves between the two perspectives, and their relation to war, until she reaches a point of connection that reduces the beginnings of the Peloponnesian War to a single mark: ‘Time embraces youth, youth embraces war. See the circles fit one upon the other. See them move and slip, turning around a center which becomes gradually emptier, gradually darker, until it is black as a mark on the wall’ (Men, 7). Carson locates her poem between the historian's perspective and the essayist's in order to dramatically perform a similar convergence.

Behind the appearance of conversation lurks the choral movement of a Greek tragedy. From the modern perspective, Thucydides becomes Woolf's pageant director Miss La Trobe ‘pacing to and fro between the leaning birch trees’ with her ‘abrupt manner’ and ‘her rapid decisions barked out in guttural accents’ in Between the Acts (Men, 48). Thucydides' directions for pacing parallel the structure of the strophe and antistrophe in a choral ode: ‘Begin right with the right foot, left with the left, each time nine steps right to left and back again’ (Men, 115). He dictates a ‘tense,’ ‘colder’ tone to Woolf, whose lines amount to a definition of economic ‘war costs’ and an enumeration of those costs for the First World War. Carson's essay on ‘Ordinary Time’ seems everywhere present, defining Thucydides' external control in opposition to Woolf's participation as an actor on the stage, or sound stage:

T: You're looking for the tone, that's fatal. Think visionary. Try again from ‘death.’

VW: … death, property damage, reduced production, war relief and the like. For example, direct costs of the European War 1914-1918 are estimated at $186,333,637,097 and indirect costs at

T: Keep the tension.

VW [voice rising]: $151,646,942,560 bringing the total war bill to $337,980,579,657 (calculated in U.S. dollars) for all participants!

(Men, 116)

Through a compromise of genre, Carson creates a balance. Her third component, drama, is home to neither of the participants. Thucydides attempts to coax Woolf through the ceremonial, formal movement of the Greek tragedy into a dispassionate report which ‘should under no circumstances sound tragic’ (Men, 116), a historian's detached report that is at odds with her position in the centre, as a participant on the stage. The contrast between the director's attention to minutiae and the startling enormity of the numbers spoken by the actor—imagine their length, their gravity, when voiced—pushes beyond the economic costs of war to the human. At the poem's end, Woolf's final lines reach towards human significance, consequence (‘Notwithstanding these figures, the First World War was fought mainly on credit … Hence the Second World War’ [Men, 117]), while Thucydides attempts to control the presentation, the ‘strip of light’ (Men, 117) that illuminates his set. Carson's poems produce illumination when perspectives comment on one another in this way: one provides the necessary distance of an ordered frame while the other gives an intimate proximity that produces meaning on a human scale. The poem occupies a position between—marking the two as not one, yet making their necessary intimacy visible.


On a larger scale, this mediation—this triangulation—electrifies the spaces between Carson's various texts, subsuming them within a single, gap-riddled whole. For example, ‘Short Talk: On Walking Backwards’ forms a nexus for one of Carson's recurring images.

My mother forbade us to walk backwards. That is how the dead walk, she would say. Where did she get this idea? Perhaps from a bad translation. The dead, after all, do not walk backwards but they do walk behind us. They have no lungs and cannot call out but would love for us to turn around. They are victims of love, many of them.

(Short Talks, 35)

Carson alludes to this poorly translated text in an interview with John D'Agata.

Homer talks about how people are situated in time. He says they have their backs to the future, facing the past. If you have your face to the past, you just look at the stuff that's already there and take what you need. It's not the same as us, facing the future, where we have to think about that … then turn around and get it and bring it here, bring it in front of us.

(Carson, ‘A Talk,’ 17)

In Carson's description, the dead of our past, did walk backward, in the sense that they were oriented ‘backward’ in time. Recalling both Homer and, as the poem ends, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Carson has thought about that past and brought it forward. When she recalls the image in the context of ‘The Fall of Rome’ she connects it to her topos of the journey as a narrative of self-discovery: ‘A journey … / begins with a voice // calling your name out / behind you. / This seems a convenient arrangement’ (Glass, 75). There are other examples of similarly suggestive interconnections. Anna of ‘Canicula di Anna’ parallels Anna Xenia as an object of desire who seems, at times, more than part fiction. Connecting the dead dog at the beginning of ‘Kinds of Water’ with the dogs of ‘Canicula di Anna’ and the absent, dead, red dog of the Geryoneis might reveal a fascinating canine leitmotif, particularly in light of the implied metamorphosis with which ‘Kinds of Water’ ends. When applied to the internal consistency of this unique mental world, Carson's description of the poet who creates ‘a different kind of visibility’ reads as a statement of intent.

The poet's metaphorical activity puts him in a contrafactual relation to the world of other people and ordinary speech. He does not seek to refute or replace that world but merely to indicate its lacunae, by positioning alongside the world of things that we see an uncanny protasis of things invisible, although no less real. Without poetry, these two worlds remain unconscious of one another.

(Economy, 58-59)

Carson possesses a kind of oracular vision that stems from her ability to bridge worlds and to confer her perception of ‘things invisible’ by plotting their relationship to the visible. No hard boundaries exist between Carson's critical and poetic work because each begins from her characteristic liminal position ‘[f]rom which … certain lines become visible’ (Plainwater, 93). The dialogue she creates across the gaps in perception defines her generic and textual boundaries by causing ‘the circuit-points to connect’ between texts so that ‘perception leaps’ (Plainwater, 16).

Sappho's fragment 31 makes the ‘radical constitution of desire visible’ by figuring it as a triangle. For Anne Carson, eros's triangular structure is bound to the liminal positions—between Greek and English, lyric and narrative—from which she explores the wider, more Socratic, implications of desire. According to Diotima (as reported in the Symposium by Socrates via Aristodemus via Appolodorus via Plato): ‘“eros is the whole desire of good things and of being happy”’—including the love of philosophy and the love of love itself (Symposium, 36).

Carson's preface to Eros the Bittersweet recalls this wide definition of desire by referring to the man in Kafka's ‘The Top,’ who, according to Carson, ‘has become a philosopher (that is, one whose profession is to delight in understanding) in order to furnish himself with pretexts for running after tops’ (Eros, xii). ‘To catch a top still spinning makes him happy’ (Eros, xi). In terms of Diotima's description, however, it is Carson's penchant for liminal positions that fundamentally identifies her with eros. Born to Poros [Resource] and Penia [Poverty] (Plato, 33), Eros exists at a nexus between beautiful and ugly, good and bad, mortal and immortal. Always between, eros's lack is universal, defined by the desire to possess not just a person or a thing but ‘good things.’ Change its immediate object and it remains essentially unchanged. It is this unchanging desire (and delight, the pursuit of knowledge intersecting with happiness as it does, briefly, for Kafka's philosopher) for her immediate subject that Carson's poetics tap for their unique, and characteristically erotic, power. Borrowing eros's radical constitution, Carson writes as though she were eros herself.


  1. The line properly belongs to the mother of Ancash, Geryon's rival for Herakles' erotic attention in Autobiography of Red, and the context of second-language acquisition but it does suggest something of the branching idiosyncrasies of English represented in the arboreal image Carson employs below. See ‘A Talk,’ 16.

  2. The title proves difficult to translate. ‘Canicula’ is a first-declension Latin noun meaning ‘a little bitch,’ in either the naïve or abusive sense. Anna is self-explanatory, but the Italian ‘di’ complicates matters because it can be an adjective (some), a conjunction (and, than), or a preposition (of, some, than, from, with, for, on, in, about, at, to, by). Many of these possibilities are suggestive.

  3. Many of the initial attempts to understand Carson's work have focused on genre. Play between genres, particularly in Autobiography of Red, is the focus of Ian Rae's ‘Dazzling Hybrids,’ the first sustained attempt at a reading of Carson's poetics, while D'Agata (see Carson, ‘A Talk’), Lennon, and Sutherland (twice) have challenged the blurred line between essay and poem, or between prose and poetry, in Carson's work.

  4. Carson's response to the question ‘Why is The Beauty of the Husband called a fictional essay?’ is that ‘calling [something] an essay means that it's not just a story but a reflection on that story, which is also a way of making it less personal or not only personal. But I also just like the absolute inanity of calling anything a fictional essay. Something about that appeals to me.’ (‘Anne Carson,’ 33).

  5. Geryon lived on an island called Erytheia (which is an adjective meaning simply “the red place”) (Autobiography, 5).

Works Cited

Carson, Anne. ‘Anne Carson: Beauty Prefers an Edge.’ Interview with Mary Gannon. Poets and Writers Magazine 29:2 (March/April 2001), 26-33.

———. Autobiography of Red. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1999 [New York: Knopf 1998].

———. ‘Dialogue without Sokrates: An Interview with Anne Carson.’ Interview with Dean Irvine. Scrivener 21 (1997), 80-87.

———. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999.

———. Eros the Bittersweet. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive 1998 [Princeton: Princeton University Press 1986].

———. Glass, Irony and God. New York: New Directions 1995.

———. ‘The Matrix Interview.’ Interview with Mary di Michele. Matrix 49, 10-17.

———. Men in the Off Hours. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2000.

———. Plainwater. Toronto: Vintage Canada 2000 [New York: Knopf 1995].

———. Short Talks. London, Ont: Brick Books 1998 [1992].

———. ‘A Talk with Anne Carson.’ Interview with John D'Agata. Brick 57 (Fall 1997), 14-22.

Cook, Eleanor. Review of Economy of the Unlost.University of Toronto Quarterly 70:1 (Winter 2000/1), 327-28.

Graham, Jorie. ‘An Introduction to Anne Carson.’ Brick 57 (Fall 1997), 13.

Lennon, Brian. ‘What It's Like to Be Red.’ Boston Review of Books 5:4 (May 1998). <

Phillips, Adam. ‘Fickle Contracts: The Poetry of Anne Carson.’ Raritan 16:2 (Fall 1996), 112-19.

Plato. Symposium. Trans Seth Benardete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2001.

Rae, Ian. ‘“Dazzling Hybrids”: The Poetry of Anne Carson.’ Canadian Literature 166 (Autumn 2000), 17-41.

Rehak, Melanie. ‘Things Fall Together.’ New York Times Magazine, 26 March 2000, 36-39.

Sutherland, Fraser. ‘Addressing the Empress.’ Review of Autobiography of Red,Economy of the Unlost, and Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson. Literary Review of Canada 8:9 (November 2000), 7-8.

———. ‘It Takes Two to Tango.’ Review of The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, by Anne Carson. Globe and Mail, 10 February 2001, D2.

Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972 [1953].

Priscilla Long (review date October 2001)

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SOURCE: Long, Priscilla. “Literate Obsessions.” Women's Review of Books 19, no. 1 (October 2001): 14-15.

[In the following review, Long evaluates Carson's examination of the roles of desire and truth in relationships in The Beauty of the Husband.]

Anne Carson's seventh book, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos is a poem about an erotic relationship that proceeds from adolescent fixation to post-divorce continuing fixation. Carson is a classical scholar as well as a poet, and her intense and synthesizing erudition, here brought to bear on the subject of desire, is partly what makes her such a thrilling read. She moves easily from Duchamp to Degas to Demeter, the mythical mother who, like the mother here, is dead set against her daughter's disastrous fling with Hades. In The Beauty of the Husband, the mother's opposition to her daughter's crazy boyfriend is futile. At fifteen, the daughter says, “I raised my bedroom window creak by creak and went out to meet him / in the ravine, traipsing till dawn in the drenched things …”

The relationship continues for decades, replete with extravagant gesture; sex; sudden withdrawal; lies; romance; war games (the husband's obsession); infidelity; jealousy; love letters from Rio full of longing but without a return address; fights; plagiarism; separations; reunions; etc. At one point the daughter, now wife, says, “If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you.” The husband replies, “Why.” The wife: “To tell it to.”

The poem is divided into 29 tangos. What is a tango? Here, a tango is a numbered, titled section of poetry with very long lines alternating with very short lines, as if shaped by the movements of tango dancers. (Somewhere Carson says they are couplets reminiscent of those written in antiquity.) A quote from the poet John Keats opens each section, and Keats' aphorism, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,” frames The Beauty of the Husband. As Carson writes in Tango II,

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him
          from early girlhood to late
          middle age
and the divorce decree came in the
Beauty. No great secret …
Beauty convinces. You know
          beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

(p. 9)

Beauty convinces, but the truth (which is beauty) is not so simple. The poet writes, “Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony / because this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive.” This “fictional essay” is as much a layered (and elusive) exploration of the nature of truth within a relationship as it is a poem about desire. The husband, says the wife, “lied about everything. / Money, meetings, mistresses, / the birthplace of his parents, / the store where he bought shirts, the spelling of his own name.” But the ground shifts, and the wife's voice is not the only one. There is Ray, the couple's gay friend; there is the husband; there is Keats. Even the quotations from Keats that precede each tango become increasingly obscure and suspect until we arrive at, “O Isle spoilt by the Milatary / (words found by John Keats scratched on the glass of his lodgings at Newport on the night of April 15, 1817).”

The Beauty of the Husband is a shifty thing, its shiftiness hinted early on when the wife tells us that when her husband left, he

… took my notebooks.
… He liked writing, disliked having
          to start
each thought himself.
Used my starts to various ends, for
          example in a pocket I found a
          letter he'd begun
(to his mistress at that time)
containing a phrase I had copied
          from Homer. …

(p. 9)

The book might itself be one of these purloined notebooks, since what begins in the wife's voice ends in the husband's. In a final, post-tango passage, he says: “To tell a story by not telling it— / dear shadow, I wrote this slowly. / Her starts! / My ends. / But it all comes round / to a blue June moon. …” For an eerie moment, especially considering the numerous references to lying, stealing and the elusive nature of truth scattered throughout the poem, I considered the possibility that the husband is writing the whole thing in his wife's voice. “Some tangos pretend to be about women,” he continues, “but look at this. / Who is it you see / reflected small / in each of her tears. / Watch me fold this page now so you think it is you.”

Two identities, feuding and fused. And when identities are fused, things become a bit confusing. Of a Degas print showing two figures we read, “His hand to brush a mark from his face it was her face.”

The wife claims that the husband plagiarizes her. For example, after they first made love “‘the real way’ which we had not yet attempted / though married six months. / Big mystery. No one knew where to put their leg …” she writes a Short Talk “(‘On Defloration’) which he stole and had published / in a small quarterly magazine.” Now, Anne Carson has published a series of “Short Talks” one of which is titled “On Defloration.” The wife's “Short Talk” plagiarized by the husband and Anne Carson's “Short Talk” both refer to defloration taking place in Venice, where (says the wife) “neither of us had ever been.” Who is the wife? Who is the husband? Who is Anne Carson?

Carson's myriad cultural references and literary allusions do not make this work in the least bit obscure, and previous familiarity with this or that myth, philosopher, battle, or poet is not a prerequisite for entering into the drama as it unfolds. An allusion to Plato in the title of Tango VII—“BUT TO HONOR TRUTH WHICH IS SMOOTH DIVINE AND LIVES AMONG THE GODS WE MUST (WITH PLATO) DANCE LYING …”—does not require me to go to Plato, though I'm intrigued and could if I wanted to. I have not read Keats (who is quoted at every turn) since high school and did not go back to him. But I did buy a tango CD. I did see the Sally Potter film Tango Lesson. I considered the possibility that The Beauty of the Husband is the Poem Version of Tango Lesson, which is about a passionate relationship, which is narrated by the filmmaker who plays herself, which is divided into sections—Lesson 1, Lesson 2, etc.—and which has layers of reality mediated by the fact that you are looking at a film about a relationship in which the couple is together making a film about the relationship. Substitute writing for filmmaking and you arrive at something like The Beauty of the Husband.

Carson's literate obsessions could spur me to pick up Keats again, or go to Socrates, or to Beckett, or look at a particular monoprint by Degas, or learn to tango, or go to Rio, or study the history of ancient Greece. Her capacious intellect (and the classical training that saturates her works) keeps me entertained, but more than that, it functions to set the drama of the love-battle within a very wide framework, adding mirrors both cultural and historical to scene after scene until you start to feel that this drama of obsessed love has been reenacted repeatedly throughout human history.

At one point, for example, during an infidelity/jealousy episode, the husband is playing one of his war games, setting up “the Battle of Epipolai,” which took place in 413 BCE. Confused identities (enemy mistaken for friend, friend for enemy) turn this nighttime battle between Athenians and Syracusans into a bloodbath:

… [C]onstantly shouting the password
they revealed it to the enemy and
          with this word
coming at them wrongly in the
                    dark the Athenians panicked.
Friend fell upon friend.
It was like a beautiful boiling dance
                    where your partner
and stabs you to death

(p. 119)

The battle mirrors the tango which in turn mirrors the passionate, dangerous relationship which is the subject of the poem. At the core: fused, confused identities.

Yet the voices are distinct. as in all her works, Carson evokes variegated human voices with the ear of a master. There's a lot of talk, very few dialogue tags (he said, she said) and, despite possible identity questions concerning which character is “writing” the lines, the wife's lines are unmistakably her own as the husband's lines are his own. Here, the wife, protesting her husband's weekend-long war-game sessions with his “pale wrathful friends,” begins this exchange:

I hate it.
Do you.
Why play all night.
The time is real.
It's a game.
It's a real game.
Is that a quote.
Come here.
I need to touch you.

(p. 10)

The husband is a charming and outrageous figure and his astonishing chutzpah, salted with eloquence and total unreliability, make him a slightly-larger-than-life Antagonist, worthy of any tango or fictional essay, or whatever this is. (Nowhere is it called a poem, though it looks like a poem.) This husband was

A man who after three years of
          separation would take his wife
          to Athens—
for adoration, for peace,
then telephone New York every
          night from the bar
and speak to a woman
who thought he was over on 4th
working late.

(p. 99)

Or, some time later, the husband writes to his now-former wife, announcing the birth of his first son and “marriage to the mother”:

This is a tragedy.
There are people following me
          around, just like you said.
I miss you desperately love you
          always am
sorry for everything. It all
happened so fast.

(p. 133)

Anne Carson is happily transforming poetry, fiction, essay and scholarly literary criticism with each new work. She overlaps genres (calling one work a “fictional essay,” another “a novel in verse”), or perhaps she writes as she pleases without regard to genre. “To break a limitation is to stay human,” describes infidelity in The Beauty of the Husband, but it could just as well refer to literary conventions. Two or three of her books mix scholarly essays with poetry. She writes just as easily about Emily Bronte or about volcanoes or about greasy spoons in Rio as she does about Greek literature or myth. Reading her is like entering some exotic town where Gertrude Stein can be found boozing with Plato, where Auden is dripping his egg on Sappho's shirt. I could live in this town for a long time.

David Baker (review date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Baker, David. “Story's Stories.” Kenyon Review 24, no. 2 (spring 2002): 150-67.

[In the following excerpt, Baker explores how elements of narrative are essential to Men in the Off Hours, calling the work “a sustaining achievement.”]

Poets use stories to tell stories. Inside, outside, or alongside the particular narrative of a poem, other frames of reference inevitably operate. This is a feature of serious poetry that especially attracts and compels me—not just the local situation of a poem, but those larger stories, too, obvious or suppressed, mythological or intimate, active or psychological. How complex, after all, are our local narratives? A lover woos, or is abandoned. Someone grieves. Another complains or accuses or, walking down the street, meditates on a cool autumn evening. The details may vary endlessly, but our stories themselves—or the rhetorical structures of those stories—are relatively few.

A poet's style derives from those local narratives, but perhaps even more from the surrounding, larger schemes he or she brings to bear—the worldly material by which the poet articulates and measures the local matter of a life. This dynamic gives a poem its distinct, and occasionally distinguished, features. Sometimes, as in the richness of baroque and metaphysical poetries, a surface complexity may itself be the dominant story, where the machinations of conceit supply the narrative drama. Sometimes, as in plain-style poems, there is almost no surface, no distinguishing features of a larger scheme, as the poet ushers us transparently toward the archetypal. Always what's fascinating is the manner by which a poet matches stories and styles, the local and any larger narratives. …

If David Bottoms is tuned in to the cable-TV suburbs of the new South, then Anne Carson has cranked up Canada's largest satellite dish to play hundreds of channels at once—from Greek classics to hip comedy, Hollywood noir to self-help. Men in the Off Hours is a really big show. In fact, one group of poems is called “TV Men” and features such guests as Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, and “TV” women like Sappho and Akhmatova. The whole book proceeds in a buzzing and overlapping of input, full of static and vivid outbursts, all 167 pages stacked like an archeology of references, narrative modes, and poetic forms. Just as Thucydides meets Virginia Woolf to parse the nature of war in “Ordinary Time,” then meets her again in a “TV Men” installment on the “set” of the Peloponnesian War, so does Edward Hopper confront Aristotle, and the ancient epitaph-quatrain argue with the interview, and catastrophe collide with sentiment; and so do formalized stanzas bump up against a kind of self-conscious, post-theoretical scattering. She wants to cross-pollinate every epoch, genre, and personality she can conjure. As she says (or someone says) in “TV Men: Lazarus: Director of Photography: Voice-over”), art is a matter of keeping all your channels open:

I put tiny microphones all over the ground
to pick up
the magic
of the vermin in his ten fingers and I stand back to wait
for the miracle.


Anne Carson is herself many things—critic, novelist, classicist, and Canada's most progressive poet in many decades. She is like a performance artist on paper, with that kind of adventurous chutzpah, as hyper as she is brilliant. In the way that both Whitman and Dickinson seem to me wonderfully amateurish, especially compared to the professional bards of their day like Whittier and Lowell, Carson also projects an amateur roughness and daring, though I suspect her poems appeal mostly to academically well-trained professional poets. What, other than its visual line-breaks, makes this flat, prosaic passage a poem?

Freud spent the summer of 1876 in Trieste
researching hermaphroditism in eels.
In the lab of zoologist Karl Klaus
he dissected
more than a thousand to check whether they had testicles.
“All the eels I have cut open are of the tenderer sex,”
he reported after the first 400.
the “young goddesses” of Trieste were proving
it is not permitted
to dissect human beings I have
in fact nothing to do with them,” he confided in a letter.


“Freud (1st draft)” is clean and lucid, just like a report, but works more effectively because of its many tasty ironies: the dissonance between such impersonal rhetoric and an intimate subject; the juxtaposition of clinical surgery and erotic aloneness; the funny, phallic (female!) eels and our pathetic human hero—and the brutality of his confidence. It's fourteen lines with a turn after the eighth. But is it a sonnet? Does it otherwise possess the density, figuration, and rhythmic intensity of poetry? Is it a poem?

How you answer that question will determine how you read this book. In fact, Carson worries about these things too. More than a hundred pages after “Freud (1st draft)” we come across “Freud (2nd draft).” This one's an entirely different story in a similar language and form. But herein lies the project—and the “magic” mentioned earlier—of Anne Carson. A book of poems, a work of history or of art, language itself, each is not an “each” at all but rather part of a long sequence of retakes—palimpsests, overdubs, rubbings. Each of these revisionary tropes applies in her poems. Redoing becomes the core obsession of Men in the Off Hours, as in “Lazarus (1st draft)”: “Actions go on in us, / nothing else goes on. While a blurred and breathless hour / repeats, repeats” (21). Audubon makes a painting so real it replaces birds; the X-ray remnants of nuclear-holocaust victims haunt their war-blown landscape; film revises film; in turn, each narrative rewrites each previous one. “No use being historical / about this planet,” shrugs the director in “TV Men: Lazarus,” “it is just an imitation” (89). History is the matter and manner of our retelling. And so the trope of the mistake, or “error” as Carson reveals in one of her finest poems, “Essay on What I Think about Most,” becomes the central figure of repetition: “Imitation (mimesis in Greek) / is Aristotle's collective term for the true mistakes of poetry” (35). That must be because our errors yield “fear, anxiety, shame, remorse,” each of which in turn impels our obsession to revisit and redo.

The real tragedy that underlies Men in the Off Hours is the death of Carson's mother. The book's last piece, a short prose work entitled “No Epitaph,” finally identifies this “error,” though we are embattled by the scorched earth of other disasters (madness, battle, failure, tyranny) from the book's opening prose piece on the Peloponnesian War. The connection? “Death,” she writes in “Catullus: Carmina,” “makes me think (I said) about soldiers and autumn” (38). Carson's recreation of our “off hours” finally denotes anything but a vacation; it is the reiteration of our flawed or “off” condition. The flaw is our condition, she determines in “Appendix to Ordinary Time”: “Crossouts sustain me now” (166). Men in the Off Hours is a sustaining achievement—loving, inventive, and surprisingly original, given its heavily layered borrowings. It can also be maddening with its headers, footers, scatterings, and blurts; it can be hasty, for Carson is possessed of a quick-shot velocity that sometimes leaves me wanting focus, more time (or space) for meditation; and for all the hubbub of her stories and allusions, I am not sure she always conveys the startling strangeness of the Greek culture she so clearly admires and empathizes with. Or, maybe it is we who are strange. Maybe that is how we are their paraphrase.

Roger Gilbert (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Gilbert, Roger. “Post-Love Poetry.” Michigan Quarterly Review 41, no. 2 (spring 2002): 309-28.

[In the following essay, Gilbert discusses recent works of poetry that explore failed romantic relationships and argues that Carson's The Beauty of the Husband may be “the first true masterpiece of the twenty-first century.”]

The phrase “love poetry” usually evokes early passion, the rhetoric of courtship and seduction, a long tradition of fevered rhyme that runs from Sappho and Catullus, through Donne and Marvell, to a few twentieth-century throwbacks like Millay and Cummings. But there are other kinds of love poetry as well, including the poetry of long-married love practiced by the Brownings, William Carlos Williams, and most recently by Maxine Kumin (The Long Marriage) and Eavan Boland (Against Love Poetry). And then there is what might be called post-love poetry, a strain that explores the messy aftermath of love, its failure to sustain itself and the gaping wounds it leaves behind. This too has an honorable tradition stretching back to such poems of amorous strife as “The Wife of Bath's Tale,” the Dark Lady sonnets, and Paradise Lost, and including in the more immediate past Meredith's Modern Love,The Waste Land, and For Lizzie and Harriet, all of which incorporate wrenching accounts of marital misery. Given the ever-rising divorce rate, the increased pressures on couples to achieve optimal levels of both autonomy and intimacy, and our culture's bottomless appetite for analyzing disaster, it should not be surprising that this latter mode remains alive and flourishing in recent poetry.

Four volumes published in 2001 suggest that the course of true love will run no smoother in the new millennium than it did in the last. All four chart various dissolutions and failures while attributing them to a range of causes, including the predatory nature of desire, the insularity of the self, the disparity between the sexes, and the deceptiveness of beauty. These books also vary sharply in their deployments of metaphor and narrative, and in the degrees of coherence they claim or create for themselves. If eros breeds obsession, several of them manifest a fixation on particular tropes that may itself serve as a measure of love's brutal hold on the imagination. Structurally, the books range between a nearly novelistic continuity and a more scattered topicality. Both in technique and substance, then, these four books suggest that unhappiness in love, as in family life, takes on myriad forms, which may explain why erotic pain draws more poetic attention than joy or contentment. While the happier phases of love still, one hopes, occur, little can be said about them that has not been more eloquently expressed by the mighty dead. About the endless ways in which love can go wrong, we may never run out of new observations.

J. Allyn Rosser's Misery Prefigured is the loosest and most varied of the books under review. Indeed, the vicissitudes of love provide only one of its subjects, which also include memory, illness, death, art, and travel. Nonetheless, Rosser's most compelling poems explore the intersection of gender and desire with exceptional wit and penetration. If Rosser's androgynous nom de plume is intended to conceal her own gender, the poems themselves display it unabashedly, in large part through their alternately tender and sardonic anatomies of the masculine ego. The gender gap and its discontents are Rosser's primary culprits in her poems of failed coupling. Perhaps the most memorable of these is “Square Dance, Fourth Grade,” which treats this ritual trauma (ah, I remember it well!) as a veiled initiation into the terrors of mating:

We just were not ready for this.
Certainly not the freckled boys
with quick tight frowns at once
acquired and instinctive; not the girls,
dead against using the gym
for dancing, against a formal celebration
of otherness—as if we enjoyed it!—
when the natural impulse was to
whack the other in the head
with a book …

Rosser's setting neatly captures the fraught transition from forthright antipathy to tentative attraction that most boys and girls undergo somewhere at the cusp of puberty. Rather than ridiculing their childish phobias, the poem mordantly implies that each sex's visceral revulsion from the other shows some faint intuition of amorous ordeals to come:

Did we sense misery prefigured
in stepping forward and back,
the coupling chant of dosey-do? […]
I hated grasping any boy's hand,
sweaty and rough—more real than mine—
the way the tongue revolts against
a slab of beef tongue: horror in touching
what the thing touching is.

The last three lines show Rosser's special gift for incidental metaphor—here an image with no obvious connection to the poem's conceit that nevertheless deepens its emotional content. The purely physical repugnance these lines so vividly evoke gives way soon enough to less tangible forms of horror, as boys and girls gingerly begin to explore each others' minds as well as bodies: “the more / we bared our souls, the more they / shrank or howled, drew back in mists.” That last word inspires another passing metaphor, this one almost Metaphysical in its compressed complexity and wit: “Some love withheld might have helped, / like highbeams lowered in a fog.” Finally the sexes meet face to face, without the artificial shields of square dances and parked cars, and the result is

like the film my sister loved to watch,
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman—
matched agonies of recognition,
evenly monstrous, haunted, but haunting
mostly for the mutual strangulation
it ended with: hollow-eyed, perfunctory.

This Hollywood Gothic scene of reciprocal murder between alien creatures of equal monstrosity may seem a far cry from the seemingly benign square dance with which the poem begins, yet Rosser implies that it is the inevitable culmination of that first forced taste of otherness. What gives this poem its comic acidity is Rosser's insistence on viewing adult love through the lens of early adolescence, with its campy movies and sweaty rituals. We may think we outgrow the youthful aversion to the opposite sex's strangeness so richly expressed by the primal word “gross,” but this poem suggests we never really leave that dank gymnasium behind.

Like a number of Rosser's poems, “Square Dance, Fourth Grade” ends with some flatly thematic language that lacks the wit and precision of her more metaphorical passages. Her work is most engaging when it gives free rein to her penchant for verbal play and figurative invention. As its Cole Porter title suggests, “Voodoo That You Do” is a bubbly fantasia on lust and loss, with more than a dash of bitters. Excess is its hallmark; the poem overflows with repetitions, variations, internal rhymes:

He wasn't just another one with another one.
This one's words you cradled violently
between your hands, legs, years until they
broke, scalded, clanged off down the hall.
He was ominously unmusical, dressed.
You should have guessed, could not have known.

Throughout the poem restless appositives brilliantly convey the speaker's conflicting impulses toward her callow lover; she is “like a sister, / valet, idiot” who would have “gladly sent him packing, sewn / his lips to [her] cheek.” The poem's most virtuosic set of variations takes off from a standard idiom:

You had to laugh a little, unsuccessfully,
a lot before you could run with abandon,
          weep with abandon, sleep with abandon,
marry, have children with, and divorce abandon
so that when he returned you'd be ready;

The pain of abandonment is hardly lightened by the comic exuberance of Rosser's language. The poem's obsessively recycled and recast phrases starkly evoke the stuttering rhythms of a love that refuses to die no matter how often it is rebuffed.

Perhaps the strangest of Rosser's metaphorical envisionings of love is a mock-allegory entitled “The Quest of the Prell,” whose speaker dreams herself in a playground “beside a green pond, no, massive bottle of Prell Shampoo, / like the one in the commercial where a man's hand drops / a pearl, which slowly sinks through the green murk.” Refreshingly, the male lover's role here is not villainous but heroic, albeit reluctantly so:

And he sighed with a look I knew from somewhere,
as if he'd said What's wrong? and I'd answered Nothing
unconvincingly—a tired, determined look,
suggesting this was yet another test
of love. His quest: to swim the Prell.

Allegorically translated, swimming the Prell means diving into the viscous murk of the female psyche to retrieve some pearl of discontent beyond the woman's own reach. After methodically assigning symbolic attributes to all the playground equipment—“merry-go-round arguments,” “the unbalanced swingset of romance,” etc.—the poem returns to the male gaze, defined not as usual by domination or violence but by grim forebearance:

                                                            I've seen it on every lover
and husband of every last one of my women friends, […]
inheriting that look from every man regarding
every woman, that awful look of resignation
to face the rich green goo of her being;
the hero hardily willing to hold his breath
grimaceless, refrain from muttering Oh, swell,
and blindly dive to retrieve that cultured pearl,
dropped long ago by an unknown man's
unthinking hand (just to prove a point)
into the opaque murk of her self, her very elle[.]

Here as elsewhere Rosser's elaboration of her conceit's minor aspects gets a bit heavy-handed, but her central perception is sharply realized. Unfashionably essentialistic, the poem credits men for their willingness to make the descent into women's emotional depths while gently chiding their thinly veiled distaste for the task. This is one of the few poems in Misery Prefigured whose metaphors do not doom heterosexual love to failure in advance, but merely intimate its absurd difficulty.

Amorous incongruities between men and women supply the central theme for the book's first section, whose poems include (in addition to those I've quoted) “The Sum Contradiction of Our Shades,” which uses paintings by Turner and Cezanne to illustrate the principle of clashing colors and elements that also governs love; “Composite,” a darkly archetypal narrative in which different stages of female maturity merge into a single recurrent story of abuse and acquiescence; and “Renouncing the Tower,” a somewhat doctrinaire critique of phallogocentrism as embodied in the title's Yeatsian image of vertical aspiration. Later sections of the book are less thematically cohesive, but keep coming back to matters of love and gender from a generally disenchanted perspective. Formally Rosser's work moves from short-lined free and loose blank verse to various rhymed stanzas and fixed forms, most prominently the villanelle (three instances) and the sonnet (two). Of these last, the sonnet appears to suit Rosser's talents better, perhaps because she is essentially a poet of wit rather than lyricism. “Heart to India” is a tour-de-force that uses the arbitrary boundaries of an encyclopedia volume to chart erotic pain, while “Lover Release Agreement” takes up the language of contractual law to enact a transfer of sexual property: “Now, whereas I waive rights to his kiss, / the bed you've shared with him has rendered null / his privilege in mine.”

Not all Rosser's poems address the fortunes of love, of course; there are good poems about vision and memory (“Rods and R,” “Missing Person”), friendship (“Before the Sickness Is Official,” “Realism”), pensive walks (“Buffalo Bayou,” “Password,” “Sea and Rain”), and the unlived life (“Sole Blessing,” “The Next Stop Stopping”). There are also slighter, more occasional poems on such topics as a poetry reading, the suburbs, Elvis, and the death of Beckett, some of which might have been omitted with little loss. Rosser shows a weakness for miscellany that sometimes leads her to ramble, as in a poem cataloguing the impossibly specialized contents of a magazine rack (not as amusingly as a recent Roz Chast cartoon). And some of her more ambitious efforts fall flat; of these the most spectacular is the book's long closing poem, “The Brain of the World,” which uses an airplane window to frame an updated and tediously literalized version of Wordsworth's great epiphany on Mount Snowdon, transforming his “mind / That feeds upon infinity” into a vast cloud-brain, complete with cortex, amygdala and pineal gland. Here Rosser's skill at creating witty correspondences clashes with her impulse toward the visionary, resulting in some truly bizarre similes (the brain looks “like old gefilte fish”), while her attempt to conclude on a note of sublimity falters in its generic diction: “The sun streams in, shining and shining.” At its best, however, Misery Prefigured offers a sharp-eyed, unsentimental analysis of the vagaries of desire that keeps a knife-edge balance between humor and pain, wit and insight.

Where gender differences take pride of place in Rosser's account of love's calamities, they have no place at all in Carl Phillips's The Tether—not surprisingly, perhaps, since Phillips is gay. The complete absence of female figures and even pronouns from his book is nonetheless striking, an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop providing the only trace of femininity. Language, poetry, and desire all depend on difference, of course, and so it may be worth asking what takes the place of gender in Phillips's tropology. While his earlier work touched on issues of race (Phillips is the child of an interracial marriage), here those differences too remain invisible. Indeed, Phillips seems intent on distilling difference to its most universal forms in the metaphysical dyads of self/other and body/soul, both of which recur prominently throughout the book. Alongside these abstract dichotomies appears a more tangible division that also plays a key role in The Tether, namely the distinction between humans and animals. Medieval motifs of falconry and hunting pervade the book, along with Ovidian tropes of man-beast hybridity, all of them meant to expose an essential violence within desire.

Yet while The Tether addresses love primarily through the language of myth and archetype, the book subtly displays its anchorage in an autobiographical occasion whose exact contours remain vague, yet whose pressure can be felt in nearly every poem. Perhaps the most direct acknowledgment of the book's experiential basis is its division into sections headed “August-December” and “January-May,” implying that the volume charts a chronological progression of less than a year. The poems themselves maintain a steady intimacy of tone and address that suggests a lover's speech to his partner, yet many details reveal their relationship to be deeply troubled, perhaps in crisis. Hints of betrayal, loss of passion, and infidelity arise without ever taking on concrete weight. Even the place of guilt is elided; a poem states simply “One of us / has betrayed the other.” Phillips is clearly more interested in recording the emotional and philosophical adjustments that ensue than the sordid facts that prompt them.

The tension between occasion and archetype helps to give Phillips's language its distinctively spare texture, at once grounded and elusive. Many poems drift toward allegory without completely renouncing their hold on a literal scene or landscape. The book's first poem, “Luck,” can serve as an example of its technique as well as its subject matter:

What we shall not perhaps get over, we
do get past, until—innocent,
with art for once
not in mind, How did I get here,
we ask one day, our gaze
relinquishing one space for the next
in which, not far from where
in the uncut grass we're sitting
four men arc the unsaid
between them with the thrown
shoes of horses, luck briefly as a thing
of heft made to shape through
air a path invisible, but there …

The opening lines establish the volume's ground tone of fading trauma and its elegiac sense of transition into a new, less radiant yet still livable space. That space is here rendered as a lawn on which men play horseshoes, at once pastoral yet subject to iron laws of chance and contingency. Phillips's remarkably supple syntax plays an important role in his mythologizing of particulars; note the slightly alienating effect of a phrase like “the thrown / shoes of horses,” which also releases the faint animal presence that pervades the book. The poem concludes with another sinuous sentence that wavers between didactic and scenic registers:

Because we are flesh, because
who doesn't, some way, require touch,
it is the unsubstantial—that which can
neither know touch nor be known
by it—that most bewilders,
even if the four men at
play, if asked, presumably,
would not say so, any more
than would the fifth man, busy
mowing the field's far
edge, behind me,
his slow, relentless pace promising
long hours before the sorrow
of seeing him go and,
later still, the sorrow
going, until eventually the difficulty
only is this: there was some.

Phillips's weaving syntax calls to mind the subtle yet potent displacements of Creeley and late James, while achieving a delicately cadenced music entirely his own. Here that syntax twines together the group of blurred figures at play and work with the implicit grief of subsiding love, both of which prove all too dependent on the insubstantial arcs of luck. The poem's last terse clause mingles sorrow and gratitude in the primally ambivalent word “some,” marking a transient felicity that is always welcome and never enough.

A central theme throughout the book is the belated recognition of love and beauty in the very moment of their violation. “Words of Love” begins with the image of a calm lake “made suddenly / more striking for how a wind / just now, coming, spoils it,” and proceeds to translate it into an argument for love's persistence in the face of pain and betrayal:

I have in mind
only how even a least
disturbance, strangely
heightening a thing's
beauty, can at last
define it. Don't
go, I mean,

The conciliatory note struck here is set against an acknowledgment of permanent loss that assumes the characteristic form of an animal at the end of the poem, after the speaker plaintively asks “how will the story end?”

There was, one time, a stag …
And now there isn't,
is there?
And no, he won't come,
ever, back. This is the widening, but
not unbeautiful wake of his having
left us, and this
is the light—
faded slightly—in which
much, still, is possible:
Don't promise—
Don't forget—

A kind of erotic transmutation of the Wordsworthian imperative to “find / Strength in what remains behind,” this poem mourns the departure of a pure, uncompromised love while pointing to the faded light that persists. The book as a whole explores the terms upon which a diminished life can still be lived, terms that depend neither on untenable pledges of future fidelity (“Don't promise”) nor willed dismissals of past acts (“Don't forget”). As his title suggests, Phillips offers a portrait of marriage as a tethering of lives that can survive the death of passion and even trust. The composition of the tether itself, its intricate braid of memory and desire, speech and silence, is the book's primary subject.

A major part of Phillips's inquiry into the afterlife of love entails a sorting out of competing claims, most prominently those of soul and body. He reflects most directly on their ancient rivalry in a poem called “Spoils, Dividing.” Like many poems in the book, this one posits an essential solipsism that divides soul from soul, body from body; the former is a “lantern whose limits / always are only the light of / itself, casting the light / out,” the latter a “mere / story / whose ending, / like the story itself, / is small.” The only image of desire the poem offers is frighteningly predatory:

The hawk's shadow
the zeroed-in-upon prey,
the victim
classically becoming
quite still—
                                                            It is very
like that.

As in many passages of the book, desire figures here as mere animal impulse, divorced from such higher motives as sympathy or duty. Indeed Phillips comes close to a moral nihilism that dissolves all sense of human agency in a sea of conditioned behavior. This is the dark side of his forebearance toward betrayal; body and soul alike must be allowed to pursue their ends, indifferent to the effects they have on others. Even from the prey's point of view, the approach of the hungry animal is strangely reassuring:

I can, almost,
want the hearing and
not knowing which
one—human, animal—
moves, toward me,
the not having
to assign noise a name
more specific than Some
mouths hungry


A more amiable version of this story appears in “Familiar,” in which a dog leaps upon the speaker in a parodically sexual embrace (“I take him into / that part of me / that has always taken the lost / in”). Perhaps because his motives are not carnivorous, the dog seems to figure a more benign relation between bodies and souls than Phillips's other animals. “I / shall help him,” the speaker resolves, acknowledging a realm of mutual care largely missing elsewhere in the book.

For all its plangency, The Tether displays a consistency of tone and manner that ultimately grows a bit wearying. Its narrowness of range may be inseparable from its cumulative power, yet the poems cover the same emotional and thematic ground so often that they eventually blur together. A few stand apart from the continuum thanks to their more sharply defined subjects: these include “The Point of the Lambs,” a parable about healthy and sick sheep segregated in separate barns; “Roman Glass,” an unusually long-lined historical poem that treats Caesar's killing of political rival Pompey as an allegory of amorous betrayal; and “Recumbent,” a homoerotic blason reminiscent of Robert Duncan's “The Torso” but more riddling in its rhetoric. While these poems inhabit a world that includes both history and readers, for the most part The Tether feels like a purely private utterance intended for one pair of ears, and this hushed intimacy is both its limitation and its chief grace. The book ends with the lovers' conversation just getting started: “You / speak first. And I'll answer.”

If most of Phillips's poems seem cut from the same cloth, Jason Shinder's Among Women is an uncut bolt, a book so obsessively through-composed that it approaches the condition of a long poem or lyric sequence while retaining the basic format of a collection. Thus individual poems are not numbered, yet are often stitched together by verbal repetitions—the last line of one becoming the title of the next, for example. Formally too the book announces its coherence; most of the poems are composed in the indented tercets familiar from late Williams, the handful of exceptions employing left-justified one- and two-line strophes. (These latter tend to be shorter and more gnomic in tone, the former more narrative or discursive.) More fundamentally, the book is held together by its unrelenting focus on what we are led to believe is the poet's own psychosexual incapacity, a plight spelled out in graphic and even physiological detail. Shinder himself dissolves the author/speaker distinction by having the book's “I” addressed at one point as “Jason,” and by staging a kind of mock-denial in the first poem:

                    I've never told this story.
                                                  Even at the moment
of dying,
                    I would say
                                                  it was someone else's.

These gestures seem designed to establish the book's confessional integrity, a quality variously lauded on its back cover as “honesty,” “bravery,” “transparency,” and “candor.” Whether and how those virtues can produce good poetry is a question Shinder's book raises more starkly than any work since that of Lowell and Sexton.

Where Phillips discreetly blurs the autobiographical background of his book, Shinder rehearses the facts of his case with excruciating thoroughness. His chief models seem to be the recovery memoir and the therapy session (he edited an anthology called Tales from the Couch: Writers on Therapy). While avoiding clinical terms like “neurosis,” “impotence,” “anhedonia” in favour of more basic words like “fear” and “desire,” Shinder presents a harrowing self-portrait of a man terrified of physical and emotional intimacy, able neither to consummate his sexual relationships nor to give and accept love. The cover painting, Edward Hopper's Excursion into Philosophy, shows a dispirited, fully dressed man sitting at the edge of a sunlit bed on which a half-naked woman lies asleep, visually evoking the impenetrable loneliness at the heart of the book. Another touchstone may be J. Alfred Prufrock, that paragon of indecision and thwarted eros; Among Women is surely meant to echo Eliot's working title “Prufrock among the Women.” Both titles implicitly ask us to feel the difference between the prepositions “among” and “with,” the former implying a fundamental distance the latter does not. The only direct allusion in the book itself is to Robert Creeley, another poet of tortured introspection whose sardonic quip that “To be in love is like going outside / to see what kind of day it is” Shinder quotes without attribution. Compared with the defeatist gloom that surrounds them, Creeley's lines sound almost cheerful in their wry acceptance of amorous risk.

The protagonist's primary lover is a woman named Irene who appears in many poems, offering herself with patience and generosity despite her partner's chronic detumescence. Here is one abortive encounter:

                                        Excited and wanting
more than life
                    and longer
                                        to fuck her, a wave
from the deepest surf
                    of the blood
                                        gathers itself up inside
and then
                    abruptly stops.

These lines are effective less for their embarrassing candor than for the accuracy with which they record the faulty commerce between spirit and flesh. Their staggered strophes establish the basic rhythm governing both the emotional and bodily phases of the speaker's affliction, a tentative probing toward otherness inevitably followed by a falling back to zero. Where The Tether explores a wounded yet still breathing intimacy, Among Women plumbs the sheer difficulty of achieving intimacy in the first place, and its language is correspondingly stunted. Most strikingly, perhaps, the majority of the book's poems refer to Irene and other figures in the third person, with only a handful employing the second person singular address that dominates Phillips's book. (The very presence of the proper names “Jason” and “Irene” paradoxically serves as an index of Shinder's more detached perspective; The Tether contains no names, only pronouns.) Syntax too mirrors the speaker's emotional blockage; most sentences are tight and clipped, a far cry from Phillips's languorous hypotaxis:

It's not that her blouse
                              isn't opening.
                                                  If I say anything
I'm a liar. It's just
                    nobody lives here.
                                                  Or it's late.
Or I'm tired.

These flat, numb declarations clearly mask enormous pain, but they give the poems themselves a sullen demeanor that limits their resonance. The resolutely stark diction, reminiscent at times of early Mark Strand, also suggests a willful withdrawal from worldly experience, as embodied in the varied pleasures and textures a richer vocabulary might afford.

Yet while it's tempting to accuse these poems of the imitative fallacy, of too thoroughly mimicking the afflictions they describe, at times their insular shells crack just enough to let some luminous particular be seen or felt. Sometimes these moments of immediacy are sexual: “The fuzzy orange perfume / of her vagina / burned straight up / in my nostrils.” Others are purely tactile; a repeated phrase speaks of the desire to “press / my face / into every pore / of a pillow.” One poem fixes on the speaker's nieces as they ecstatically dip their cookies in milk, and voices a Faustian wish to “stop[…] / the passage of time.” But such vivid details are set against vague intimations of transcendence that too often assume generic forms. Angels, those all-purpose millennial mascots, put in several appearances: “Every desire has a degree in which angels / lend an ear.” Other recurrent words are “dark” and “moon,” minimalist glyphs of a nocturnal sublime that never takes on weight or definition. A few poems stand apart for the clarity of their settings and situations; “A Crowd Stands for One Person” transplants the Baudelairean motif of the chance encounter to a supermarket, while “A Version of the Future” gives a bleak X-ray of a couple's conversation:

                    I have this dream, she says,
                                                  blouse open,
drink in her hand.
                    It's possible,
                    But every time
                                        I say Yes.

Another series of poems returns to the speaker's childhood, identifying various roots of his present condition—his father's distance, his mother's loneliness, sexual competitiveness with other boys, chronic anxiety about penis size. There are even hints of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his parents, though to his credit Shinder does not take the full plunge into victimology, preferring to dwell on symptoms rather than causes. A perplexingly uneven yet fascinating book, Among Women may represent a limiting case for poetic confession. In their least compelling moments its poems veer between plaintive self-pity and bitter sarcasm, tones that quickly turn grating. At their best, however, they display a rueful introspection that moves beyond individual pathology, voicing the basic human wish to be drawn out of hiding:

                    I didn't want to die,
                                        an orange
that has spent its life
                    in the dark.

After the muffled chamber music of Phillips and Shinder, Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband feels like a full-dress opera, ablaze with light and color, sounding every note in the scale and every tone in the orchestra. Carson's own musical metaphor is more modest; she subtitles her book “A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos,” helpfully explaining that “a tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.” (This is presumably true of a waltz or a square dance as well, but those lack the faintly sadistic edge of a good tango.) The most thoroughly integrated of the four books, The Beauty of the Husband is the only one that presents itself as a single text, though like many of Carson's works its announced genre is oddly hybrid. Just how an essay can be fictional is hard to say, but clearly the author wishes to distance herself from her tale by framing it as both fiction and reflection. That designation will not prevent many readers from speculating on the book's basis in Carson's own life, a subject about which she is notoriously reticent (her standard author's note simply reads “Anne Carson lives in Canada”). And indeed it's hard not to feel an autobiographical urgency driving the work, though of a very different sort from the studied transparency of confessionalists like Shinder.

Perhaps the most original aspect of Carson's book is conveyed by its deliciously perverse title. The words “beauty” and “husband” seldom appear together, but by linking them Carson makes the thoroughly feminist point that women are capable of viewing men as aesthetic objects too. She reinforces this notion by placing on her cover a detail of an Ingres portrait so androgynously pretty I had to check the flap to confirm that its subject is male (one Jean-Baptiste Desdeban). From the start the narrator makes clear that beauty is indeed the driving force behind her disastrous marriage:

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to
                    late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for
                    his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces.

As the flap copy proclaims, The Beauty of the Husband is “an essay on Keats's idea that beauty is truth,” and while Carson frequently vexes that proposition, chiefly by showing all the ways in which beauty can deceive, wound, and betray its beholder, she never completely rejects it. The idea of beauty is enjoying something of a revival in literary and intellectual circles these days; thinkers like Elaine Scarry have even argued for its intrinsically moral content. Carson's book is an important contribution to this recovery, though her treatment of the subject is more double-edged. “Existence will not stop / until it gets to beauty and then there follow all the consequences that lead to the end,” she ominously declares. For Carson of course beauty is not merely aesthetic but erotic, and therefore prone to catastrophe. Yet even when writing of the husband's worst transgressions she manages to grant him a kind of unearthly radiance: “Is innocence just one of the disguises of beauty? / He could fill structures of / threat with a light like the earliest olive oil.” And after cataloguing all the agonies it has inflicted on her, the narrator's parting words to the reader are these: “Here's my advice, / hold. / hold beauty.”

Throughout the book Carson refers to her central personae in generic terms—the husband, the wife, the mother, the grandfather—which lends her narration a kind of mythological amplitude (compare Shinder's gossipy “Jason” and “Irene”). Grammatically the text displays a remarkable fluidity, restlessly flitting between first, second, and third persons and from past to present tenses. Most of it is spoken by the wife, who generally invokes her estranged spouse in the third person: “Like many a wife I boosted the husband up to Godhood and held him there.” Moments of second person address also occur, however, suggesting that not all avenues of communication have been shut:

                                                                                                                        How do people
get power over one another? is an algebraic question
you used to say. “Desire doubled is love and love doubled is madness.”
Madness doubled is marriage
I added
when the caustic was cool, not intending to produce
a golden rule.

This passage gives something of the flavor of the doomed couple's folie à deux, in which wit and rage assume equal roles. There are also brisk exchanges that call to mind the nightmare vaudeville of Eliot's “A Game of Chess”: “If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you. / Why. / To tell it to.” Several sections profess to show us the husband's perspective, while making clear that the wife remains in control of the narrative: “You want to see how things were going from the husband's point of view— / let's go round the back.” (Only in two sections do we seem to hear the husband speak without the wife's mediation.) The two figures gradually emerge as terminal romantics with utterly opposed temperaments, his warlike and insatiable, hers obsessive and acute. The book traces the course of their marriage from its first Dionysian consummation while crushing grapes (“Ran out and got more dregs in his hands and smeared / it on my knees neck belly licking”) to its last gasp in an Athenian hotel room, blood streaming from the husband's nose like a parody of the grape juice that first seduced them. Along the way the husband's philanderies and deceptions are painstakingly documented, together with his bizarrely misguided attempts at reconciliation, at once abject and unrepentant (“These are my trophies my campaigns my honors I lay them before you”).

While Carson concentrates with almost suffocating intimacy on this couple and their endless strife, a few other figures take smaller parts in the melee. These include the wife's mother and the husband's grandfather, both of whose wise counsel is ignored, as well as the book's most likeable character, a thoroughly charming, apparently gay painter and short order cook who acts as a dual confidante, moving breezily between husband and wife while trying to help each make the best of their respective plights. The only important figure to be called by name, Ray is given such endearing traits as a fondness for mashed potatoes and a predilection for speaking in rhyme (“Pollen keeps callin old Ray”); inevitably perhaps, he is also the only character whose death the book records. But while most of its participants are nameless, the book in fact abounds in proper names: Duchamp, Mozart, Homer, Degas, Beckett, Aristotle, Sherlock Holmes, Nahum Tate, to mention a few. Like all of Carson's works, The Beauty of the Husband is densely allusive, a palimpsest tiled with references to literature, music, art, philosophy, and history; yet it wears this erudition with surprising grace and humor. Carson is a professor of classics, but unlike many academic poets she deploys her scholarly voice as a dramatic instrument whose expressive power lies partly in its fragility. Thus her narrator begins to explicate a letter from the husband with mock-pedantic sang-froid (“There are three things to notice about this letter”), then lets the mask drop to expose the wounded ego beneath (“Four things. / But from the fourth I flee / chaste and craftily”).

The most elaborate form Carson's intertextual stitching takes is a series of epigraphs from Keats that head each “tango.” Here too she shows her originality, not only bypassing the poet's more famous works in favor of curiosities like Otho the Great and The Jealousies: A Faery Tale, but often taking ambiguous or illegible fragments and reprinting them complete with editorial markings. Here are three such epigraphs in their entirety, all from Otho the Great:

114 She] {Ha?} She D (31)
19 thine own altered in pencil possibly by Keats to some small
151 She] written over {He} KRD

Carson's fascination with textual fragments stems from her work with Greek poetry; here even the most minimal of them takes on surprising resonance in relation to the section it heads. Thus the first precedes a description of the husband's chronic lies, the bracketed “Ha?” perfectly evoking the wife's bitterly skeptical response; the second of which is followed by a short account of his failure to appear at their wedding, concisely charting the wife's emotional arc from “thine own” to “some small”; while the third comes before a section in which the narrator imagines the husband in his mistress's apartment, reminding us that her point of view underlies his. In Carson's hands even the minutest of textual accidents assumes a fatal significance when opposed to the power of eros.

The book employs a variety of other paratextual devices as well, including section titles that take the form of long run-on sentences only teasingly related to the text that follows (“DO YOU SEE IT AS A ROOM OR A SPONGE OR A CARELESS SLEEVE WIPING OUT HALF THE BLACKBOARD BY MISTAKE OR A BURGUNDY MARK STAMPED ON THE BOTTLES OF OUR MINDS WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE DANCE CALLED MEMORY?”). The central narrative itself is repeatedly interrupted by digressions and flights of association, maneuvers Carson glosses with Duchamp's notion of art as “delay” and Aristotle's principle of mnemonic association. What amounts to a rather tawdry story of adultery and divorce is thus gradually surrounded with an intricate web of parerga that achieves a mesmerizing coherence. Carson hints at the method in her madness by invoking

those illuminated manuscripts from medieval times where the scribe
has made an error in copying
so the illuminator encloses the error
in a circlet of roses and flames
which a saucy little devil is trying to tug off to the side of the page.

The elaborate embellishment of error is certainly one definition of this book's aesthetic, though one wonders if any devil has the strength to displace its central blot.

Carson's extraordinary faculty for metaphor lies at the heart of the book's elaborations, restlessly devising new tropes while keeping older ones in play. From its opening lines the book lights a series of metaphorical explosions:

A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it.

Like Dickinson, Carson is particularly adept at inventing new metaphors for pain; at one point the wife tells Ray “I feel like a body ripped in half like an incomplete state of some / metal in a chemical process like a blob of scalded copper waiting to be resurrected / into gold.” Several strands of metaphor suggest alternative views of love: as a game, as war, as a dance, and sometimes as all three (“It was like a beautiful boiling dance where your partner / turns / and stabs you to death”). Elemental images of fire, water, wine, blood, cleanness, and dirt all figure in the book's tropology, but Carson also tosses off brilliantly eccentric phrases in passing (“that hot bacon smell of pure contradiction”). Where lesser poets cling to the schoolroom prohibition against mixed metaphor, Carson embraces it as a source of visionary illumination.

Finally a word needs to be said about Carson's versification, which has sometimes been dismissed as mere lineated prose. While she shows little interest in accentual patterning, The Beauty of the Husband in fact exhibits a supple and inventive sense of form based primarily on numerical schemes and rough contrasts in line length. Thus the fifth “tango” consists mainly of five-line stanzas in which the first line is long, the second short, the next two of medium length and the last again short. Many such patterns occur in the book, all of them subject to local variation, together lending tentative structure to Carson's lightly punctuated, mostly end-stopped lines.

The first true masterpiece of the twenty-first century, The Beauty of the Husband is at once the bleakest and the most exhilarating of the four books under review: the bleakest in its picture of love's death dance, the most exhilarating in its expansion of imaginative possibilities. The book's insatiable appetite for otherness despite all the erotic suffering it reports reminds us of the many forms love can take beyond the sexual. The beauty of a husband, wife, or lover may be irretrievably lost, but beauty stays, and so does love.

Peter Green (review date 7 October 2002)

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SOURCE: Green, Peter. “On Fire with Longing.” New Republic 227, no. 15 (7 October 2002): 34-40.

[In the following review, Green compares Carson's translations of Sappho's poetry in If Not, Winter, with the collection Sappho, translated by Stanley Lombardo. Green asserts that Carson's translation lacks an ear for the lyric meters of Sappho's verse, causing the volume to lose the essence of Sappho's poetry.]


Sappho, like Shakespeare, has a remarkable way of attracting idolaters, pseudo-moralists, spinmeisters (mostly with a sexual agenda), and a wide range of crackpot theorists, ranging from the benignly dotty to the angrily obsessive. Her case has also been taken up ferociously by serious feminists of just about every persuasion. It may be appropriate, therefore, and also prudent, if I begin by declaring my own interests and beliefs in the matter of this remarkable archaic Greek poet, about whom so extraordinarily little is known with certainty, and of whose work so pitifully little survives, largely on tattered and lacunose scraps of Egyptian papyrus.

In the early 1960s I lived on Lesbos, Sappho's island, for more than three years. This brought me a close acquaintance with its landscape, its flora, and its often violent climate; and it also made it very clear to me that these had not changed in essence since Sappho's sharp eye observed them. The gale-force winds that she saw attacking mountain oaks (neither of the translations under review gets this fragment quite right), and used as an image for the love that shook her heart, were all too familiar to me in winter. Not for nothing did so many of the houses in my village have steel shutters. And I shall never forget the magical evening when—just after sunset, as Sappho wrote—an unearthly glimmer manifested itself over the Lepetymnos mountain range in the east, radiant streaks of pinkish iridescence, and the moon silently swung up into the clear Aegean sky, brododactylos, or rosy-fingered, if ever a moon was. The epithet, perkily borrowed by Sappho from Homer and re-applied, has called up a lot of labored, and unnecessary, literary criticism. Sappho was simply describing what she knew, what she had seen.

But the island, or its most famous ghost, also had a very direct and practical impact on me. I had come there as a self-employed writer and translator with a tight schedule of work for the year ahead. Soon after my arrival, there marched into my dreams, totally disrupting my routine, this small, witty, passionate, brilliant woman from antiquity, with a temperament and an ego that would not take no for an answer; and she proceeded to dictate the story of her life to me. Other commitments were shunted aside. The dictation lasted, appropriately, almost nine months, and the result was a first-person novel, The Laughter of Aphrodite, to the authorship of which I have always felt I have no more than a very dubious claim. Disconcertingly, but not to my complete surprise, the physical picture that this Sappho presented in my mind was quite strikingly like the one attributed portrait of her, a mosaic from Sparta that I had not yet seen, for the good reason that it had not yet been discovered.

Psychologists would doubtless come up with a pat and platitudinous explanation for my experience of ghostly possession, and they would probably be right. All I can be certain of is the effect on me. They would point at once to my early and very rigorous grounding in Greek and Latin, at school and subsequently in post-war Cambridge, where I studied the early Greek lyric poets, Sappho included, with that most exacting of taskmasters, Denys Page, Regius Professor and subsequent author, with Edgar Lobel, of Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (1955), the standard text of Sappho and her fellow islander Alcaeus. I did not find Page congenial, and shared the opinion of those who felt that he ignored the literary substance of the poetry that he was editing at the expense of narrow textual criticism. This arrogant affectation he inherited from A. E. Houseman, with the difference that Houseman, a fine poet himself, brought an exquisite judgment to exegesis and emendation, whereas Page (who, as one critic remarked, would have made a good lawyer) had a tin ear for literary nuance of any sort.

Still, he did instill in me a sharp respect for the actual texts of ancient authors, and for the clear limits on what could be done with them in the way of reconstruction. This was particularly important with regard to Sappho. Antiquity knew nine books (that is, papyrus rolls) of her collected works, each containing an average of sixty to seventy poems. Today we have only one complete poem (the famous “Ode to Aphrodite”); one nearly complete poem (the passionately aroused observation of a girl sitting and laughing with a man, mischievously adapted by Catullus as the first shot in his pursuit of Lesbia/Clodia); and about two hundred fragments, some of them splinter-short quotations by ancient grammarians, others battered scraps on papyrus, from a few broken stanzas to isolated words, rescued from the rubbish-dumps of Egypt. It is impossible for anybody struck by the quality and the originality of what has survived not to rage helplessly at the almost total loss of what may well have been one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. The temptation to fill in gaps can be overwhelming; but as Page well knew, it has to be kept under very strict control.

Owing to all this, I have a close familiarity not only with the Greek text of Sappho, but also with the attempts, sometimes disastrous, that have been made to reconstruct it. In particular, there is the case of J. M. Edmonds, editor of Lyra Graeca, for most of the past century the Loeb Classical Library's bilingual text of early Greek lyric poetry, Sappho included. Edmonds, like nature, abhorred a vacuum, especially when it showed up as a lacuna in one of his favorite poets. So thoroughgoing, in fact, was his urge to fill in the gaps that he was known, jokingly, among his fellow scholars as the only archaic Greek poet with a twentieth-century floruit. To be fair, he put up warning signs: his lengthy supplements were prefaced, in translation, with the note “e.g.,” and printed in italics with a vertical line beside them. But since these tended to say exactly what romantic aficionados of Sappho found most congenial, they were liable to be absorbed, often unconsciously, into the general picture. Non-classical translators, who inevitably used the Loeb bilingual as their text, and whose knowledge of Greek textual criticism (or, indeed, of Greek) ran a poor second to their urge to put a recognizable and appealing Sappho on the contemporary literary map, cheerfully included many of Edmonds's supplements as though they were Sappho's own Greek.

The situation has improved a great deal in the last few years; but Edmonds's ghost has not been wholly exorcised from the popular view. This is a phenomenon with which I have very little patience. I am not opposed to supplements and emendations altogether. Properly controlled, they form an essential part of textual criticism, and can genuinely improve a text, either by correcting scribal errors or by filling in a limited gap where context and syntax make the supplement highly probable. But to go beyond these functions takes one into the slippery territory of pastiche, if not of forgery; and if there is anything that the recent history of forgery has taught us (I am thinking in particular of Van Meegeren's faked Vermeers), it is that a generation later any pastiche, however convincing it may be at the time, is indelibly stamped with the idiosyncrasies of its own day rather than those of the original that it sets out to imitate. Edmonds's Sappho comes across as a Victorian fin-de-siècle writer with a dash of H. D. and Vita Sackville-West. The lesson, I am glad to note, has not been lost on his successors.

Finally, of course, I must make my position clear regarding Sappho's social and erotic orientation, insofar as they are determinable from our highly inadequate evidence. This means, in the first instance, consciously discarding all the ingrained moral assumptions that one has inherited from two millennia of the Judeo-Christian tradition, not to mention what Jim Powell, in the bibliographical note to his own translation, Sappho: A Garland (1993), well describes as “centuries of scholarly prudery, misogyny, and homophobia.” At the same time, however paradoxically, we also need to clear our minds of the clamorous new ideologies, from post-colonialism to post-structuralism, from political feminism to queer theory, that have been busily putting their own enthusiastic spin on Sappho and her world in a vigorous campaign of appropriation.

What follows, then, is an attempt to read the evidence independently. I should perhaps add that experience and study have brought me to two firm conclusions about human erotic responses: first, that to a greater or (more commonly) a lesser degree, all individuals are capable of being moved erotically by both sexes; and second, that while they have a choice as regards their sexual actions, their sexual preferences are innate, as much a part of their original genetic makeup as left-handedness or a flair for mathematics. Social conditioning (often much over-touted in this respect) can at best enhance or discourage these instincts, but it cannot change or reverse them. Or so I believe. Nothing that I have found in Sappho's poetry or world militates against these conclusions.


The first impression, the strongest impression, that a survey of Sappho's surviving work always leaves on me is of an aristocratic culture blithely confident in its own god-given status; as skilled in music, poetry, and dance as any occupant of an eighteenth-century drawing room; and very conscious, in a sophisticated way, of what Robert Herrick saw as the seductive qualities afforded by “a sweet disorder in the dress”: “[Gongyla's] attire fluttered you when you saw it,” Abanthis is reminded. And the dress, like the loved one, must be top-drawer: “What country hoyden has you spell-bound,” snaps Sappho at her detested rival Andromeda, “wearing country clothes, too ignorant to pull down her ragged skirts over her ankles?” (Stanley Lombardo has her bizarrely “draped in burlap,” and for Anne Carson her fault is “not knowing how to pull the cloth to her ankles.”) One wealthy but uncultured woman gets the full blast of her scorn: “When you're dead you'll just lie there, no one thereafter will remember or miss you, for you have no part in the roses of Pieria [the birth-place of the Muses].”

The social upheavals of archaic Lesbos, the anti-aristocratic regimes of new men such as Pittakos or Myrsilos, impinge on this culture—we know from the Parian Marble that Sappho was temporarily exiled to Sicily, apparently for political resistance—but they leave surprisingly little trace in what we have of her poetry. (Alcaeus is far more forthcoming.) In fragment 98b (I use the generally accepted Lobel-Page numeration), she apologizes to her daughter Kleïs for not being able to provide her with an embroidered headband (Carson calls it a “spangled headbinder”), while lamenting the exile of one of the island's noble families; but otherwise these class battles seem to have had rather less effect on her than the Napoleonic wars did on Jane Austen.

What we find instead is the single-minded cultivation of sensibility by what remains in every sense a leisure class of hedonistic elitists. (This, I emphasize, is a descriptive assessment, not a moral judgment.) The hedonism is wholly innocent of any feelings of sin in the modern sense; and according to their conviction, modern readers find this either refreshing or an embarrassment. Hence the urgent and divergent efforts to present Sappho, variously, as the chaste headmistress of a finishing school (a view that was very popular, for some reason, with old-fashioned German academics), or as a taboo-breaking, anti-patriarchal lesbian pioneer, a Daughter of Bilitis avant la lettre.

Neither of these portraits has all that much to commend it. The first interpretation, it is true, got a boost in 1974 from the publication of a papyrus fragment identified as a commentary on Sappho, in which she was described as “peaceably instructing aristocratic girls not only from local families but also from those in Ionia”; but then no one had really doubted the existence of her wide circle of jeunes filles en fleur, nor of the “House of the Muses” that formed its center. It was the nature of Sappho's relationship with them that got strait-laced folk hot under the collar. They could always get around unambiguous erotic declarations, of course, by playing the persona card; that is, by claiming that the words in question must have been put in the mouth of a fictitious character. For the modernists and the same-sex advocates, on the other hand, all such statements—and there are a lot of them—are unassailable autobiography.

Where, then, does the truth lie? And is the truth even recoverable? It is a fact well known to pollsters and social scientists that people are more prone to lie, to fantasize, to deny, or to exaggerate when quizzed about their sexual life than when responding on any other topic. It is thus impossible to construct an accurate picture of their erotic activities (something that should have given Alfred Kinsey pause). On the other hand, a skillful examination of people's views on seemingly unrelated matters often reveals a very clear pattern of emotional—and erotic—preferences. The application of these techniques to Sappho's surviving work produces some very interesting results. Not surprisingly, personal relationships easily top the list, with unambiguous declarations of passionate devotion between the speaker and a variety of charmingly named girls as their most obvious motif. Yet hardly less frequent are the celebrations of marriage, the wedding songs. How are we to explain this?

Next in frequency come two equally suggestive categories. First, we have the Sapphic reproaches: the speaker is forever complaining and upbraiding, mostly regarding infidelity on the part of her lovers. Second, and even more intriguing, there is the regular communion with a variety of deities, Aphrodite above all, who are chatted to as though they were equals, and constantly invited to come and help, or to discuss things with, the speaker. The relationship seems intimate, even cozy: the invitations might almost be to a tea party. Aristocratic self-assurance could hardly go further. Scholarly attempts to normalize this odd habit by sticking a literary label on it (the appeals are sometimes called “kletic hymns”) lack conviction. I am reminded of that topos popular with Roman poets such as Catullus, which laments the fact that the gods in an irreligious age no longer come down and consort with mortals. In Sappho we catch a glimpse of the good old days when they did. The list is rounded off with reflections on evanescent youth and the penalties of age, praise for aspects of the good life, snapshots of island scenery, and a handful of sage aphorisms.

So what can we learn from all this that we did not know already? The one intact poem is a good place to start. The speaker, identified as Sappho herself by her divine interlocutress, is appealing to Aphrodite to assist her, as she has done on previous occasions. The goddess, who clearly knows just what to expect and is amused by it, is reported as having inquired earlier, in effect: “What? Again? What is it this time? One more reluctant girl you want me to make fall for you? Another cooled-off lover you'd like rechauffée? All right: I'll do it. The pursued will become the pursuer, she'll shower you with gifts instead of refusing yours, she'll love you willy-nilly. Don't say you haven't been warned.” Quite apart from making Sappho's homoerotic interests as clear as anyone could hope for, this declaration is most remarkable for the fact that it was Sappho herself who wrote it. Mischievous ironic self-deflation could scarcely go further: the wry humor puts me in mind of Dorothy Parker.

This view, first propounded by Denys Page in Sappho and Alcaeus (1955), has not proved popular. Sappho's most ardent admirers are disinclined to credit her with self-deprecating wit. I suspect it undermines the romantic image. This may also be the reason why the attributed mosaic portrait that I mentioned earlier is so seldom reproduced: not to put too fine a point on it, the severe parting and melon-style coiffure make Sappho look like a classic bun-faced hausfrau, which I suspect may come very close to the truth. (It turned up, piquantly, beside one of Alcibiades, also attributed, that made the raffish Wunderkind look like Byron after a week on the tiles.) But then nobody is over-anxious to stress the Oxyrhynchus papyrus—confirmed in detail by Ovid—which says, unequivocally: “She seems to have been negligible in appearance and indeed most ill-favored, being dark-complexioned and of extremely small height.” (“I don't expect to touch the sky,” she muses in one line; and the knowledge of her diminutive stature makes the words unexpectedly moving.) The evidence is beginning to suggest a very real and recognizable character, but not one with which most of Sappho's aficionados would seem to feel very comfortable.

The declarations of love are numerous, passionate, and unmistakable. Sappho cheerfully sidelines the masculine ideal of military glory in favor of personal devotion, using Helen of Troy's lovesick escapade to highlight her own yearning for the absent Anactoria, “whose lovely walk and sparkling expression I'd rather see than all the Lydians' chariots and armed infantry.” “When I look at you, face to face,” she says in another fragment, “not even Hermione [Helen's daughter] seems your equal”; and the tattered text talks (a suggestive echo here of the prayer to Aphrodite) of the speaker being freed from her cares, and of staying awake all night. (The fourth-century C.E. scholar Libanius cited Sappho as praying that her night might be made twice as long: he does not say why, and we can only guess.) “I long and yearn,” she says in fragment 36, and “Love shook my wits like a gale” in fragment 47. The emperor Julian quotes her in a letter: “You came, and I was yearning for you; you cooled my mind which was on fire with longing.” As so often, we learn the condition but not its object.

Love is bittersweet, irresistible, turns limbs to water (fragment 130). It also has a mayfly quality, is transient, easily lost, too often a thing of the past. One dominant emotion in these fragments is nostalgia: “I loved you once, Atthis, long ago …” matches the wistful reflection “For we too did these things in our youth.” There are breakups with tears and reminders of past pleasures (fragment 94). One much-tattered scrap (fragment 58) reveals complaints about white hair, withered skin, knees that no longer respond in the dance like fawns; but suddenly, briefly, clears with the unforgettable claim: “This too love has granted me, the brightness and beauty of the sun.” But there was a price to pay. Within that close circle of intimates, affairs seem to have been intense and varied, but brief: the impression one gets is of favorites flitting from flower to flower, like Pindar's bee. “Atthis, to think of me has become hateful to you, and you fly to Andromeda.” Pleistidica and Gongyla will be known, Sappho observes bitchily, as wives (“yoke-mates”) of Gorgo. The latter, like Andromeda, is one of her pet hates: she refers, with nice ambiguity, to those “who have had a surfeit of Gorgo.” I loved you but you got bored with me: this is a recurring theme.

Yet this entire world, with its passions and its sensitivities (“I adore the exquisite,” Sappho declares), was an Eden from which expulsion came with marriage, and thus in a sense it matched the equally temporary and equally intense world of the adolescent eromenos, or boy love, in classical Athens, who with the onset of a beard graduated to the role of erastes (adult lover) and began to look for an eromenos of his own. Sappho's wedding songs are at least as much elegies of loss as celebratory rites of passage. Regret for lost virginity is a recurrent motif. Sappho recognizes the emotional longings driving young girls to marriage (“Sweet mother, I cannot weave my web, I'm overpowered by desire for a boy because of tender Aphrodite”), just as she must have known, all too well, the social and financial advantages of marital status. The alternative occupations in most of Greece—whore or downtrodden spinster—were not attractive. If the topmost apple on the tree was left too long, it withered and fell. But there were also—even on Lesbos, where the status of women was exceptionally high—the usual family pressures and male self-assertion: no wife was wholly free.

Above all, there remained the brutal fact, universal in the ancient world, that the occupation of wife was, largely on account of primitive hygiene and obstetrics, a higher-risk occupation than the occupation of soldier. Euripides's Medea delivers a stinging summation of a woman's vulnerability in wedlock, ending with the flat claim that she would rather fight three frontline engagements than give birth once. It was a far from unreasonable preference. Every bridge knew that taking a husband, however considerate, meant accepting heavy odds in favor of an early and probably agonizing death in, or as a result of, childbirth. One fragment (44A(a), probably, but not certainly, Sappho's) has Artemis swearing her great oath to be forever a virgin huntress in the mountains. As a role model she must have looked decidedly attractive. Sappho could, and did, turn out elegantly conventional wedding hymns (in addition to the surviving fragments, we have a detailed testimonial to her skill in this area by the fourth-century C.E. sophist Himerius of Prusa); but it is striking, and on reflection not surprising, how often one finds an ambiguous undertone to her pronouncements.

In two of the most famous fragments (one of them popularized by J. D. Salinger, who took a line from it, “raise high the roof-beams, carpenters,” as the title for a book), Sappho mocks both the bridegroom and the doorkeeper at a country wedding, exaggerating the size of the first (he is as big as Ares—that's why the roof-beams need to be raised), and joking about the huge feet of the second. (Demetrius, who cites these passages in his treatise On Style, accuses her of “making cheap fun” of them, and in deliberately unpoetic language.) Her comments about men lack the enthusiasm of her tributes to girls, and sometimes they sound double-edged: when she compares the bridegroom to a slender sapling, her hearers, reared on Homer, would at once recall that this was how Odysseus described that delightful Scherian virgin Nausicaä. She is suspicious of male physical beauty (fragment 50). Her brush-off of a male suitor (fragment 121) with the excuse that she cannot tolerate being the older partner is particularly interesting, since the older partner is so evidently what she in fact was in all her liaisons with young girls.

But the biggest giveaway is also the best-known: her famous musing, adapted by Catullus, as she watches a man reacting to the company of a woman—perhaps his bride, but this is left open—while she herself reacts to, and is turned on by, the woman. Denys Page had some heavy-handed fun with the innocents who supposed this to be a wedding song. It is in fact a passionate subversion of public social norms, all the more intense for being hidden (the couple are clearly unaware of the speaker's feelings). The last surviving line, after the enumeration of the speaker's physical symptoms—the sweating, the pallor, the trembling, the failure of speech—concedes grimly, “But all must be endured, since.” Since, surely, marriage closes the door on the magic world of adolescence; and too bad for those of us who cannot abandon those chrysalid enchantments in adult life, but must make do with a series of protégées who, all too quickly, pass from our guiding hands into another world.

“Towards you, my lovely ones, my attitude is unchangeable” (fragment 41). This was perhaps the truest line Sappho ever wrote; yet, as so often, her Greek remains ambiguous. In Greek Lyric Poetry, which appeared in 1993, Martin West, no mean Hellenist, translates it: “I cannot change my mind for you, my dears,” and he might just be right. The text hinges on a dative case, and one of the first things you learn in Greek 101 is that the dative can indicate either to or for.


On a fragment preserving the last few lines from Book I of Sappho's collected works (probably a Hellenistic recension rather than her own arrangement), the scribe noted: “1320 verses.” One can almost hear the sigh of relief as he put down his pen. But consider. That means 330 stanzas, some sixty, perhaps even seventy, poems. There were eight further papyrus rolls of roughly similar length. We are looking at an oeuvre of some five hundred pieces, of which we have less than one percent. Yet even from the pitiful scraps that survive, we can sense not only the brilliance, but also the extraordinary intensity and variety animating even the smallest fragment. The urge to squeeze the last drop out of each one, whether by textual scrutiny, inspired emendation, or imaginative and ideological exegesis, is overwhelming.

Some even make a modernist virtue out of necessity. Pamela Gordon, in her introduction to Stanley Lombardo's translation, tells us “to read an individual fragment as though we were reading a note in a bottle.” Lombardo himself takes this further by picking up a conceit of Page du Bois in her study Sappho Is Burning (1995): the “notion of Sappho's poetry as a Lacanian ‘body in pieces’ and her shift of focus from reconstitution of classical lost wholes to our momentary and receding relationship to the shattered fragments of the past.” Having so decided, he then picked out the seventy-three most substantial pieces, which, having translated, he “felt compelled to order and arrange … into a collection with some kind of esthetic coherence,” thus adding his own creative overlay to that already imposed on Sappho by her Hellenistic editors. To put his personal stamp on the result, he then re-numbered all seventy-three items, but without providing a formal table of comparative numerations. You have to go to his “Notes on Ancient Sources” and hope for the best.

Anne Carson, by contrast, [in If Not, Winter] takes on all the fragments, in their generally accepted order, and writes: “In translating I tried to put down all that can be read of each poem in the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did. I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through.” Coming from a poet and classicist of considerable repute, this disingenuous advocacy of the kind of pseudo-literalism so popular among first-year undergraduates is, to say the least, surprising. Carson's next sentence—“This is an amiable fantasy (transparency of self) within which most translators labor”—leads one to hope that she is really pulling our legs; but a perusal of her actual translations makes it all too clear that she means every word of it. The result, all too often, is a naïve and labored construal that, far from standing out of the way, blocks access to Sappho's elegance, sophistication, and euphony by making her sound like the unlettered hoydens whom she despised.

Here are some specimens. “Invisible too in Hades' house / you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out” (fragment 55). “And all the wrong he did before, loose it” (fragment 5). “In this place you Kypris taking up / in gold cups delicately / nectar mingled with festivities: / pour” (fragment 2). “In longing she bites her tender mind” (fragment 96). “Never more damaging O Eirana have I encountered you” (fragment 91). Sometimes the effect is compounded by erratic translation: the ghost in fragment 55 actually flutters off rather than being breathed out, and the woman in fragment 96, remembering Atthis, feeds on her thoughts rather than biting her mind, just as Dika in fragment 81 may surprise Carson's readers by binding her hair with crowns rather than garlands (stephanois can mean both). To be fair, Carson's abrupt and jagged technique can work effectively for disjunctive fragments, of which there are all too many, by producing the kind of college reminiscent of Pound's famous “spring … / too long … / Gongyla” (also taken from a Sappho fragment), which so puzzled Robert Graves. Carson's mysterious title, If Not, Winter, is one such isolated scrap (from fragment 22): it has no context, it means nothing (if not what?) except what the modern reader cares to put there, but it certainly sticks in the mind.

Carson's simpliste translation is offset by an excruciatingly kitschy production device. Someone had the cute notion of printing the parallel Greek text in maroon rather than in black, which at once puts Sappho's poetry, by association, in the same category as the kind of greeting-card message that Evelyn Waugh's Agatha Runcible would have described as “too, too blush-making.” Lombardo, too, provides embarrassment for the reader. His dedicates are his sisters, Nancy and Shirley, “smiles playing about your immortal lips.” One of them, at the age of ten or so, appears in an artily gussied-up photograph opposite fragment 49: “I loved you once, Atthis, long ago. / You seemed like a child to me, little and graceless.” Little and graceless? One can only hope that Nancy (or Shirley) was pleased.

But then one also reflects that this is a not-so-subtle way of trying by implication to leach the sex out of Sappho's famous, and ambiguous, relationship with Atthis, to see it as pure and sisterly affection. By Ovid's day, the modern distinction was already in place: his Sappho, in the Heroides, has advanced to heterosexual love, the homoerotic affairs that made her of ill repute (infamem) all forgotten. But archaic Lesbos was different. Sappho's passions were clear, and she was highly regarded in her community. (Being married, with a daughter, was probably essential, though.) It may all have been no more than the delirious, and innocent, adolescent buzz once so prevalent in girls' boarding schools (though I find this unlikely); but the buzz was there all right, and it was undeniably erotic. Keeping our unconscious assumptions out of our treatment of Sappho is an extraordinarily difficult business, even when sticking, as we should, to what the text actually tells us, since here we are up against the manifold nuances and ambiguities of the Greek language. How, then, do Carson and Lombardo manage on this score?

The editing of Sappho's disiecta membra, above all the papyrus fragments, has been a long and difficult process, to which many scholars—paleographers, historians, linguists, papyrologists, textual and literary critics—have contributed. Their cumulative labors are currently enshrined in three editions, between which the would-be serious translator must make a choice. First, there is Page and Lobel's Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (1955), together with Page's Supplementum Lyricis Graecis (1974), which includes a number of later papyrus finds. Second, there is Eva-Maria Voigt's Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (1971), which records in vast (and somewhat tedious) detail the readings and conjectures of earlier editors, and includes papyrus items missing from Page-Lobel, but picked up by Page in his Supplementum. Third, we have D. A. Campbell's Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus (1982), which embodies all previous discoveries in an exemplary fashion, but has been under-valued by professionals simply because it appears in the Loeb series. Since Campbell's five-volume Greek Lyric replaces Edmonds's Lyra Graeca, he in fact deserves our heartfelt gratitude not only for a job well done, but also for giving a new generation of translators a firm base from which to work.

Lombardo, sensibly, plumps for Campbell, and except for intermittent flights of fancy, he does a reasonable job in consequence. Carson, on the other hand, goes for Voigt, and I wish I could resist the sneaking suspicion that her choice was dictated at least in part by the fact that Voigt is Sappho's only serious woman editor. The decision creates problems for her. To begin with, Voigt's highly specialized work, with its Latin apparatus criticus, was published by a scholarly press in Amsterdam, and it is hard to come by for anyone without access to a major university library. Worse, Voigt's Greek text, faithfully reproduced by Carson (though with the substitution throughout of terminal sigma for the median or semilunar version, a typographical anomaly that set this purist's teeth on edge), is totally free of supplements, these being relegated to her apparatus. Thus, since Carson freely raids the apparatus for conjectures but does not reproduce it, she is continually coming up with translations that lack confirmation in the Greek facing text. A nice case of this is her actual title, where the “if” of If Not, Winter is nowhere to be seen in Voigt's Greek, being in fact a conjecture by the German scholar Wilamowitz. All that fancy maroon Garamond Greek may be very decorative, but as a parallel text it lacks substance.

This is not nit-picking. In Sappho's much-disputed texts, the words, as T. S. Eliot and every translator know, “slip, slide, perish, / decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / will not stay still.” One letter can change a poem. A second-century C.E. grammarian cites the first line of the ode that Catullus imitated, but with a digamma instead of a mu at one crucial point: as a result the man sitting by the girl seems the gods' equal not to the speaker, but to himself. The very first word of the “Ode to Aphrodite” almost defies translation. Again, the reading depends on one variable letter. Did Sappho write poikilothron' or poikilophron' as her descriptive epithet of the goddess? Are we dealing with Aphrodite's throne or her mind, and in either case what are we to make of poikilo-, which dictionaries variously define as many-colored, embroidered, intricate, complex, changeful? (In modern Greek, poikilia is a mixed hors d'oeuvre.) This first hurdle for Sappho's translators is one that none of them, understandably, clears with complete success.

Carson, going rightly with the minority, argues in a sensible note that what is at issue throughout the poem is Aphrodite's foxy mental agility. She therefore goes for -phron' rather than -thron', adding that probably the poet also intended her hearers' minds to skid to -thron' by association. Excellent. She then proceeds to ruin the effect by her translation: “Aphrodite of the spangled mind” sounds like a trapeze artist with intellectual pretensions. Lombardo abandons the Greek altogether, offering two vaguely emotional epithets (“shimmering, iridescent,” as though the goddess was a dragonfly) for the price of one: whether he's going with -thron' or -phron' is anyone's guess. Earlier translators are all for -thron': they offer us variously “throne of many hues” (Rayor), “rich-throned” (West), “ornate-throned” (Campbell), “enthroned in splendor” (Mulroy, Lattimore), “artfully adorned” (Powell), “dapple-throned” (Barnard), “caparisoned throne” (Roche, presumably seeing the throne as a horse). This fuzzy lack of focus seems, regrettably but perhaps unavoidably, endemic to English versions of a poet for whom sharp and sparkling ambiguities were the name of the game.

It is noteworthy that of all these translators only Lattimore and Powell show any respect for the haunting rhythms of Sappho's subtle and idiosyncratic lyric meters, surely the very heart, the musical core, of her poetry. Carson—who, for a poet, has an unexpectedly flat ear when it comes to rhythmic nuance—produces stanzas that read like chopped-up prose. Lombardo collapses the stanzas altogether into semi-cadenced free verse. Here is the final stanza of the Aphrodite ode in their renderings: “Come to me now: loose me from hard / care and all my heart longs / to accomplish, accomplish. You / be my ally.” (Carson). “Come to me again now, release me / from my agony, fulfill all / that my heart desires, and fight for me, / fight at my side, Goddess.” (Lombardo). Carson cuts two key words, Lombardo pads (no “Goddess” in the Greek, and she's just to be an ally); neither gives any idea of the hypnotic Sapphic meter. Has neither of them ever read Swinburne?

Lattimore and Powell, by contrast, in their efforts to catch the meter, feel obliged to both paraphrase and expand Sappho's Greek. Lattimore's version runs: “In such guise come even again and set me / free from doubt and sorrow; accomplish all those / things my heart desires to be done; appear and / stand at my shoulder.” Powell also pads, though not so much, and fluffs the rhythm of the first line: “Come to me again, and release me from this / want past bearing. All that my heart desires to / happen—make it happen. And stand beside me, / goddess, my ally.” Is it really so impossible to produce an English version that both sticks to the Greek and reproduces its metrical pattern and stresses? Consider this: “Come to me now as then, grant me release from / burdensome worries: all that my heart most yearns for / bring to fulfillment, and yourself beside me / stand as an ally.”

We often hear that, owing to the vagaries of postwar educational theory, a generation has grown up almost wholly ignorant of formal meter and rhythm. The prosaic trickle down the center of the page that defines the work of so many contemporary poets would seem to confirm this. So, alas, too often do the current English translations of Sappho and other ancient poets. Lombardo's versions, says his publisher, “give us a virtuoso embodiment of Sappho's voice,” but the voice remains contemporary, and Lombardo's. Carson's translation, claims her mischievous blurb, “illuminates Sappho's reflections on love, desire, marriage, exile, cushions, bees, old age, shame, time, chickpeas and many other aspects of the human situation.” Well, so it does, just as Dave Barry's column does; but somewhere the essence of the poetry gets lost. The field remains wide open.

Alan Jacobs (review date March-April 2003)

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SOURCE: Jacobs, Alan. “The Re-Invention of Love.” Books and Culture 9, no. 2 (March-April 2003): 10-13.

[In the following review, Jacobs notes that “eros is [Carson's] great preoccupation” in If Not, Winter.]

Anne Carson's new translation of the poetry of Sappho [If Not, Winter] seems an act of veneration. Sappho is the most archaic and mysterious, and probably the most celebrated, of ancient lyric poets; later Greeks would call her the “tenth Muse,” She lived in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor, not far south of Troy. Most of her poems, which were always set to music, describe erotic passion and its consequences; many of those poems concern desire for other women. There is a legend that Sappho, desperately in (unrequited) love with the “most beautiful of men,” a dashing sailor named Phaon, threw herself from the cliff of Leukas, on which stood a temple to Apollo, though the great Byzantine scholar Photios claims that this happened to “another Lesbian woman” named Sappho, not the poet. Various sources supply her with various family members, including a husband and children; one of those sources says she was short, dark, and “most ill-favored.”

These are tiny shards of data, and no one will ever know whether they offer us knowledge. Similar doubts haunt Sappho's very language; in one of the poems, for instance, Sappho uses a puzzling word that, Carson tells us, is elucidated by a lexicographer named Pollux: “a word beudos found in Sappho is the same as the word kimberikon which means a short transparent dress.” Undoubtedly any translator or editor is thankful for Pollux's help—sufficiently so, perhaps, to refrain from wondering how trustworthy this claim is, given that the scholar worked some 800 years after Sappho and hundreds of miles from Lesbos, in Egypt. And the music Sappho wrote, and to which she set her verses, has been wholly and irretrievably lost.

The poems themselves, moreover, survive chiefly in fragments, and strangely enough—or so I contend—their shreds and patches contribute to their fascination, and to the reverence which I have identified as a feature of Carson's edition. If this is true of a single word like beudos—“Who would not like to know more about this garment?” asks Carson—it is still more true of a “poem” that looks like this:

❙and know this
❙whatever you
❙I shall love
❙of weapons

Carson uses brackets to indicate tears or defacements of the papyrus on which some words have survived. She does not do this systematically, since “this would render the page a blizzard of marks and inhibit reading”; rather, the brackets couple with the words to create a kind of frame for speculation. To “read” a fragment like the above is, inevitably, to fill the gaps, to complete the weave, to make rather than receive a narrative—in the same way that your brain fills in that portion of the visual field left empty by your blind spots. (“Brackets are exciting,” writes Carson. “Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.”) Carson shows her artfulness nowhere more than in her delicate deployment of these brackets, which lead us so quietly from the abiding love to the weapons. There's a kind of Zen to it.

The other sort of Sapphonian fragment—the line or two cited by later writers—does not offer Carson, or us, the same “free space of imaginal adventure.” In these cases we cannot know what sort of poem the line appeared in, how long the poem was, anything:

                    having come from heaven wrapped in a purple cloak
goes one such line;
                    do I still long for my virginity

goes another one, and no one will ever tell us who descended in that cloak, or whom we overhear meditating on her virginity. So, lacking context, even the limited context provided by the papyrus scraps. Carson offers what she can: white space. Each of those lines is given its own page, and this alone contributes to the sense of veneration I have noted—as though these brief phrases carry as much freighted meaning as an ordinary page stuffed full of words. Such lines appear on the book's right-hand pages; on the left is the original Greek, printed in a beautiful blood-red ink. (The same red is used in the book's apparatus for section headings, notes, title pages, and so on.) Given the spareness of the text, it should be noted that the paper itself is good stock, faintly beige in color, thick and rough-cut. The book comprises 397 pages, but easily could have been fewer than 100; without the Greek, fewer than fifty.

Reverence indeed, How to account for it? Perhaps by looking more closely at the work of Anne Carson, who, the book's jacket tells us simply and flatly, as though discouraging further inquiry, “lives in Canada.” It is possible to learn more: for instance, that Carson teaches classics at McGill University in Montreal, and that she has published several books of verse and prose, the first of which was called Eros the Bittersweet (1986) and began with a discussion of Sappho's compound coinage glukupikron, literally “sweetbitter,” (“Eros the melter of limbs [now again] stirs me— / sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in”; so Carson renders the fragment in If Not, Winter.) One does not have to browse for long in Carson's books before discovering that eros is her great preoccupation, and that she repeatedly takes fragments of ancient erotic poetry and filters them through a contemporary sensibility. In Plainwater she takes pieces of Sappho's contemporary Mimnermos and sculpts them into something that can seem very like a translation until it invokes a memory of a hotel in Chicago. Likewise, in Autobiography of Red, a retelling and expansion of the fragmentary Geryoneis of Stesichoros, she seems to begin with straightforward translation of some of the pieces, only to lead us to this:

If you persist in wearing your mask at the supper table
Well Goodnight Then they said and drove him up
Those hemorrhaging stairs to the hot dry Arms
To the ticking red taxi of the incubus
Don't want to go want to stay Downstairs and read

All of which presages Carson's transformation of the red, winged monster Geryon—slain by Herakles in the midst of his famous Labors—into a fairly normal, if homosexual, North American teenager. Who remains, nonetheless, red and winged. “The fragments of the Geryoneis read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative then ripped it to pieces,” writes Carson; clearly, she finds great pleasure in reassembling the pieces, and at least some of that pleasure comes from not knowing whether her edifice bears much resemblance to what Stesichoros had composed. Carson's reputation as a scholar seems quite high, but in passages like these (and many others) she seems to be winking at scholarship, or at what we normally take to be scholarship. And the wink has a certain piquancy when offered by someone who has undergone the disciplinary rigors of training in the classics; English professors and literary theorists, by contrast, froze their faces into such a wink so long ago that the expression is no longer recognizable. People just think we're scowling.

Carson obviously cares less for the strictures of scholarly knowledge than for the power of scholarship to liberate ancient texts for our uses and purposes today. But what are “our uses and purposes today”? Carson, it seems to me, is one of the most gifted and articulate writers to participate in a curious project, a project that might be called (with apologies to Tom Stoppard) the re-invention of love: an attempt to reject a model of erotic experience that is generally called “romantic love” and is often thought to have some connection with Christianity.

That Western literature and culture, from at least the 12th century on, engaged in a more-or-less purposeful conflation of eros and agape—romantic or sexual love and holy love—has always been recognized, but it was in the 1930s that this conflation became the subject of widespread scholarly notice and even a kind of consensus. (I cannot explain this convergence of attention.) Anders Nygren's Agape and Eros (1930), C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love (1936), and Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World (1938) each explored the entanglements of divine and sexual love; each, to some degree at least, though not for uniform reasons, deplored the entanglements; each seemed to see the entanglements as permanent features of, well, love in the Western world. Lovers have learned to pay tribute to the beloved—elevation, adoration, worship—that properly belongs only to God. They have come to see the encounter with the beloved as a fertile field where meaning and value, even ultimate meaning and value, can be cultivated. How can such lessons be unlearned, such knots untangled?

Carson and many others have devoted much scrutiny to the possibility of un-knotting. The romantic picture of love seems to them too metaphysical, too drenched in the “spiritual,” and for that very reason inattentive to the physiology of desire, its residence in the body. Casting about for an alternative to the romantic synthesis, they follow the example of Nietzsche and seek in archaic (especially pre-Socratic) Greek thought and art a thoroughly physical—and therefore a thoroughly demystified, disenchanted—account of erotic experience. Nietzsche himself, I should add, never really extended his “revaluation of all values” into the sexual sphere; he was for reasons both personal and philosophical, too prudish or ascetic for that: but in the 20th century he found adventurous disciples. They are not necessarily the people one would expect: many of the century's most famous apostles of sexuality, from Freud to D. H. Lawrence, retain many of the core beliefs of the old romantic synthesis. Indeed, it would be late in the century before the project of re-inventing love got seriously under way.1

I discern two exemplary figures in this endeavor—two rarely linked with each other; Michel Foucault and Iris Murdoch. We typically think of Foucault as a master of suspicion, a subverter of all trust, a reducer of all relations to power relations; Murdoch, by contrast, in large part because she wrote large, technically conventional novels instead of tortured academic treatises, seems to belong to a wholly different culture. And in some respects this is true. But on the matter of eros Foucault and Murdoch are kindred spirits. For both of them eros is a powerful force with which we must find some way to negotiate; it is always threatening to engulf us, and this is naturally frightening, yet there is something strangely desirable about being engulfed. Thus, in Murdoch's last major novel, The Green Knight, a young woman muses:

he will never forgive me, he will despise me and cast me out, he warned me against the ambiguous Eros, the deceiver, the magician, the sophist, the maker of drugs and potions. Of course I am in love, yes, this is love, and I am sick with it—but what follows? Do I really believe that I shall give over my life, the whole of my life, which is only just now really beginning to another person? … What has happened to my soldierly completeness with which I was so content, my satisfaction and my pride? At the first trial I am broken.

Murdoch seems never to tire of depicting the person who is thus swept away; and she is equally tireless in delineating the opposite number, the magician, who deploys the drugs and potions of eros to control the object of his desire.

It is just this kind of situation that Foucault has in mind when he says—in a formulation both literal and metaphorical—that “sexual relations are not reciprocal: in sexual relations, you can penetrate or you are penetrated.” And when eros is so described, pleasure inevitably recedes from consciousness, to be replaced by a ceaseless meditation on power. Thus, in 1983, when he was in the midst of writing his multi-volume History of Sexuality and dying from AIDS, Foucault announced to an interviewer that “sex is boring.” The real point of interest, he had discovered, lay in “techniques of the self,” because these techniques enable one to manage the traffic patterns of erotic power when and how to penetrate, when and how to be penetrated. Even the refusal of sex—in the Christian tradition a practice linked with the pursuit of righteousness—is reconstituted here as nonmoral “technique,” an ascetic enterprise in the service of one's own personal therapeutic aims; chastity for control freaks. And in this exploration of technique Foucault attended chiefly to the example of ancient Athens—as did Murdoch for her purposes. She even wrote a lengthy dialogue in the Platonic mode, featuring Socrates, Plato, and others as characters; she called it “Art and Eros.”

It is this (new) tradition in which Carson works; thus her veneration of Sappho, Consider three quotations from Eros the Bittersweet:

Eros seemed to Sappho at once an experience of pleasure and of pain.

Eros moves or creeps upon its victim from somewhere outside her orpeton. No battle avails to fight off that advance: amachanon. Desire, then, is neither inhabitant nor ally of the desirer. Foreign to her will, it forces itself irresistibly upon her from without. Eros is an enemy. Its bitterness must be the taste of enmity. That would be hate. … love and hate construct between them the machinery of human contact. Does it make sense to locate both poles of this affect within the single emotional event of eros? Presumably, yes, if friend and enemy converge in the being who is its occasion.2

[In describing this experience] Sappho and her successors in general prefer physiology to concepts.

In these few words, the post-Nietzschean, or neopagan, erotic is neatly encapsulated. First, and perhaps most centrally, eros is an “experience”: that is, it occurs within me. I discern its character by attending to the testimony of my senses, my body: here I find pleasure, there I find pain. (Thus, physiology rather than concepts.) Moreover, it is this experience itself that must be reckoned with; assessed; treated as friend or enemy, or as both in alternation.

When confronted with this picture, one schooled in what I have termed the romantic synthesis will have a pointed question: Where is the beloved? And the answer can only be that the beloved matters little to this neopagan sensibility: “the beloved” is merely the incidental provocation of desire—not even truly the “occasion” of the “single emotional event,” eros itself (says Carson) being that occasion. What the romantic would call the beloved remains wholly outside me; it is eros that “steals in” and occupies my body, eros that I must respond to and deal with—and therefore eros itself that is truly the beloved; when it is not the enemy.

“No simple map of the emotions is available here,” writes Carson in Eros the Bittersweet. “Desire is not simple.” Perhaps; yet desire is simpler than romantic love, and the model offered by Carson (and Foucault, and Murdoch) limits complexity—as demystification and disenchantment always do. (The rigid and universal formula of disenchantment: x is only y.) In the neopagan model, love is bound to a limited repertoire of experiences, pleasure and pain, desire and fear, possessing and being possessed, frustration and satisfaction. Perhaps these interior incidents are sufficiently numerous to make any “simple map of the emotions” impossible, but a skilled cartographer could get it all on one page.

The complexity of the romantic synthesis, by contrast, would fill a library, just because of the presence in its calculations of another person, with his or her own pleasures and pains, desires and fears.3 If one has true regard for one's beloved, and wishes above all—even above the satisfaction of one's desires—the beloved's well-being, complexity increases geometrically, not arithmetically. Every possibility must be considered, even renunciation, and renunciation not for one's own ascetic good: rather, what must be considered is the voluntary abandonment of hopes for marriage, for life together—if that would be best for the beloved. It has been done. As many tales relate.

Carson seems, not only in her translation and her scholarship but even in her poetry, to decline such complications. In her poem “The Glass Essay” (and all of Carson's poems are essays) she writes of a mother's reaction to her daughter's new lover:

Well he's a taker and you're a giver
          I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me
at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.

The experience detaches from the person who (one might think) prompted it and rolls away, taking the speaker's volition with it. Many of us have been there; but I doubt the sufficiency of the image to the experience of love. More disturbing is Carson's account of the failure of a marriage in her book The Beauty of the Husband:

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from
          early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to
          say I loved him for his beauty,
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces.
          You know beauty makes sex possible
Beauty makes sex sex.

Again a detachment: this time not of experience from persons, but rather of a trait—a strictly physical trait—from the one to whom, in ordinary language, we would say it belongs. Not “the beautiful husband” but “the beauty of the husband” the beauty is not intrinsic to him; rather, he carries it about like an amulet or charm. And it's this amulet that convinces, that makes sex possible, that makes sex sex. The bearer of the amulet has nothing to do with it; the husband stands to one side, bemused or indifferent or whatever he is, and observes the wife's desperate wrestle with eros, her friend, her enemy. Eventually he rolls away, like a wheel down a hill.

For Carson, Sappho is the fons et origo of this model of love, love as eros only. Is that fair to Sappho? I don't know. Certainly the fragments delineate the moods and motions of desire; certainly Sappho is deeply attentive to eros as experience. Yet there are passages which seem also attentive to the desired one—seem. I say, because I have only fragments to draw on, and my knowledge of Greek scarcely exceeds the ability to recite that language's alphabet. In the end I cannot contest Carson's uses of Sappho; I can but suggest that the fragmentary character of the poems renders them open to many uses; and then I can turn to another model from the ancient world.

Regard for the beloved was not invented by the troubadours of 12th-century Provence, nor by the forgotten makers of the story of Tristan and Isolde. It may be found in a poem probably older than any of Sappho's: the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's. This poem matches any of Sappho's in its evocation of the power of desire: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” (5:1, NRSV). But there is something more:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
                    as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
                    passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
                    a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
                    neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
                    all the wealth of one's house
                    it would be utterly scorned.

What is “more” is the affirmation of permanence, of the deathlessness of true love. Eros, by contrast, is famously flighty; the desire that overmasters you one day can evaporate the next. Sappho's one surviving complete poem asks Aphrodite to change the inclination of some desired one, to turn her heart towards Sappho, and Aphrodite agrees:

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she
                    give them
If she does not love, soon she will love
                    even unwilling.

But this answer reveals that if the desired one changes, so too will Sappho: her desire will be gone; she will flee from the one who has fled from her. It's the way of the world, surely, and accepted as such by Sappho and Aphrodite alike; but in Solomon's Song we are repeatedly warned against the reckless invocation of a power greater than that of mere desire:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!

(8:4 etc.)

And why should the daughters of Jerusalem be so circumspect? Because if it is the true Love that is awakened, it will not again sleep; and no floods can wash it away. And—continuing the catechism—why is that? Why will this love not sleep, nor be washed away? Because it is grounded not in desire, not in eros, not in any “experience,” but in the beloved (a word I have used in this essay with Solomon's song always in mind): in the bride herself, or the bridegroom himself. Love is the proper and adequate response to the excellence of the beloved. “We will exult and rejoice in you,” say the daughters of Jerusalem to the bride: “rightly do they love you” (1:4)—rightly. When she tells them to find her beloved and tell him that she is “faint with love,” they reply with a question:

What is your beloved more than
          another beloved,
          O fairest among women?
What is your beloved more than another
          that you thus adjure us?


And the bride can answer, with more than the simile of a wheel rolling down-hill, and with more than a claim for his beauty—though beauty there is, beauty there certainly is: he is “distinguished among ten thousand” (v. 10); “he is altogether desirable” (v. 16a). But above all, “This is my beloved and this is my friend O daughters of Jerusalem.” Friendship implies a kind of reciprocity—even Foucault acknowledges this idea—alien to the understanding of Eros that Carson derives from Sappho: as we have seen, the great plea to Aphrodite simply assumes that desire will be unequal and asymmetrical. But it is reciprocity in which the bride places her trust; her limitless regard for the bridegroom is matched by his limitless regard for her; and so she can tell the daughters of Jerusalem with perfect assurance, “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine” (6:3).

In this poem, then—which rises from a culture as alien to ours as Sappho's, and which is perhaps still freer from metaphysics than any of her poems; I share Dietrich Bonhoeffer's belief that the interpretation of it as an “ordinary love song” is the most “Christological exposition”—we find a richer, more complex model for erotic relationship than anything contemplated by Carson or Foucault or Murdoch or, as far as I can tell, Sappho. Long before the romantic synthesis was dreamed of, we find in Solomon's song a more fully human picture of the love between man and woman, a more stately yet more joyous picture, than anything made available by the trifling arithmetic of desire. No wonder Foucault came to believe that “sex is boring.” It certainly becomes so, when there are so few counters to play with. “I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime,” Anne Carson once wrote, but I wonder if, in taking hold of the neopagan model of eros, she has not courted the very boredom from which she would flee.

Sappho too wrote about marriage, about the joy of marriage:

blest bridegroom, your marriage
          just as you prayed
has been accomplished
          and you have the bride for whom
          you prayed

It seems sad to me that she wrote such lines for others, while for herself lines of longing and loss. But then, I do not understand Sappho; in the end, all I have to guide me are these poor fragments. If I held the unredacted papyri in my palm, I could pour them on the table in a snow of archaic confetti. It seems so little from which to sculpt a way of love, a way of life.


  1. Stoppard's wonderful play The Invention of Love tells a different version of this story, featuring the late-Victorian poet A. E. Housman and, instead of Greek sources, Latin love elegists like Catullus and Horace. I consider my story a complement rather than an alternative to his.

  2. The Greek words here are from the fragment quoted earlier about “Eros the melter of limbs” (number 130) eros “steals in” (orpeton) from somewhere outside and and is “unmanageable” (amachanon).

  3. There is a moment in the interview with Foucault I cited earlier that would be funny if it were not so sad. Near the end of his life, ravaged by AIDS, obsessed with his project of self-technique, he pauses to ask this question. “Is the pleasure of the other something which can be integrated in our pleasure?” The merest possibility of reciprocity, of something other than penetrating and being penetrated, finally occurs to this brilliant man, but only when he is too near death to think further. He can but leave it as another avenue of research unpursued.

Carol Moldaw (review date spring 2003)

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SOURCE: Moldaw, Carol. Review of If Not, Winter, translated by Anne Carson. Antioch Review 61, no. 2 (spring 2003): 374.

[In the following review, Moldaw praises Carson's translations in If Not, Winter, arguing that Carson succeeds in “giving us a Sappho whose voice dazzles like an iceskater's blade.”]

Without knowing the original language in which a poem is written, one can judge a translation of it only against other translations and against one's sense—formed by hearsay, by intuition, by default—of how the poet should sound. A poet's voice is like a fingerprint, and the ability of voice to maintain its individuality in translation, as the layers of its language are peeled away, is a mystery, a miracle. Enacting that miracle, Carson's new translation of Sappho [If Not, Winter] must be considered the definitive edition of Sappho for our age, both in its inclusive breadth and the spare beauty of its renditions. Move over, Mary Barnard, who though supplemented, had not until now been supplanted. Carson's Sappho has the bracing lyric clarity one had glimpsed and guessed at. If on occasion one might quibble with what seem unnecessary awkwardnesses of syntax resulting from the apparent rigor with which she used “wherever possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did,” and if very occasionally one would like to graft on a word or phrase from Jim Powell's lovely Garland of Sappho, one cannot, now that we have it, imagine how we did without it. The notes alone—extensive, scholarly, readable—are deeply illuminating, and provide linguistic and historical contexts for fragments sometimes as meager as one word. Subtitled Fragments of Sappho, the book could oxymoronically be called The Complete Fragments, for anything still extant from the nine books attributed to Sappho is included here, with the Greek on the facing page. If, on leafing through, the impression is one of dilution, on actual reading, the cumulative effect is richness upon richness. Although ours is a poetic age in love with the disjunctive and the fragmentary, and thus primed to receive the poems in the tattered condition in which they are left. Carson's real achievement is not in allowing the gaps to stand (which others, including Davenport and Powell, have to some extent done before), but in giving us a Sappho whose voice dazzles like an iceskater's blade—sharp, quick, and silvery.