The Glass Essay

by Anne Carson

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Anne Carson is known for writing in a hybrid of poetry and essay, and literary references abound. In this poem, those references focus on the writing and life of Emily Brontë. The poem has little plot in the conventional sense; a few scenes with the speaker and her mother are conversations, but for most of the poem, Carson's speaker is sitting or walking around, remembering things about her former lover and musing about Emily Brontë.

Still, the poem has a conventional narrative structure. She sets the scene from the first three words, "I can hear," then continues to speak as directly as possible in complete sentences. Using such narration, the writing focuses on the details: a type of quietness in the kitchen, the ambiguous color of space. The poetic nature of her prose-like writing often comes from that directness. Rather than say "I had been crying," she writes:

My face in the bathroom mirror
has white streaks down it.

Or instead of "the snow is melting," she writes "the ice has begun to unclench." The language is spare, but incisive.

A central question of this nearly book-length poem is the conflict between love and freedom. The language reflects this dichotomy without attempting to solve it. Carson uses strategies from both hypotactic and paratactic traditions to dwell in this in-between space. Hypotaxis is traditionally the norm in prose, with sentences containing thoughts that follow other thoughts logically (via dependent clauses). One such example from the poem uses hypotaxis to create a sense of urgency:

I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows
of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.

Parataxis, on the other hand, allows for serious of fragments to exist one after another, and is more common in poetic tradition. The meaning is more associative, as in this transition between stanzas:

At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.


Kitchen is quiet as a bone when I come in.
No sound from the rest of the house.

In this way, Carson agrees to certain restrictions on language—its order, its style—while also subverting them to be "free" within the language. This is mirrored by the content of the poem: the speaker is constrained in her meditation by the nudes and restricted from sleep by the memories. The lover had told her, "Love is freedom," and her grief has made this sentence impossible. She refutes Emily's claim that she feels free:

Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons,
vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters,
locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.
She feels imprisoned by drapes, by her mother, and by the limit of time of the human body (as visible in her interaction with her father). At her mother's, she narrates:
Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,
I am thinking as I stride over the moor.

The moor represents her mind's vigorous focus on both the lover and Emily, and even as she strides (a verb often used to denote a casual tone), she is limited by it. In her mix of anger, she refers to Emily's famous revenge story, Wuthering Heights:

Heathcliff would have been set free.
But Emily knew how to catch a devil.

Love is not liberty, as the speaker was told—it is chase, it is intent, and...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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she wonders over "the complex mysteries of love and hate," associating the two. The poem's obsession with freedom is thus most elegantly told by its obsession with imprisonment.

Her subject matter and crucial use of "I" in this poem follow the tradition of the generation of poets before Carson who founded confessional poetry. Like them, she uses the first person pronoun as a guide to drive the poem. She also describes experiences and scenes that were previously societally taboo. A perfect example of this is the description of her speaker trying to have sex with Law despite his explicit rejection of her, as well as the speaker's explanation that her reason for doing so is so that he will stay the night with her.

By constantly straddling two worlds (love and freedom, public and private, hypotaxis and parataxis, plot and thought), this poem combines the worlds. And in this way, Carson gives a complex, truthful picture of something like life—never only one thing, and always evolving. As she said about the poem in an interview with the Paris Review in 2004:

I see it as a messing around on an upper level with things that I wanted to make sense of at a deeper level. I do think I have an ability to record sensual and emotional facts—to construct a convincing surface of what life feels like, both physical life and emotional life. But when I wrote "The Glass Essay," I also wanted to do something that I would call understanding what life feels like, and I don't believe I did.