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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 864

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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 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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

“The Glass Essay” is an ambitious, inventive, thirty-eight-page series of interrelated poetic montages and meditations on the loss of love. This central theme is developed using three interwoven sets of images: memories of the life and works of nineteenth century English novelist Emily Brontë, memories of the author’s family, and visions concerning the nature of poetry. Using short prose passages, triplet line structure, one-word subheadings, and short sentences floating in white space, Anne Carson intermingles dreams, memories, family portraits, and quotations from Brontë’s letters and diary papers to explore the nature of gender, the artistry of writing, and, most importantly, the painful feelings in the aftermath of lost love. With these juxtaposed streams emphasizing the place of the mind and body in human relationships, the poem begins and ends with two perspectives on the female body, the central image of the poem.

The poem begins at four o’clock in the morning in a dream, followed by the poem’s first glass or mirror image: “my face in the bathroom mirror/ has white streaks down it.” The setting then moves to the house of the poet’s mother where the three central women of the poem—the poet, her mother, and Brontë—are compared and contrasted, showing three generational perspectives regarding self-identity and relationships with men. Carson begins weaving her tropes by stating that visits with her mother make her fear that she is becoming Brontë, and she compares her kitchen to the moors in Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847). Kitchen imagery—the dining table, food in the refrigerator, the mother eating toast—represent conventional expectations of women. The narrator’s mother believes modern bathing suits arouse men, dislikes feminists, and tells her daughter that she should have worked more on her relationships with men, particularly the poet’s five-year affair with the principal lover of her past named Law. This criticism prompts the poet into a meditation on Brontë’s interest in “watching” from the cliffs on the moors and feeling imprisoned in a world of men. Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman trapped by strict Victorian conventions, walks the moor, has no friends, has no sexual life, cannot earn her own living, and thus writes poetry about prisons from her “invisible cage.” The narrator connects her own life with Brontë’s biography and fictional characters, observing that during the long period of grief after the loss of love, her body’s needs are also a prison. The poet realizes that resolving these needs will be a major part of her healing process.

The poet sees mirroring characteristics that she shares with Heathcliffe, the male protagonist of Wuthering Heights, who is also tormented by his perceived loss of love. The poet recalls the scene in the novel in which Heathcliffe overhears a conversation in the kitchen but only hears the first half of his lover’s sentence. Had he not run away, he would have heard her desire for him instead of living a half life as a “pain devil.” This fragmented communication is echoed in the poet’s life when she goes to the hospital to visit her aging father who can no longer speak full sentences. She recalls previous uncertain meanings when her parents were younger and they exchanged sexual innuendoes beyond their then eleven-year-old daughter’s comprehension. Throughout the poem, fragments and unclear meanings are a central motif demonstrated in Carson’s images and line structure.

Carson develops her major points, remembering the thirteen pictures of female nudes in Law’s house that become artistic muses in separate, numbered sections of the poem. Carson first attempts to perceive the female body intellectually as art, but she then decides that Brontë wrote art she “could neither contain nor control.” This lack of control is seen as the link between art and romantic love that leads to loss and despair.

In a pivotal scene, the poem shifts back in time with descriptions of the last meeting between the poet and Law where he tells the writer he no longer desires her. In a last attempt to arouse him, the poet offers him her nude back, his favorite part of her body. Law moves on top of her and the poet realizes “Everything I know about love and its necessities/ I learned in that one moment.” Thrusting her “burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me,” the narrator describes images of coldness, winter, and cruelty. She compares Law with Heathcliffe and juxtaposes images of light and dark, saying she prefers the light of sexless day. Recalling the pictures of nudes, she focuses on nude “#1,” a “Woman Caught in a Cage of Thorns.” She describes Charlotte Brontë’s conventional responses to her sister Emily’s poems and compares her own self-expectations with those of the nineteenth century. This connection again becomes personal when the poet returns to the setting of her mother’s kitchen where the two women argue about the responsibility of women arousing male sexual desires and the poet realizes her mother is afraid. The poet points to generational differences in their perspectives. Then, in a hospital, “where distinctions blur,” the narrator visits her mentally ill father who is strapped to the wall, representing the other side of the glass or mirror. In the guise of her father, males are seen to be equally subject to imprisonment and mental anguish but for different reasons from those suffered by women.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

In her narrative, Carson uses a number of common poetic techniques such as the repetition of words to emphasize dramatic moments. Many “broken moments” are intentional fragments meant to illustrate “half-lives” as “half-finished sentences.” Carson’s original imagery and mix of tones and styles move the poem from one theme to another in shifts that keep her three narratives easily understandable. Simultaneously, her images reinforce each other, repeating and underlining her points. For example, transparent images—primarily glass, mirrors, and ice—are both metaphors and euphemisms for sex and interpersonal communications and also serve as vivid, strongly drawn, and primarily quiet settings. Descriptions of the settings illustrate both external and emotional states. Wintery images of ice and cold underscore the poet’s feelings of loss and reinforce her glass imagery. Near the poem’s opening, Carson states, “It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass./ Now and then a remark trails through the glass.” These fragmentary remarks evoke responses from different levels of the poet’s consciousness, linking perspectives with experience. These glass images move from weather and the natural world to psychological states, allowing the poet to evaluate moments in her life from an emotional distance as in the lines “the video tape jerks to a halt/ like a glass slide under a drop of blood.” Her “atmosphere of glass” is later juxtaposed with Brontë’s “electric atmosphere” in which women wrestle with the “pain devil” of love.

Carson also makes use of colors and juxtapositions of light and dark. “Strings of lights” and lamps illuminate dark rooms, blue and black colors are repeated in various settings, and painful memories take place in cold, wintry settings that emphasize the darkness of feelings of loss. She observes that her mother and Law both prefer the dark. Her mother is angry over the poet’s unwillingness to close shades and her preference for the morning sun. Carson’s use of cool colors, particularly blue, contributes to the tone, mood, and imagery of the poem: Her aloof ex-lover Law lives in a “high blue room,” time is described as “blue and green lozenges,” and ice pokes through the “blue hole at the top of the sky.” Gold is another repeated symbol of irony, including “gold milk,” a “gold toothpick,” and the “Golden Mile,” the name of the chronic wing of the hospital where the poet’s father is confined.

Several sets of images unify the different narratives, including visions of the body that begin and end the poem and are recurring images throughout. For example, when Law announces he no longer desires the poet, she realizes “There was no area of my mind/ not appalled by this action, no part of my body/ that could have done otherwise.” The poem’s final lines return to the author’s body, nude “#13” now transformed into a vision:

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

By making her body a symbol of universal pain (literally stripped to the bone), Carson makes her breakup with Law a shared event with her readers, and she counsels them on how to deal with loss. Her reconciliation with loss allows her to create a distance from the pain in the mind, to put feelings in artistic and intellectual terms, and to examine loss and relieve its power.