The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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,...

(The entire section is 909 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 599 words.)