Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1922
Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours is challenging and exciting, and if it does not have quite the emotional pull of her last book, Autobiography of Red (1998), it teases and invigorates. Carson’s work invariably pushes the envelope; there are no boundaries she respects, and a part of the appeal of her work is in the odd juxtapositions and minglings that combine prose and poetry, ancient and modern, exalted and trivial, abstract and concrete. She is a true practitioner of bricolage, building surprising structures from the most unlikely materials.
The poetry books of Anne Carson, a teacher of classics at McGill University in Montreal, include Plainwater (1995), Glass, Irony, and God(1995), and Autobiography of Red. She has received a Lannan Literary Award as well as other awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship, and has written in other genres besides poetry—indeed, Men in the Off Hours is not all poetry.
Carson’s previous book, Autobiography of Red, tells the story of the minor character Geryon from fragments of Stesichorus’s work that she herself had translated. She gives Geryon center stage and makes him a troubled youth whose sexual coming of age is strange and poignant. The reader finds in Geryon’s freakishness and self-consciousness a painful reminder of acute adolescence. The “novel in verse” has the excitement and suspense of a novel—knowing what happened to Geryon in the Greek myth does not mean one knows what this Geryon’s fate is—and it also has the linguistic richness and precision characteristic of good poetry.
Men in the Off Hours is more a treat for the mind; its mingling of poetry and prose essay challenges the reader’s expectations and provides intriguing insights. Carson wrenches characters out of history and places them in other contexts. In a very basic way this can be seen as a book about time—how time is experienced and what history means. The odd pairings force a reconsideration of time and the implications of historicizing. The book examines the questions of how different eras might hold dialogue and what such dialogue might reveal. Together with the sense of time’s irrevocable passing, there is also the presence of elegy—for historical periods, persons, and places that are either gone or vanishing.
What Carson does with elegy is astounding. For instance, the very brief poem “Epitaph: Europe” has an uncanny sense of rightness as well as a nod to Paul Celan in the language:
Once live X-rays stalked the hills as if they were Trees. Bones stay now And their Lent stays with them, black on the nail. Tattering on the daywall.
The poem seems in four lines to encapsulate an elegy for the war dead, for the Christianity of the past, perhaps even for Celan himself. Other moving elegies are a strong presence in the collection.
This book is even more of a mixture than Carson’s other work, and the disparity of its contents is more evident. There are brief elegiac poems, sequences of poems on a figure, essays, and reflections. The collection is longer than most single collections, and the essay that provides much of the extra length may hold less appeal than the poems for some readers.
This long essay is a lot like the criticism of some of the French essentialists, particularly perhaps Hélène Cixous, and, although it is quite interesting and the writer often hides successfully behind her words, it takes a different kind of attention from the poetry. It may be a requirement of the postmodern sensibility to have no expectations, to be ready to be led at any time in a new direction, but for many readers this essay is something very different and possibly distracting. Called “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity,” it appears to provide a theory of male/female wet/dry, overflowing of female boundaries, and so forth, and as such to be in line with work of other theorists, but questions of possible irony and multiple meaning arise as the reader attempts to look at the essay in the same light as the poetry. The essay is somewhat frustrating, and many will return happily to the translucent layers of the poems, which are rewarding at whatever depth the reader enters.
An intellectually intriguing sequence is “TV Men,” in which the characters Sappho, Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, Lazarus, Antigone, Anna Akhmatova, and Thucydides—the last in conversation with Virginia Woolf—are represented in quick little glimpses as though for a television spot. Apparently Carson herself put together a series for public television about the history of Nobel Prize winners. “I was supposed to attack science from the view of a humanist in these little 30-second sound bites,” she said. “It was just ridiculous.” Clearly, though, the difficulty and potential of such a task intrigued her, as she created her own series of snapshots, actually very complex reinventions of some well-known figures. “Tolstoy” begins thus:
A curiously tender man and yet
even after their marriage he
called his desire to kiss her
“the appearance of Satan.”
Her in right profile against the light, all the music in the room streams
toward the blue frosty window.
Desire, the trees are rags. Desire, streaks of it
scalding the fog. This is not what I meant (Lev thinks wildly)—
words from a bad play, embraces that knock the lamp,
you are so young! And this fog.
His bedroom on a March morning as cool as pearls, close-up on rustling,
coats or shawls.
A new Tolstoy emerges from the imaginary film, a man sensuous as well as uncompromising, who lives in a lovely broken world that cries out for a forbidden touch. The sequence demonstrates intertextuality in practice. The figures and eras play off one another, redefining both. These are indeed strange but telling brief appearances, with interpretations/interpolations of other times and sensibilities popping up in the middles of scenes. The reader does not know where to step in these poems, where their firm ground is, but the flux and the betrayals are part of their power.
Another quirky but profound pairing that serves as the basis of a sequence is “Hopper: Confessions,” which plays Edward Hopper’s paintings off against Saint Augustine’s Confessiones (397-400;Confessions, 1620). A sample from the series is “Evening Wind”:
What dog or horse will wish to be remembered
after passing away from this world
where it moved
as a frailty.
You on the other hand creature whitely Septembered
can you pause in the thought
that links origin
Shut it not up I beseech thee, do not shut up these
usual yet hidden things
from my desire.
(Augustine, Confessions XI)
The sequence allows the saint and the painter to trade their images, the spiritual for the sensual, the interior for the exterior. Thus the poem brings out the shadow side of each. Does Augustine reject the world and Hopper accept it, or vice versa? Or does each man do both? In the case of Hopper’s paintings, is not the surface also the substance? Is it also true in Augustine’s work? In this poem, as in most in the collection, the possibilities multiply.
Not all the work is so difficult; the concluding “Appendix to Ordinary Time” is a brief, touching tribute to Carson’s mother, which also serves as a recapitulation of the thematic content of the book as it relates to time and death. “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” a poem earlier in the book, also is simple and direct, although there are some vibrations beneath the surface. The speaker tells of putting on the cardigan—in a sense, in the same way she has put on all the other identities in the collection. Wearing someone else, she is transformed, and this transformation brings understanding.
Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.
I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.
I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes paring down from the moonbone in the sky.
The speaker remembers “the moment at which I knew/ he was going mad inside his laws”; this was the moment when she found him dressed in the buttoned-up cardigan on a “hot July afternoon,” the look on his face reminding her of “a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning/ for a long trip” and who sits
. . . very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers
over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.
It would be too simple for Carson to include only complicated, intellectually dense work; readers are led to expect this, and therefore it does not occur. However, most of the poems are rich and layered, and certainly some of the pleasure of Carson’s work is in the game itself, in unraveling the skeins that are woven together in the poem. This is especially true in poems such as “Sumptuous Destitution,” which runs a directive to Emily Dickinson made by a contemporary speaker through a sequence of sentences from Dickinson’s letters to and from her mentor, Thomas Higginson. The result is a comment on Emily Dickinson, feminist theory, and the meaning of historical time.
Typically—if one can generalize at all—Carson’s work is postmodern in technique, usually without the flatness of affect that characterizes the work of many postmodern poets. It does have the randomness, mingling of discourses, odd yet strangely apposite connections, and appropriation of literature and history that characterize postmodern work. It also demonstrates some very contemporary playful techniques such as the interruption of one discourse by another and the inclusion of “drafts” that are actually different poems. She sets up expectations that are not met, plays with the boundaries of genres, and uses the notion of “drafts” to suggest that nothing is “fixed,” not time, not history, and certainly not poetry. However, the poems are emotionally convincing; the use of experimental techniques and the embedded chunks of classicism do add up in ways even a casual reader can see. Carson’s history is twisted and fictionalized, but in her reinventions there is an exhilaratingly fresh perspective.
One never knows what to expect from Carson; there is not an easily identifiable “Anne Carson poem” as there is an identifiable style of poem for many other contemporary writers. Her contribution is that she is always searching for the new but without discarding the old. The poems are demanding, but one might say that they plead for in-depth reading rather than simply requiring attention as a right. Carson is one of the rare contemporary poets who bridge the gap between the usual readership of other poets and the wider audience of those who love literature, and does so without compromise. Often poem sequences picked up by the reading public have been of questionable literary value, desirable for their sensationalism or suspense, but Carson’s appeal is subtle and complex. No confessionalist, she hides behind her literary and historical figures, and only in the space between her conflated images do readers catch a brief glimpse of her.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (March 1, 2000): 1190.
Library Journal 125 (February 15, 2000): 168.
The New Leader 83 (March/April, 2000): 34.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (May 14, 2000): 44.
Publishers Weekly 247 (February 7, 2000): 70.
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