Plainwater Summary
by Anne Carson

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Plainwater Summary

Plainwater is a collection of poetry and prose by Anne Carson.

  • Part 1 consists of invented fragments purported to be by the ancient Greek poet Mimnermos. The long poem in part 3, too, depends on questions of authenticity and originality.
  • Part 2 is a series of prose poems called “Short Talks,” whereas part 4 is a series of short, exclusively end-stopped poems, each of which is titled with the name of a “town.”
  • Part 5, the longest in the book, contains several series of short, essayistic pieces concerning memory, travel, and connection.

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Summary

Anne Carson’s Plainwater is a collection of essays and poetry divided into five sections. While there are elements of thematic similarity between the different sections, there is no singular narrative arc across them.

Part 1: Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings

Mimnermos was a Greek elegiac poet writing in the classical period; his work exists only in fragments today. At the beginning of this section, Carson lays out a number of “fragments” purporting to be by Mimnermos and dealing with subjects such as lust, time, and death. As elsewhere in the book, however, Carson utilizes anachronistic elements, such as the reference to East Berlin in fragment 2, to make it clear that these are not actually classical Greek relics. At the same time, Carson casually juxtaposes these elements of the modern world against allusions to timeless myths, such as the story of Tithonos, the lover of Eos, in fragment 4. He asked for immortality but failed to ask for eternal youth—and so he continued to live and to age.

Following the fragments, Carson presents an essay on the difficulty of understanding a historical figure whose work exists only in such disparate fragments. She notes that Mimnermos’s work, like the mythical Tithonos himself, has been rendered “incomplete” by the ravages of time. There is a suggestion that Mimnermos, too, remains incomplete to present-day readers as a poetic figure. In an attempt to interpret and understand him, Carson then goes on to imagine how Mimnermos might be interviewed, as if by a modern journalist using a tape recorder. Carson lays out three scripts in which the interviewer interrogates Mimnermos based on the scant understanding it is possible to glean from his remaining work. Mimnermos’s responses are garbled, out of sequence, and difficult to parse. The interviewer concludes by saying, “I wanted to know you,” to which Mimnermos responds, “I wanted far more.”

Part 2: Short Talks

Each “short talk” in this brief section is essentially a prose poem in which the speaker interrogates an aspect of life. These aspects range from talks “On Disappointments in Music” and “On the Mona Lisa” to those “On Trout” and “On Sunday Dinner with Father.” Allusions to Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath appear here; Carson refers to both poets more than once, in passing, over the course of Plainwater. The question of how far parents understand their children—or vice versa—is also introduced in this speculative section.

Part 3: Canicula di Anna

This section of the book comprises a lengthy poem which defies ready analysis. Again, Carson deploys anachronism to intrigue and displace the reader: Is she writing, as she says, about Perugia in the fifteenth century? Or is this poem more of an allegory, a means of expressing modern feelings about painting, womanhood, and how women are represented in art?

The poem ostensibly describes the arrival of multiple “phenomenologists” at a conference; the speaker is clearly someone held separate from those he observes. This speaker has a “hunger” for Anna, who is a “dreamer.” They think of Anna while phenomenologists discuss events from 1935, in defiance of the stipulated time frame of the poem; group portraits are painted, and the phenomenologists argue with each other over issues of theory. Anna, the subject of various paintings, is said to have killed her father, with whom she had quarreled over her choice...

(The entire section is 1,407 words.)