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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Last Updated on May 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1407

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.

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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?

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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 of bridegroom. She was later sent to a nunnery. The poem returns to the question of her killing her father and reveals that this was actually an accusation leveled at her after she wrote to tell him that she had borne a son. Anna appears in paintings as a depiction of sin. A motif of circling dogs repeats throughout the poem. Finally, the conference ends, and Anna departs in an airplane.

At the poem’s end, Carson uses an afterword to acknowledge a writer’s awareness of the human craving for narrative—for defined stories with beginnings and ends that are clearly understandable. Her meaning, however, is often open to interpretation, and she asks, “what is so terrible about stepping off the end of a story?” As the afterword concludes, it becomes apparent that Carson’s aim is not to delineate a clearly plotted and understandable narrative. It is more to provide a kind of company between writer and reader:

I find I do have something to give you. Not the mysterious, intimate and consoling data you would have wished, but something to go on with, and in all likelihood the best I can do. It is simply the fact, as you go down the stairs and walk in dark streets, as you see forms, as you marry or speak sharply or wait for a train, as you begin imagination, as you look at every mark, simply the fact of my eyes in your back.

Part 4: The Life of Towns

This section is composed of a series of poems depicting various kinds of fictional towns, each with its own key concerns. Each poem is written in the same style: free verse, but with each line ending with a period, whether or not this demarcates the end of a sentence. Many of the towns described allude to works of literature, such as “Lear Town,” “Sylvia Town,” and “Emily Town”—referring, respectively, to Shakespeare’s King Lear, Sylvia Plath, and either Emily Dickinson or Emily Brontë, both of whom are particular interests for Carson. Other themes that recur in the poems are love, death, sin, Freud, and farewells or leave-takings.

Part 5: The Anthropology of Water

This is the longest section in the book. It begins with a series of essays in which the speaker describes her father’s descent into dementia. Confusion, and what is real or unreal, are key elements of the non-linear narrative. The speaker describes how her father’s illness caused her to consult a pious man, who told her about the pilgrimage to Compostela; it is then implied that she packs her clothes to leave on such a pilgrimage.

The “Essays on the Road to Compostela” describe a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, undertaken over the course of a month of walking. The speaker, a woman who sees herself as largely genderless, travels with a man she identifies only as “My Cid” and to whom she has no sexual attraction. The pair discuss deep questions such as loneliness and its avoidance, the importance of faith, and what defines a pilgrim. Together, they walk to Santiago de Compostela. But then, the speaker says,

Just as no mountain ends at the top, so no pilgrim stops in Santiago. The city and the saint buried there are a point of thought, but the road goes on. It goes west: Finisterre.

And so the speaker and her companion walk further, to Cape Finisterre, the westernmost point in Spain. The speaker, perhaps referring to its reputation in ancient Roman times, calls it “the end of the world.”

This journey serves in many ways as a foil to the one Carson describes in “Just for the Thrill.” This section takes its title from a Ray Charles song and is set in North America (mostly the United States), although it is also rich with allusions to ancient China and its treatment of women. The speaker, who had always seen herself as rather disinterested in sex, is on a road trip across the country with a man she has fallen in love with, whom she desires but also seems to harbor some fear of. On first meeting him, she believed him to be a homosexual, which relieved her; now, she views his sexuality in an “anthropological” way and thinks of him as “the Emperor” because he is writing a dissertation on the concept of concubinage in ancient China. As the pair travel across America, the speaker considers her own loneliness in love, as well as her discomfort at being viewed as a woman.

In the final sections of part 5, the speaker discusses her brother, with whom she had never been close until she was fourteen. Shortly after this, he left to travel the world, seemingly disappearing. The speaker therefore imagines for him an essay on swimming, “a wishing jewel”: it is called “Water Margins: An Essay on Swimming by My Brother.” Her brother, the swimmer, has only an old cat for a companion, and as he swims, he wonders whether anyone will ever know him. Eventually, the aged cat dies, and the essay ends,

The soul of a cat is mortal. It does its best.

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