Plainwater is best understood as a collection: it groups together a series of shorter works by Anne Carson, both poetry and prose, and unites them in an order which allows them to illuminate one other. When viewed as a collective, it is possible to identify themes and motifs which recur across the work in Plainwater, enabling the reader to gain a better understanding of the constituent parts.
For example, “Canicula di Anna” seems a poem deliberately crafted to confuse upon first perusal. Viewed in hindsight, however, after reading part 5 of the collection, the reader begins to question whether the titular Anna might actually mirror Anne Carson herself, and whether the fraught relationship Anna endures with her father is intended as a fictionalized echo of the one that exists between the speaker of part 5 and her own father.
Anne Carson is a classicist, and this is clear in Plainwater, as it is in many of her other works, such as Autobiography of Red. The first section of Plainwater discusses the ancient Greek poet Mimnermos and alludes to numerous Greek myths and legends. It sets out, in a form familiar to classicists and historians of the ancient world, a number of fragments of poetry, which Carson then goes on to analyze and discuss in essay format. Carson is here creating for, and presenting to, the reader a number of “incomplete” poems that show snatches of a person, or of a thought, without being sufficient to eradicate ambiguity. She then explores in her essay why this can make it very difficult to understand the thoughts of a historical figure, however hard we may try to force them into a frame of reference we understand.
As the book progresses, however, Carson makes it clear that this is not a problem only encountered when attempting to plumb the minds of those long dead. On the contrary, the interviewer’s statement that they only “wanted to know” Mimnermos seems to foreshadow the feelings of the speaker in part 5 as she struggles with adjusting to her father’s descent into dementia. A man who had once said very little, he now begins to speak frequently, to write his condemnation on his daughter’s poetry, and to embrace disorder where he had once loved its opposite. Now that the father no longer recognizes his own daughter—perceiving her instead as alien, as “that woman”—the daughter yearns to know what her father was thinking all those years when his mind was still orderly, but when he kept his thoughts to himself.
The speakers in Plainwater seem to encounter this difficulty with most of the men they encounter. The speaker’s brother, in part 5, did not deem his sister worthy of his interest until she was an adolescent, at which point she was praised for her intelligence, but still largely silenced, expected to listen to him rather than share her own thoughts. Later, the brother seems to disappear, and the speaker is forced to imagine his thoughts for him. The final section of the book imagines the brother as a lonely swimmer with only a cat for company. It is the attempt of the speaker to make sense of a person she evidently never felt she fully knew.
Another man in the book, the Emperor, is similarly mysterious, despite the fact that, unlike the speaker’s father, he rarely stops talking. He is eager to share his own intelligence, learning, and interests—but the speaker, although she loves him,...
(The entire section is 866 words.)