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Last Updated on May 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

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.

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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.

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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, appears to view that love as almost abhorrent, a confusing thing which never should have happened to her. She is uncertain about the Emperor’s views on women, given his fixation on concubinage in China, and she approaches his sexuality and his amorous feelings for her “anthropologically” and with detachment. As she begins to fully explore her own femininity, she comes to recognize that the Emperor is interested in her masculinity, too; he is not a clear-cut, dominant male. He wants instead to be sexually submissive to the speaker, even as he studies the history of women as objects.

In Plainwater, Carson wanders experimentally from one form of writing to another: the fragmentary poem gives way to the analytical essay, which is then succeeded by the “short talk,” and then the lengthy narrative poem. In part 3, Carson settles on a consistent poetic form throughout, but its notable feature—that of ending every line of each poem with a period, interrupting the flow of the sentence—is a highly unusual one that forces the reader to move very slowly through the pieces, parsing each poem carefully.

Carson does not wish to encourage enjambment, or the easy digestion of ideas. Rather, it seems that she wishes to force the reader to think and to struggle with the underlying assumption that time is linear or that poems and narratives have definitive interpretations. The component parts of this book do have their own meanings, but these meanings shift depending on the order in which the sections are read and how the reader relates them to each other. Plainwater is a book that defies categorization or simple understanding; rather, the collection rewards rereading and the acceptance of complex, even unanswerable, questions.

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