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09 February 2008 @ 03:04 pm
Anne Carson, In Her Various Forms...  

Just who is Anne Carson?

Anne Carson is a Canadian poet who has taught Greek literature and "the classics" for several years. She often draws upon her academic background in Greek literature and classical mythology in her writing, most notably in her book The Autobiography of Red, a novel written in verse that plays upon the story of Geryon and Herakles. In her version, the two are involved in a doomed love affair, and Geryon is a boy with red skin and wings who "may or may not be a monster." (See here and here for more information.)

You can learn about Anne Carson's professional background, awards, and select published works here.

Anne Carson's writing is all over the place-- not only in the wide variety of content she explores, but also in how her work is consumed. Her writing is mentioned everywhere from the classrooms of MFA writing programs to the theater and book-arts. She has explored video art blended with performance and her own text as a form of "lecturing." Sound intriguing? Read on for her poems and see the end of the post for an interesting cross-section of Anne Carson relevant media.

A selection of writing (click the title to read the poem):

God's Christ theory

God had no emotions but wished temporarily
to move in man's mind
as if He did: Christ.

Not passion but compassion.
Com- means 'with.'
What kind of witness would that be?

Translate it.
I have a friend named Jesus
from Mexico.

His father and grandfather are called Jesus too.
They account me a fool with my questions about salvation.
They say they are saving to move to Los Angeles.

New Rule

A New Year's white morning of hard new ice.
High on the frozen branches I saw a squirrel jump and skid.
Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced

down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed
in stiff recoil – or is it just that everything sounds wrong today?
The branches

He wiped his small cold lips with one hand.
Do you fear the same things as

I fear? I countered, looking up.
His empire of branches slid against the air.
The night of hooks?

The man blade left open on the stair?
Not enough spin on it, said my true love
when he left in our fifth year.

The squirrel bounced down a branch
and caught a peg of tears.
The way to hold on is


Town of Finding Out About the Love of God.

I had made a mistake
Before this day
Now my suitcase is ready
Two hardboiled eggs
For the journey are stored
On the places where
My eyes were
How could it be otherwise?
Like a current
Carrying a twig
The sobbing made me
Audible to you.

On Waterproofing

Franz Kafka was Jewish. He had a sister, Ottla, Jewish. Ottla married a jurist, Josef David, not Jewish. When the Nuremburg Laws were introduced to Bohemia-Moravia in 1942, quiet Ottla suggested to Josef David that they divorce. He at first refused. She spoke about sleep shapes and property and their two daughters and a rational approach. She did not mention, because she did not yet know the word, Auschwitz, where she would die in October 1943. After putting the apartment in order she packed a rucksack and was given a good shoeshine by Josef David. He applied a coat of grease. Now they are waterproof, he said.

XXIV. And Kneeling at the Edge of the Transparent Sea I Shall Shape for Myself A New Heart from Salt and Mud
from The Beauty of the Husband

A wife is in the grip of being.
Easy to say Why not give up on this?
But let's suppose your husband and a certain dark woman
like to meet at a bar in early afternoon.
Love is not conditional.
Living is very conditional.
The wife positions herself in an enclosed verandah across the street.
Watches the dark woman
reach out to touch his temple as if filtering something onto it.
Watches him
bend slightly toward the woman then back. They are both serious.
Their seriousness wracks her.
People who can be serious together, it goes deep.
They have a bottle of mineral water on the table between them
and two glasses.
No inebriants necessary!
When did he develop
this puritan new taste?
A cold ship

moves out of harbor somewhere way inside the wife
and slides off toward the flat gray horizon,

not a bird not a breath in sight.

*** Want to read more excerpts from The Beauty of the Husband? See here: http://www.fort.org/carson_xii.html ***

TV Men: The Sleeper

The sleeper, real and dear, is carved on the dark.
Minerals of sleep are travelling into him.
Travelling out of him.
Signal leaps in his wrist.
Caught to me, caught to my nerve.

Night kneels over the sleeper.
Where did his journey begin, where will
it burn through to?
And what does he swim for now.
Swim, sleeper, swim.

Your peace as an evangelist to me.
Your transformations unknown.
I study your sleeping form
at the bottom of the pool
like a house I could return to,

like a head to be cradled in the arms.
Unless you are asleep I cannot make my way
across the night
and through my isolation.
Your small hands lap at the wave.

And contradict everything here, your passion
a whole darkness swung against the kind of sleep we
the stumbled-into sleep of lanterns clipped on four a tour of the mine.
You dove once

into your privatest presentiment
and stayed, face down in your black overcoat.
To my wonder.
Endlessness runs in you like leaves on the tree of night.
To live here one must forget much.

VII. CHANGE from Autobiography of Red

Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.

Then he met Herakles and the kingdoms of his life all shifted down a few notches.
They were two superior eels
at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.
Geryon was going into the Bus Depot
one Friday night about three a.m. to get change to call home. Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.
The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice. Other people
wishing to disembark the bus from New Mexico
were jamming up behind Herakles who had stopped on the bottom step
with his suitcase in one hand
trying to tuck in his shirt with the other. Do you have change for a dollar?
Geryon heard Geryon say.
No. Herakles stared straight at Geryon. But I'll give you a quarter for free.
Why would you do that?
I believe in being gracious.
Some hours later they were down
at the railroad tracks
standing close together by the switch lights. The huge night moved overhead
scattering drops of itself.
You're cold, said Herakles suddenly, your hands are cold. Here.
He put Geryon's hands inside his shirt.

X. SEX QUESTION from Autobiography of Red

Is it a question?

I better be getting home.

They continued to sit. They were parked way out on the highway.
Cold night smell
coming in the windows. New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky.
I guess I'm someone who will never be satisfied,
said Herakles. Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body.
What do you mean satisfied?
Just--satisfied. I don't know. From far down the freeway came a sound
of fishhooks scraping the bottom of the world.
You know. Satisfied. Geryon was thinking hard. Fires twisted through him.
He picked his way carefully
toward the sex question. Why is it a question? He understood
that people need
acts of attention from one another, does it really matter which acts?
He was fourteen.
Sex is a way of getting to know someone,
Herakles had said. He was sixteen. Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon,
he beat at them as a nervous laugh escaped him. Herakles looked.
Suddenly quiet.
It's okay, said Herakles. His voice washed
Geryon open.
Tell me, said Geryon and he intended to ask him, Do people who like sex
have a question about it too?
but the words came out wrong--Is it true you think about sex every day?
Herakles' body stiffened.
That isn't a question it's an accusation. Something black and heavy dropped
between like a smell of velvet.
Herakles switched on the ignition and they jumped forward onto the back of the night.
Not touching
but joined in astonishment as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh.

Want more Anne Carson media?
Hear Anne Carson read "Seated Figure With Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin" and follow along with the text.

Watch and listen to Anne Carson's interpretation of a lecture she was asked to give at Harvard on pronouns. From the description:

Asked to give a lecture on pronouns at Harvard, Carson defied the traditional lecture form by bringing in some collaborators: sound artist Stephanie Rowden, three dancers from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company & video artist Sadie Wilcox. The result was a 25 minute performance called Possessive Used As Drink (Me): a lecture in the form of 15 sonnets.

Also of note: Autobiography of Red has also been adapted for the stage, and has also inspired one book artist in the creation of a "tunnel" book that unfolds with a paper doll of Geryon inside.

Anne Carson, comfy with the classics and her laptop

advancedpoetry: Janalynadvancedpoetry on February 13th, 2008 03:52 am (UTC)
Lori, thanks for putting all of this together. I'm really happy to know that Anne Carson produces in all forms of media, as I felt like her exploration of the intersection between novel/poem in Autobiography of Red truly inspired me. In Autobiography of Red, she uses all the elements of a story: an overarching plot, dialogue, characters, passage of time. The verse reads like prose (in the sense that I am forming a story in my mind as I read), but through line breaks, an odd sense of detail, and simile, the story we get has this expansive and resonating power that seems to provide so much reflection of interiority (I associate her verse novel with this image of bread rising in the oven, you know, where the sticky inside yeast stuff expands as it bakes).

I think part of how Anne Carson achieves this is her sense of the word. She pays so much attention to the level of the word, and finding ways of opening up each word or phrase and uncovering the intimate about it.
I have some examples:
They were two superior eels
at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.

The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice.
Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon
(I love this one because it refers to the sense of putting together a question, to Geryon's thinking, to the topic of the conversation, to the dynamics between the two characters--this phrase touches upon all of these things)
fishhooks scraping the bottom of the world
His voice washed
Geryon open

as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh.

We can see her amazing sense of the word in her other poetry too:
Two hardboiled eggs
For the journey are stored
On the places where
My eyes were

(Carson deliberately plays around with the possibility of meaning, is it replacement of the eyes themselves or where the eye is looking, and like we discussed in class, this sense of possibility is really great)

Sorry, this post is getting a little bit long. I guess I have a question. I know story-telling (narrative) poems run the risk of saying too much, being prose-y or garrish, especially when there's dialogue involved, and I love how Anne Carson is able to take on telling a story in its detail but doesn't run into that problem. I was wondering what everyone had to say about how she makes the telling of a very clear narrative work.
advancedpoetry: Brandonadvancedpoetry on February 13th, 2008 08:27 am (UTC)
I suppose what I find compelling about Carson’s writing—and I thank Lori for the great sampling provided here—is her willingness to expand upon the given, upon the cultural messages and narratives (both those inherited implicitly and those actively distilled in us by the academe) that one receives in consequence of being thoughtfully engaged with Western society. We might credit this attunement to social scripts/discourses to Carson’s “alter-ego” as a classics professor. However, whereas we might expect the poetry of such a serious scholar to be somewhat turgid and as self-aggrandized as a Corinthian column, Carson’s verse dares to intrigue while also making us laugh, empathize, and care. I think she is capable of doing so, as the speaker who introduced her in the audio clip says, because when Carson “[meditates] on artists’ lives caught in the carnage of history” (we might recall her marvelous “Sonnet of Addressing Oscar Wilde”) she explores the past with playfulness and a lack of abject veneration—both products of her “dialectical imagination” and “stricken moral sense.”

For example, in “Seated Figure With Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin” (an ekphrastic poem by its title) her references are wide-ranging, from the classical/obviously canonical (I’m assuming, given the way the lines wrap around to the next, that the poem was composed in monostichs):

If your defense is perfect after all it was the trees that walked away.
[which reminds me of “never vanquish'd be until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him” from Macbeth.]

If how many were killed by David exceeds how many were killed by Saul by tens of thousands.

If Vitruvius does not talk about taking temples apart but we may assume the same canon applies[,]

to more problematic/modern figures:

If as Artaud says anyone who does not smell cooked bomb and condensed vertigo is not worthy of being alive.

If you bring “infinite fractions of solitude” (Nabokov).

If Freud says the relation between a gaze and what one wishes to see involves allure.

However, very rarely do we find the author employing the tone of the ceremonial. Instead, even when Carson is constructing her own epic of sorts with Autobiography of Red, the events and characters—while they may be fantastic—are conveyed via a language that humanizes as it connects, rather than separates as it apotheosizes. Therefore, even though we are in the realm of myth, we get these achingly mortal, completely relatable images, such as the following from “VII. Change”:

...Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.

You're cold, said Herakles suddenly, your hands are cold. Here.
He put Geryon's hands inside his shirt.


In reading Carson’s poetry, I guess my wonder would be: to what degree do we deem it imperative to engage the past in our own writing? Can we feel we bring credibility to the subject even if we are not classics scholars? Also, how do we see persona functioning in Carson’s oeuvre? If it plays a large part, does that make the poems impersonal?


As a final note, I found it terribly wonderful that—according to the online biographies on Carson—Milton made her “[defect]” from university education to “the world of graphic arts” for a period and that she decided to study classics because that is what Oscar Wilde had done. As far as I can tell, she has her literary priorities in order.
advancedpoetry: Annaadvancedpoetry on February 13th, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC)
First off - I believe I am going to go off and purchase "Autobiography of Red," the excerpts really blew me away.

I think what appeals to me most (and this may be somewhat of a reiteration) is the blending of the personal and the larger than life. The figures of Geryon and Herekles carry with them all the baggage of mythology (which, depending on the reader could be quite a bit or simply the vaguest recognition of the mythological names and the red skin and wings) but this in no way inhibits her from making them into their own unique, painfully realistic, moving and contemporary characters.

Lori - did you read all of "Glass, Irony and God" ? I read it last year, and noticed something similar between what I've read of "Autobiography of Red" and some of the poems in it.

One of them: "The Glass Essay" involves the speaker closely reading the collected works of Emily Bronte. It is full of details that a Bronte expert (which I am not) would recognize, but is also so strong in terms of the narrator's voice and experience, that even to someone untrained, like me, I felt I related to and understood both the speaker and Bronte, to a certain extent.

In another series: "The Fall of Rome: A Traveler's Guide" We follow someone traveling in a foreign land. There is a decent amount of Italian in the poem, some of which I recognized from my one course in Italian, and some of which I did not (and some of which I slowly remembered as I read), but Carson is a master of using context to make these potentially alienating words and details understandable enough that the reader does not feel too lost.

In all three of these endeavors, the allusions and use of potentially uncommon knowledge are not alienating, have the power to enrich the reading, but do not render the poem meaningless should the reader not get it.

Currently, I am at a computer lab, and do not have the book with me, but I would be more than happy to post excerpts at a later date.
Blue Eared Bunnyburninglotus on December 1st, 2010 12:53 am (UTC)
As a belated aside, I have to chime in with a filmmaker's perspective on Autobiography of Red (and Carson's brilliant work in general):

From the very first page of Red and through to the end, I was enamored with her use of synesthetic epitheton for even the most visceral, inexpressible feelings. This woman has devoted her works to a very particular muse, Eros, and His sweetbitter powers manifest beautifully.

It's cinematic. Autobiography of Red practically screams (in my ears, at least) to be translated onto celluloid. If someone else hasn't already started that process, by god, I will!