Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poem (Novel Excerpt): Anne Carson

One of the things about original artists is that it sometimes takes a while for their work to be assimilated by the wider culture, if that ever occurs. Sometimes it does, at least to some extent, at other times it doesn't, and in their time, the critics will often ride their same hobbyhorses and commonplaces, usually championing what they know and venturing occasionally a bit out to inspect, with some people being completely passed over except by their peers, or some cases, by peers from generations to come.  An artist whose work suggested to me from the very first that she was an original presence is Anne Carson (1950-). I read her extraordinary collection Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995) immediately when it came out--with its introduction, as if it needed one, by the utterly original and still passed-over Guy Davenport--with stupefaction. Here was a writer whose poetry looked like, well, no one else's I'd seen before, at least no one else really of her time, even as it was in conversation with many works of the past and present. (Just as startling was her 1997 essay in The Threepenny Review, "Economy, Its Fragrance." I remember talking about that piece for weeks on end with writers I knew; its aroma lingers still.)  Carson also published another strikingly original book that year, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (Knopf, 1995), and, I learned in those days before the internet as we know it, an idiosyncratic scholarly study, Eros, the Bittersweet, with Princeton University Press in 1988 that pointed, in its strangeness, to what would appear 7 years later.

Carson has gone on to become one of the best known poets in the English language. She is widely acclaimed, has won many major awards (though not, unfortunately, the Pulitzer Prize), and now teaches at New York University after having spent many years at McGill University and later the University of Michigan teaching the classics, the area of her training and the subject of many of her critical texts and foundation of many of her creative works. Earlier this year I blogged about her most recent gift to the literary world, yet another utter originality, her accordion-printed elegy-in-a-box, Nox (New Directions, 2011), which is, I felt and feel, less a poem than a poetic performance and artifact. I shall leave it to others to interpret that. Instead, I am posting a snippet from Carson's novel-and-myth in poetry, one of her finest works, the Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998), which allegedly retells, as only Carson can, the Greek lyric poet Stesichoros's (632/629 BCE-556/553 BCE) story of Geryon, a queer little red monster. Of course "retells" is a really reductive way of describing what Carson does, which is to animate a distant world with elements drawn from our own, but with such metaphorical and imagistic power that it is a completely new world we both recognize and view in awe altogether.  One of Carson's key skills in all her work is her capacity to, as the Russian formalists described it, enstrange, to make the familiar so strange that it feels new, and the strange and new oddly familiar that we imagine we can, at some level, grasp it.

Here is a one little snippet from Autobiography of Red describing a moment nearly every mother faces but in such a way that it feels as if it were conjured from a mind running on a different track. Enjoy!


His mother stood at the ironing board lighting and cigarette and regarding Geryon.

Outside the dark pink air
was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time.
Her cool voice floated
over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood
at the screen door.
He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell
of the screen itself as it
pressed its grid onto his face.  She was behind him now. This would be hard
for you if you were weak
but you're not weak, she said and neatened his little red wings and pushed him
out the door.

Anne Carson, from Autobiography of Red, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Copyright © by Anne Carson, 1998. All rights reserved

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