Anne Carson, classicist (McGill University, Montreal; also Calgary, Princeton, Emory, Michigan, Berkeley …), poet and painter. Author of: Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay and Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (criticism); at least six collections of poetry — Glass, Irony and God, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Autobiography of Red, Men in the Off Hours, The Beauty of the Husband, Decreation: Essays, Poetry and Opera; Short Talks (chapbook); Fragments of Sappho and Electra (translations); The Mirror of Simple Souls (libretto) … My list is no doubt incomplete. Ian Rae in The Literary Encyclopedia (entry dated 2001) says: 'She lives alone in a rented apartment in Montreal where she continues to write, using one desk for her academic projects and one for her poetic endeavours. … Carson has also begun producing one-of-a-kind books consisting of photographs, paintings, and poems that she compiles by hand and distributes among friends'.
I've just finished Autobiography of Red, the first book of hers I've read. It is a long poem, wrapped around with mock-academic material which nevertheless is steeped in learning. At its heart lies the story of Geryon, 'a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia', The Red Place, and whose story was once told, in a very long lyric poem, by the now largely forgotten and prolific author, Stesichoros (born c 650 BC): three-bodied Geryon and his cattle, the object of attention of Herakles' tenth labour. In the proem, Carson writes: 'If Stesichoros had been more of a conventional poet he might have taken the point of view of Herakles and framed an account of the victory of culture over monstrosity.' Barbarians outside the citadel: the Other. Instead, Stesichoros' poem tells the story 'from Geryon's own experience':
For credits and detailed notes, click on each photo
We see his red boy's life and his little dog. A scene of wild appeal from his mother, which breaks off. Interspersed shots of Herakles approaching over the sea. A flash of the gods in heaven pointing to Geryon's doom. The battle itself. The moment when everything goes suddenly slow and Herakles' arrow divides Geryon's skull. We see Herakles kill the little dog with His famous club.
Stesichoros' poem survives now only in fragments (Geryoneis, "The Geryon Matter"), no passage longer than 30 lines — 'papyrus scraps … (which) withhold as much as they tell'. I understand that, along with confusion of genres, collage has always been important to Carson, and it is no surprise that for her the fragments of Stesichoros' poem make for 'a tantalizing cross-section of scenes, both proud and pitiful'. Moreover, Stesichoros, famed in antiquity ('most Homeric of the lyric poets' — Longinus), evidently fascinates Carson. In the proem she says of adjectives that they 'seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being'. The proem continues:
Of course, there are several different ways to be. In the world of the Homeric epic, for example, being is stable and particularity is set fast in tradition. When Homer mentions blood, blood is black. When women appear, women are neat-ankled or glancing. … The sea is unwearying. Death is bad. … Homer's epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption. There is a passion in it but what kind of passion? "Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code," says Baudrillard. So into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born. And Stesichoros was studying the surface relentlessly. It leaned away from him. He went closer. It stopped. "Passion for substances" seems a good description of that moment. For no reason that anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches. Stesichoros released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow hooved. Or a river being root silver. Or a child bruiseless. … Or Herakles ordeal strong.
Autobiography of Red started life as prose, but 'Carson was dissatisfied with the result and broke down the novel's structure into distinct sections: an essay on the Greek poet Stesichoros, translated fragments of Stesichoros' Geryoneis, a lyric sequence based on the Geryoneis, a palinode, a mock interview, and two appendices. The novel's seven sections recall the seven sections of the Greek nomos or lyric performance for which Stesichoros was famous' (Ian Rae).
The scholarly wrap-around has been called 'a wickedly parodistic parallel universe to the novel inside it--a time-machine recasting, with the tart, dry humor of one of Borges' scholarly-fantastic inventions' (Elizabeth Macklin, Boston Review). Kate Moses, writing in Salon, notes 'the seemingly incongruous elements of Western canonical references and contemporary autobiography, making each seem both fresh and unquestionably related'. What lies at the centre is 47 chapters, Carson's own tale of Geryon. Of these chapters, between one and seven pages long, Macklin has commented:
(they) are in alternating long and short lines, short lines reading at first like reconsiderings of the long-afterthoughts, emendations. The form soon comes to seem almost a supplementary punctuation, an accurate respiration for the semi-skeptical tone, sometimes for emphasis. Although rhymeless, the chapters are narrative lyrics, with their own titles: "Ideas," "Sex Question," "Hades," "Pair."
Carson's own tale of Geryon takes place nowhere near Erytheia. Macklin again:
"Geryon lived on an island in the Atlantic," his autobiographer writes, although elsewhere the place can sound Canadian. "Every second Tuesday in winter Geryon's father and brother went to hockey practice. / Geryon and his mother had supper alone." It's at 3 a.m. in a bus depot that Geryon meets Herakles, in Chapter 7 ("Change"), which begins: "Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence."
Reworking Stesichoros, Carson presents the Geryon/Herkales relationship as,
a (contemporary) destructive love affair … Hercules does not kill Geryon, he breaks his heart. Her Geryon is a winged red monster but also a gifted American boy. … Sexually abused by an older brother, inarticulately attached to his chain-smoking mom, he becomes a photographer. His redness and wings stand for creativity, its power and its pain. (''Everyday life as a winged red person had accommodated him'' to ridicule.) Since Hercules is Action Man, unreflective testosterone personified, their relationship is inevitably fraught. (''Jesus,'' says Hercules, ''I hate it when you cry.'' He wants Geryon to enjoy sex, as he does himself, without the awful complexity of thinking.) So this poem is about knowing and loving a man who has a good time with you, but will never know you back. Geryon's redness is his inmost being, his selfhood, but Hercules dreams about him in yellow. ''Even in dreams he doesn't know me at all,'' Geryon thinks. Hercules exists ''on the other side of the world''; Geryon arcs his back alone in torment, ''upcast to . . . the human custom of wrong love.'' Ruth Padel, NYT
At this point I found myself thinking of Iris Murdoch and her Romanes Lecture (Oxford) for 1976, published subsequently as The Fire and the Sun. Carson, too, has explored Eros in a non-fictional work, Eros the Bittersweet (1986):
Carson begins with Sappho's description of desire as “bittersweet” and argues that “[a]ll human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies”. Noting that the Greek term eros signifies “want” or “lack”, Carson develops a theory of desire in which Eros mediates between subject and object, deferring the attainment of desire, but also creating the desire for desire. Carson then applies this quasi-Derridean theory to ancient Greek lyric and romance, all the while formulating the ideas on desire that would come to dominate her poetic output. (Ian Rae)
The poem's narrative and lyrical power absorbed my interest right until the end:
After the affair he lives a ''numb life'' until, years later in Buenos Aires, he bumps into Hercules again. Hercules, with his new Peruvian boyfriend, Ancash, takes Geryon to an Andes village whose inhabitants believe winged red people are volcano survivors -- people who have been in flame and lived. Here the sexual triangle triggers violence, but ultimately a healingly creative insight. For unlike Stesichoros, Carson is interested in Geryon's survival through art. Geryon's photographic lens is a wonderfully rich image for what Carson herself is doing in her book. As Stesichoros got his sight back by reinterpreting myth, Carson's reinterpretation turns myth into the recording and surviving of pain through the viewfinder of poetry. Like ''Lava Man,'' a volcano survivor whose veins hold ''ocher-colored drops that sizzled when they hit the plate,'' Geryon comes through volcanic passion and out the other side. He is the eyewitness of catastrophe survived. (Ruth Padel)
Aleatoric Art! Ian Rae says that the essay is a “try” for Carson, a medium of experiment. Stalking these essay-poems for me is the spirit of Montaigne's Essais, 'classical skepticism … with all its anticipations of Wittgenstein' (Stephen Toulmin). (Carson has also written 'Irony is not enough' — link below). Scepticism of course extends here to embrace literary genre, too — Rae again (on Glass, Irony and God): 'The poems in this collection showcase Carson's talent for combining seemingly incompatible genres (such as the lyric and essay) and subjects (such as TV and Socrates)'. John Kinsella on Red: 'Its intertextual weaving of popular culture, myth, sexual comment, theory and narrative, is greatly accomplished. It’s a verse novel in effect, though some might call it prose. It operates on tensions in the process of “translation” and mythology, narrative and the moment in time. … This is a metatext in which Geryon analyses his own life, his own “being written”.' Ruth Padel:
The images, connections and ideas -- the whole well-stored mind pulsing behind this book -- are as extravagant and sweet as Stesichoros, and push the lyric, as he did, beyond conventional bounds. The poems are meditative as well as narrative: they reflect on photography as sexual learning (''Got your lens cap?'' asks mom, as teen-age Geryon flies out the door), on volcanoes and Emily Dickinson, on the Platonic image of wings as the creative aspect of love. Whether or not the beloved is worth the pain, wings lift the true lover's soul into immortality. … Carson varies their tone wonderfully, in perfect control all the way from dry wit to high poeticism (''A winter sun had thrown its bleak wares on the sky''). She counterpoints domesticity with ecstasy, the profound with the bizarre. (An all-night tango singer is an off-duty psychoanalyst; an encounter with guerrillas is reflected in the eye of a roast guinea pig; passengers clutch toothbrushes on a night flight over the Andes while Hercules pleasures Geryon under the Aeroperu blanket.) And Carson writes in language any poet would kill for: sensuous and funny, poignant, musical and tender, brilliantly lighted.
In Red, Carson writes of Stesichoros' poem:
… the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and some scraps of meat. The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out of the box. You can of course keep shaking the box. "Believe me for meat and for myself," as Gertrude Stein says. Here. Shake.
From 'Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros':
Geryon lay on the ground covering his ears The sound
Of the horses like roses being burned alive …
Arrow means kill It parted Geryon's skulls like a comb Made
The boy neck lean At an odd slow angle sideways as when a
Poppy shames itself in a whip of Nude breeze
From 'Autobiography of Red':
Voyaging into the rotten ruby of the night became a contest of freedom
and bad logic. …
He burned in the presence of his mother.
I hardly know you anymore, she said leaning against the doorway of his room.
It had rained suddenly at suppertime,
now sunset was startling drops at the window. Stale peace of old bedtimes
filled the room. Love does not
make me gentle or kind, thought Geryon as he and his mother eyed each other
from opposite shores of the light. …
It was the year he began to wonder about the noise that colors make. Roses came roaring across the garden at him.
He lay on his bed at night listening to the silver light of stars crashing against the window screen. Most
of those he interviewed for the science project had to admit they did not hear
the cries of the roses
being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully,
like horses in war. No, they shook their reads. …
Your are interested in justice?
I'm interested in how people decide what sounds like a law.
So what's your favorite law code?
Hammurabi. Why? Neatness. For example? For example:
"The man who is caught
stealing during a fire shall be thrown into the fire." Isn't that good?—if
there were such a thing
as justice that's what it ought to sound like—short. Clean. Rhythmical. …
I will call it "Origin of Time",
thought Geryon as a terrible coldness came through the room from somewhere.
It was taking him a very long while
to set up the camera. Enormous pools of a moment kept opening around his hands
each time he tried to move them.
Coldness was planing the sides of his vision leaving a narrow canal down which
the shock— Geryon sat
on the floor suddenly. He had never been so stoned in his life. I am too naked,
he thought. This thought seemed profound.
And I want to be in love with someone. This too fell on him deeply. It is all wrong.
Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked. What was that? said one of the others
turning towards him centuries later. …
We are amazing beings,
Geryon is thinking. We are neighbors of fire.
And now time is rushing towards them
where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces,
night at their back.
- ' "swimming at noon always reminds me of Marilyn Monroe" - Etruscan saying' can be read here
- 'Tango II' from The Beauty of the Husband, and part of 'Irony Is Not Enough: Essay On My Life as Catherine Deneuve (2nd draft)' from Men in the Off Hours here
- 'Tango XII' from The Beauty of the Husband, 'Here’s Our Clean Business Now Let’s Go Down the Hall to the Black Room Where I Make My Real Money', here
- 'And Reason Remains Undaunted', here