Under the Volcano

My letter to the Princeton University Press recommending Anne Carson’s first book Eros the Bittersweet (it was published in 1986) contained the following sentences: “This is an extraordinary book—the book of a poet, a subtle critic, and a scholar. It is also a brilliant piece of writing, flawlessly phrased throughout, constantly surprising but never disappointing, and laced with a wit that is all the more effective because it is perfectly disciplined.” The book is a perceptive analysis of the Greek conception of Eros and of his role in Greek poetry, philosophy, and life. He is a winged creature and his invasion of his target’s body causes the heart to fly up in the chest, as Sappho and Alcaeus put it, an image reshaped by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus.

Our souls had wings once, Socrates explains, when we lived among the gods, and now, in exile, we remember our former state from time to time, when we look upon beauty and fall in love. When you fall in love you feel all sorts of sensations inside you, painful and pleasant at once; it is your wings sprouting. “Both the philosopher and the poet,” Carson explains, “find themselves describing Eros in images of wings and metaphors of flying, for desire is a movement that carries yearning hearts from over here to over there….” This connection between love and wings was to surface again, a decade later, in her Autobiography of Red.

When I wrote the letter to the publisher, I had not seen any of her poetry; I sensed the mind of a poet in her keen sensitivity to the complexities of the texts she was marshaling for her argument and the fine precision and pleasing rhythm of her prose. When I finally did see one of her poems it was, as I had half expected, something unpredictable. It appeared in Raritan under the title “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings.” It consists of translations (though some of them would be more accurately described as adaptations or even appropriations) of fifteen of the twenty-five fragments that have come down to us from the work of Mimnermus, a poet of the sixth century BC who lived in Colophon, a Greek city on the west coast of what is now Turkey. His most famous lines are his lament for the passing of youth and its joys.

What is life, what is pleasure, without golden Aphrodite? Let me lie dead when I no longer care for these things—couplings in the dark, honeyed gifts and the bed… when the agony of old age comes on…a man no longer feels happy when he sees the sunlight…hated by boys, rejected by women…

In another fragment he wishes that death would take him, free of disease or sorrows, at the age of sixty years—the point at which modern American males look forward to the golden age of leisured retirement. In the ancient world there was little to look forward to. It was a world that had none of the palliatives for the gradual degradation of the human frame that can help to make living tolerable for us if we live long enough to need them: no eyeglasses, no hearing aids, no dentures, no artificial hips and knees, no face lifts, and (something that might have addressed what is obviously Mimnermus’ main concern) no Viagra.

For the ancient Greeks old age was a nightmare, and Carson’s version of these famous lines by Mimnermus tries to reinvest them with the revulsion and horror that they expressed in their original context and which literary echoes and adaptations have blunted for the modern reader.

What Is Life without Aphrodite?…
Up to your honeybasket hilts in her ore—or else
Death? for yes
how gentle it is to go swimming inside her the secret swimming
Of men and women but (no) then
the night hide toughens over it (no) then bandages
Crusted with old man smell (no) then
bowl gone black nor bud nor boys nor women nor sun no
Spores (no) at (no) all when
God nor hardstrut nothingness close
its fist on you.

Seldom has Pound’s injunction—Make it New—been so spectacularly obeyed.

Carson’s versions of the other fragments are even more free, and some of them seem to use Mimnermus’ lines as a takeoff point for soaring fantasies of her own. The fragments are followed by a brilliant essay on Mimnermus and time and then by three interviews with the poet, sardonic parodies of the mindless celebrity interviews that assail us in magazines and on television.

All this, though it deals with the same subject, was a far cry from Eros the Bittersweet. But I was even more surprised by her next two books, both of which appeared in 1995: Glass, Irony and God, a New Directions book published by James Laughlin, and Plainwater, published by Knopf.

The first of these opens with a long narrative poem called “The Glass Essay.” Though its principal theme is still Eros, it has no other connection with the ancient Greeks. It is a tale of a woman’s visit to her mother in Canada after her lover has rejected her. “He stood in my living room and spoke/ without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,/he said of our five years of love.” In the background and often in the foreground of the poem’s present is the figure of Emily Brontë, whose Yorkshire moors that “surrounded her father’s house on every side,/formed of a kind of rock called millstone grit” reappear in the view from the Canadian mother’s kitchen—“There is the moor, paralyzed with ice./It extends as far as the eye can see/over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.” And there too is Emily Brontë.

This is my favorite author.
Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë.

This long narrative, set in lines of varying lengths, grouped in short stanzas (three lines is the norm), interweaves the narrator’s attempt to recover from the shock of her rejection by her lover with her absorption in and speculation about the strange case of Emily, a recluse who probably “did not touch a man in her 31 years” but in whose verse “Falsity and bad love and the deadly pain of alteration are constant topics….” One episode consists of a visit to her “tall, proud father, former World War II navigator,” who is now in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease, strapped to a chair in

…the west wing, for chronic care patients.
Each wing has a name.
The chronic wing is Our Golden Mile
although mother prefers to call it The Last Lap.

This suggests a background for the graphic horrors Carson worked into Mimnermus’ description of old age. But the story is at times enlivened by a sardonic wit, especially in passages that deal with her relations with her mother.

I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast
whether she had a good night
and is about to say a happy thing
or not.

The Glass Essay” is not Carson’s only long narrative poem; there is another in Plainwater. It is called, somewhat enigmatically, “Canicula di Anna,” and its setting is a congress of phenomenologists that takes place in the Italian city of Perugia.

Famous phenomenologists of tutta l’Italia
have forgathered here.
They take things back to the sophists
then climb the stone stairs
for a heavy lunch.
Their foreheads are not so tall
as the foreheads
of French phenomenologists
but they are much more good-natured.

The narrator is apparently a painter who is there for professional reasons:

Group portrait: a special commission.
I paint the philosophers at table and on the way to Being.

He is waiting impatiently for the arrival of someone called Anna, who does eventually turn up, but seems to have little to do with him before leaving (though they seem to have gone off together on a trip to Assisi which is merely mentioned in passing). Meanwhile the phenomenologists pursue their concerns.

One phenomenologist has a coughing fit
Another begins to insist on the limitations of the text.
Tautologies, enigmata, drift in like an autumn.
The Seinsfrage is growing haggard.

But their discussions are on occasion more earthbound.

The phenomenologist from Paris hates mosquitoes
and carries a small electronic device
that lures the female mosquito to her death
by simulating the amorous cry of the male. Then,
to block the whining sound, he has pink earplugs.
As he sits in conversation
with the phenomenologist from Sussex
a mosquito is observed to enter.
The Englishman leaps to his feet,
calling, “Let us use the mosquito machine!”
and smashes the insect to the wall
with the device. It is the first sign
of wide ontological differences
that will open in the Anglo-French dialectic

But there are sinister undercurrents in this story. Anna leaves by plane but “I never saw her again./The aeroplane/was exploded near Milan/by newsmen/simulating a terrorist incident.” And there is a repeated theme of menace, the barking of the wild dogs at the base of the rock on which Perugia is built:

Last night the dogs
killed a cock down there.
It crowed once (dark red) crazily,
far too early in the night.

And in the end the reader is left wondering about the meaning or even the nature of the actions and emotions of the characters as well as what happened to them. Was Anna really killed? Is the narrator in love with her? Why have the phenomenologists commissioned the group portrait in “pigments of the fifteenth century”—the colors, lovingly and expertly described throughout the poem, of the Italian painter Pietro di Vanucci, known as Perugino? And what does the title mean? Canicula is the Latin name of the Dogstar, the herald of the season of oppressive heat in Italy. What can Canicula di Anna mean? Does it have something to do with those dogs at the base of the rock?

Carson is quite aware that readers will be puzzled. She provides a prose afterword that appears to sympathize with the reader who “would…like to know a little more. Not exactly more story. Not necessarily, on the other hand, an exegesis.” But what she offers will be of small comfort. It consists of Socrates’ last words—the reminder to Crito to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius—and the far from comforting “fact, as you go down the stairs and walk in dark streets, as you see forms, as you marry or speak sharply or wait for a train, as you begin imagination, as you look at every mark, simply the fact of my eyes in your back.”

This will leave many readers baffled, perhaps annoyed, but it is nonetheless clear that, notwithstanding her penchant for sibylline mystifications, Carson has in these two narratives (and in another one set in Italy, The Fall of Rome) created an individual form and style for narrative verse. And in her most recent production, Autobiography of Red, which she describes as a novel in verse, she tells a story some 13,000 lines long.

It announces as its model a long poem (a notation on a papyrus shows that it had at least 1,300 lines) by Stesichoros of Himera, a Greek city on the north coast of Sicily, who was born about 650 BC. Among his epic-length poems (all written, like Pindar’s victory odes, in lyric meters arranged in the triadic pattern of strophe, antistrophe, and epode) was an Oresteia, from which Aeschylus borrowed the lock of hair on Agamemnon’s tomb which leads to Electra’s recognition of her brother Orestes. He also composed a Sack of Troy, a Return of the Heroes, and a Geryoneis, the story of Geryon. He was a monster; he had wings, three bodies, six arms, and six legs and lived on an island called Erytheia (Redland) off the Atlantic coast of Spain, where he took care of a herd of red cattle, helped by a herdsman and a dog. The tenth labor imposed on Herakles by his taskmaster Eurystheus was to seize Geryon’s cattle and bring them to Greece. Herakles killed the monster and his dog (it had three heads) and came back ready for his eleventh labor, a descent to Hades to bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gate.

We already had some details from various sources but very little of the actual text until quite recently, when fragments of a papyrus copy from Oxyrrhychus were published. They show an unexpected sympathy with Geryon, who in one scene, begged by his herdsman not to fight against Herakles, rejects the advice in a heroic speech that recalls Achilles’ rejection of his mother’s plea that he refrain from killing Hector, since his own death must follow soon after. Geryon’s mother, too, urges him not to fight but to no avail. Meanwhile, up on Olympus, Athena, Herakles’ patron and protector, makes sure that no help will come to Geryon from the gods. Herakles kills him by thrusting one of his arrows, tipped with the lethal poison of the Hydra’s blood, through his skull. He also kills the dog.

Before the opening of her novel Carson offers some items labeled “Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros.” It will at once be obvious even to readers unacquainted with the Greek texts that these short items are wildly free adaptations and in some cases outright inventions. But one of them sets the tone for the remarkable narrative that follows:

Are there many little boys who think they are a
Monster? But in my case I am right said Geryon to the
Dog they were sitting on the bluffs The dog regarded him

Unlike his mythical prototype, this Geryon does not have more than the usual number of arms, legs, and heads, but he does have wings, which he generally manages to conceal, folded under a jacket or overcoat. And he is red, and so is his shadow.

The verse Carson uses to tell her story has a single repetitive pattern: one long flowing line followed by a shorter one, which is one third to half the length of its predecessor. This matches to some extent the easy flow of the Stesichorean lines, in which the characteristic dactylic rhythm of the Homeric hexameters predominates (though Carson does not of course attempt to reproduce the triadic stanza structure). Instead, the narrative is broken up into forty-seven chapters, of variable lengths. Notwithstanding the novel’s title, the story is not told in the first person; the autobiography is something Geryon works on throughout the novel “from the age of five to the age of forty-four.” While still at school Geryon had begun to write it in “a beautiful notebook from Japan” given to him by a friend of his mother. In it he wrote, under the title “Total Facts Known About Geryon,” a short summary of the Stesichorean epic followed by some speculative answers to the question “Why did Herakles kill Geryon?”

Where does he get his ideas, said the teacher. It was
Parent-Teacher Day at school.…

Proceeding to the back of the classroom he sat at his usual desk and
took out a pencil.
New Ending.
All over the world the beautiful red breezes went on blowing hand
in hand.

So much for Stesichoros.

Geryon’s schooldays, as might be expected, were not happy days, and at home he is bullied and sexually abused by his lout of an elder brother; his only comfort is his mother, whom he adores. But at the age of fourteen he falls in love with an sixteen-year-old whom he meets at the bus depot:

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

It is love at first sight, but like the love affair in “The Glass Essay,” it comes to a sudden end. After a brief spell of joyous companionship and sexual coupling—during which Geryon visits Herakles in his home town of Hades and is taken, with Herakles’ grandmother, to visit the site of a volcanic eruption—Geryon is rejected. “Geryon you know/we’ll always be friends.” Later, home and in bed, Geryon’s

brain was jerking forward like a bad slide projector. He saw the
the house the night the world and
on the other side of the world somewhere Herakles laughing drinking
gettinginto a car and Geryon’s
whole body formed one arch of a cry—upcast to that custom, the
human customof wrong love.

Geryon returns to his mother, who had disapproved of Herakles from the start—“nobody sees him around, is it true he lives in the trailer park—that where you/go at night?”—and takes a job in a local library shelving government documents. He takes a lot of pictures (the autobiography had taken the form of a photographic essay) but “they showed only the shoes and socks of the person.” And then, for reasons that are never explained, he boards a plane to Buenos Aires, an occasion for Carson to treat us to a wrenching account of the tortures of long-distance flights in cabin class:

…Geryon shifted himself down and up in the molded seat trying to
knots of pain in his spine. Half turned sideways but could not place
his left arm.
Heaved himself forwards again
accidentally punching off the reading light and knocking his book to
the floor.The woman next to him moaned
and slumped over the armrest like a wounded seal.

In Buenos Aires he meets, in the Café Mitwelt, a yellow-bearded American professor of philosophy who takes him off to listen to his lecture on emotionlessness. Later, walking the streets he accidentally bumps into a man who turns out to be Herakles—“after all these years.” Herakles is traveling with a Peruvian named Ancash, “a man as beautiful as a live feather”; they are recording the sounds of volcanoes. Geryon is offered a pair of earphones attached to a tape recorder and listens to the sounds of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. He “heard a hoarse animal/spraying pain from the back of its throat./Then heavy irregular bumping sounds like tractor tires rolling downhill.”

Volcanoes provide the setting for two of the most striking episodes in the novel. In the first, which takes place during Geryon’s first association with Herakles, the two of them, accompanied by Herakles’ grandmother, visit the site of a volcanic eruption that took place in 1923. The grandmother had taken a time-exposure photograph of it at 3 PM—“looks like midnight,” says Herakles. The second volcanic episode closes the novel; it brings Geryon, Herakles, and Ancash and his mother to Lima and then to the village of Huaraz, where Ancash was born. Later they go to another village farther north, Jucu, where houses built against the inner wall of the volcano’s cone have openings in the shaft where the inhabitants bake bread over the flames.

Carson, as we learn from Guy Davenport’s perceptive introduction to Glass, Irony and God, is “a fancier of volcanoes and paints them erupting.” (The cover of Glass, Irony and God reproduces one such painting, “Volcano Talk.”) Even without this information, the author’s obsession with volcanoes emerges clearly from the graphic details of the text, in such passages, for instance, as the visit to the site of the 1923 eruption.

…Geryon put his foot out to take a step.
The lava emitted
a glassy squeak and he jumped. Careful, said Herakles’
grandmother.Herakles had lifted her out of the back seat,
now she stood leaning on his arm. The lava dome here is more than
ninety percent glass—rhyolite obsidian they call it.…She began to move
forward with a tinkling sound
over the black billows. They say the reason for all these blocks
and rubble on topis strains produced when the glass
chills so rapidly. She made a little sound. Reminds me of my

There is an affinity with volcanoes in the nature of Geryon. In Carson’s interview with Stesichoros (yes, she interviews him too) he remarks, speaking of Geryon, that there is a link between geology and character. Geryon is a creature the color of fire—“a winged red person”—and was surprised when other people admitted that “…they did not hear/the cries of the roses/being burned alive in the noonday sun. Like horses, Geryon would say helpfully….” In his photograph of his mother’s rosebush under the kitchen window, “Four of the roses were on fire/They stood straight up and pure on the stalk, gripping the dark like prophets/and howling colossal intimacies….” And imagery from the volcano is called on to describe Geryon’s feelings:

Geryon sat on his bed in the hotel room pondering the cracks and
of his inner life. It may happen
that the exit of the volcanic vent is blocked by a plug of rock,
forcingmolten matter sideways along
lateral fissures called fire lips by volcanologists.

As he read a philosophical discussion of the problem of communication—“I will never know how you see red and you will never know how I see it…”—he “could feel something like tons of black magma boiling up/from the deeper regions of him.”

But Geryon is not only red as volcanic fire; he is also winged. Although he manages to conceal this from Herakles by keeping his wings folded back under his clothing, he sometimes, when alone, deploys them. In Buenos Aires, after hearing the yellow-bearded professor announce that 12 percent of babies in the world are born with tails, which are cut off by the doctors before the parents can see the child, Geryon went back to his hotel.

He set up the camera on the windowsill and activated the timer, then
himself on the bed.
It is a black-and-white photograph showing a naked young man in
fetal position.He has entitled it “No Tail!”
The fantastic fingerwork of his wings is outspread on the bed like a
black lacemap of South America.

It is Ancash, Herakles’ new companion, who discovers the wings. On the roof in Lima where Ancash’s mother lives (“it hasn’t rained in Lima since 1940”) he tries to wrap Geryon in a blanket so that he can withstand the cold of the night, and in spite of Geryon’s resistance, pulls his overcoat down over his shoulders, exposing the folded wings. “They rustled through the two slits/cut in the back of Geryon’s T-shirt and sank a bit on the night wind.” Ancash is astonished. “Jesus Mary and Joseph” he says quietly. And then whispers the word “Yazcamac.” The wings have a special meaning for him. He tells Geryon about Jucu, the village in the mountains north of Huaraz, where he was born. It is a volcanic region, not active now. In ancient times the villagers worshiped the volcano and even threw people into it.

For sacrifice? asked Geryon…
No not exactly. More like a testing procedure. They were looking for
peoplefrom the inside. Wise ones.
Holy men I guess you would say. The word in Quechua is Yaxcol
Yazcamac it means the Ones Who Went and Saw and Came Back—
I think the anthropologists say eyewitnesses. These people did
exist.Stories are told of them still.
Eyewitnesses, said Geryon.
Yes. People who saw the inside of the volcano.
And came back.
How do they come back?
Wings? Yes that’s what they say the Yazcamac return as red people with
wings,all their weaknesses burned away—
and their mortality.

So it is off to Huaraz they go, where “water…boils at seventy degrees centigrade.” And it is there that Geryon’s sexual relationship with Herakles, renewed on the plane to Lima, comes to an end as Geryon realizes the truth. “I once loved you,” he thinks, “now I don’t know you at all. He does not say this.” Herakles sees that he is crying and sums up the problem in a brutal phrase: “Can’t you ever just fuck and not think?” As he gets into bed he says:

Well Geryon just another Saturday morning me laughing and you crying….
Geryon watches him pull the blanket up to his chin. Just like the
old days.Just like the old days, says Geryon too.

But Geryon still has Ancash to deal with. He finds him in the garden sitting on a bench. His conversational gambits are met with silence, and he looks down at the ground. When he looks up,

…His eyes met Ancash’s eyes and they both rose at once and Ancash hit
Geryon as hard as he could
across the face with the flat of his hand.

You love him? Geryon thought about that. In my dreams I do. Your
dreams?Dreams of the old days.
When you first knew him? Yes, when I—knew him.
What about now?
Yes—no—I don’t know. Geryon pressed his hands over his face and
then let them fall.No it’s not there now.

Later, Ancash says to him: “There is one thing I want from you.” “Tell me.” “Want to see you use those wings.” Herakles suddenly bursts in on them and realizes what has happened.

…In the photograph the face of Herakles is white. It is the face
of an old man. It is a photograph of the future, thought Geryon
months later when hewas standing in his darkroom
looking down at the acid bath and watching likeness come groping out
of the bones.

In the next-to-last chapter Geryon uses his wings. Taking a tape recorder he flies off to photograph the heart of the volcano.

This is for Ancash, he calls to the earth diminishing below. This is
a memory of our
beauty. He peers down
at the earth heart of Icchantikas dumping all its photons out her
ancient eye and hesmiles for
the camera: “The Only Secret People Keep.”

The chapter is titled “Photographs: #1748.” It is not a date but a reference to the epigraph of the novel, number 1748 in the poems of Emily Dickinson, which ends with the lines

The only secret people keep
is Immortality.

Geryon, this seems to suggest, by exploring the depths of the volcano, has become a Yazcamac—“red people with wings,/all their weaknesses burned away—/and their mortality.” And in the final scene, they are all three in Jucu watching the men shovel the dough on long handles into a square hole filled with flames.

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.

It is a novel, all right; a story which creates characters that are surprising but credible, involves them in an action that works to what seems an appropriate if somewhat mysterious end and, in this case, leaves the reader with a feeling that it contains depths which only rereading and reflection will sound. But the reader cannot help wondering: Was the decision to tell the story in verse justified? Why did Carson not leave it in prose, as she did “The Anthropology of Water,” the long account of her pilgrimage to Compostela in Plainwater?

It is true that every now and then the verse has the compression, the wide suggestiveness, the intensity of poetic expression. But for the most part the diction is that of prose, the frequent conversational exchanges appropriately colloquial. And yet, as the reader is led through the tangled interlocking of these semimythical beings, the pattern of long line followed by short comes to seem the natural, indeed the only way to tell what the publisher’s blurb (no exaggeration for once) calls “a powerful and unsettling story that moves, disturbs, and delights.”