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 …

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