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The Muse Makes Mischief

Red Doc>

by Anne Carson
Knopf, 167 pp., $24.95

1.

Red Doc> is the poet Anne Carson’s “sequel” to her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, which told the story of Geryon, the red monster slain by Herakles in one of his lesser-known labors. Carson’s Geryon was a contemporary boy; he was gay, art-inclined, and, as he knew from reading his own myth, doomed to an early death. These internal differences were manifest in his redness and his wings: the book was partly about the hazards and joys of having the identity you want to harbor inwardly emblazoned upon your body. Carson’s achievement was to translate an obscure Greek myth into the idiom of contemporary adolescence. The book was the story of a character trying to write the story he was cast inside (what better definition for “autobiography”?). In turn, Carson had written a book her own character would likely want to carry around in his backpack and read on trains, when he wasn’t listening to Elliott Smith or Bright Eyes.

Autobiography of Red and Red Doc> are both based in part on the Geryoneis of Stesichorus, the Archaic Sicilian Greek poet. The Geryoneis exists mainly on a single piece of papyrus, with a few additional quotations preserved in the work of later writers. Carson is a classical scholar (or, as she prefers to put it, a humble teacher of Greek): her work, which sometimes imitates scholarly commentary even as it takes imaginative flight, is an enormous apparatus criticus adapted to the demands of the imagination. Autobiography opened with a disquisition upon Stesichorus; much about the man could be learned from it, and much about Carson’s sensibility, which is freest precisely where it is purportedly bound to sources.

In Red Doc> (the title is taken from Carson’s file name for the project, one of many ostentatious suggestions here that the poem is uncooked, larval, or still in process) as in Autobiography, Carson’s own innovations fill in the white spaces where those of Stesichorus are lost. The Geryoneis was at least 1,300 lines long; only 180 or so lines remain. But those 180 lines are unique in Greek literature for telling the story of Geryon from Geryon’s point of view, and for suggesting great tenderness between the monster and his mother, Kallirhoe. Here is fragment S13, in which the mother pleads with her son to exercise caution (parenthetical phrases are suppositions; brackets represent more mysterious lacunae):

“I, unhappy woman, miserable in the child I bore, miserable in my sufferings; but I beseech you, Geryon, if ever I offered you my breast…[ ] at your dear (mother’s side,) gladdened…[ ] by (your feasting).” (With these words she opened) her fragrant robe.

And here, from Red Doc>, is Carson’s update. Geryon is grown up; he and his mother share a moment over the “same/old yellow Formica table/he used to do his/homework at”:

                 They,
discuss names. She has
the newspaper open and
reads out letters from the
Help column
I am an
intellectual giant begins
one.     They     laugh.
Laughing with your
mother. Coming out of
the lake into a big towel
and her arms.

The “fragrant robe” here becomes a “big towel,” the locus of comfort and potential suffocation. We know this mother well from Autobiography of Red: a vivid creature “rhinestoning” through the house “with all her breasts on” or chain-smoking over a dinner of “cling peaches from the can and toast/cut into fingers for dipping.”

Red Doc> is a book about having outlived your own myth: the boy destined to be murdered by Herakles instead fell in love with him, had his heart broken, then followed the caddish creature to Argentina, where Carson left him, gazing up at a volcano, an image both for withheld sexual fulfillment and for the dormant force of the ancient fragments. Waiting fifteen years to catch up with Geryon has allowed Carson to work in real time: he is fifteen years older and now called G. A little roughed up by the world, he seems to have become a kind of hyperliterate hobo, reading Proust and tending musk oxen under a highway overpass. Herakles resurfaces as a damaged vet renamed Sad But True, “Sad” for short: no longer the “one wore lizard/pants and/pearls to graduation,” he subsists on a diet of pills delivered in a “padded envelope” every night. The book opens with a dialogue between G and his mother:

did I tell you I finished Proust/
  oh yes/
      seven years/can you
      reach me

those matches behind you/
  reading it every day/
      thanks/was like having
      an extra unconscious/
      well I’m

not fond of those multivolume
  things/there’s the
      part where he’s comparing
      his Tante Léonie to a
      waterlily/

she’s a swimmer/no she’s a
  neurasthenic/I don’t get
      it

Carson’s brilliant ear for the way people get along reminds me of writers people never associate with her, since they prefer the canon of ancient authors, plus the Brontës, Simone Weil, and others that she has advertised as her own: namely T.S. Eliot in the pub section of “The Waste Land,” and William Carlos Williams in “The Last Word of My English Grandmother” or in Book Three of Paterson, when the unannounced voice of a prostitute breaks in and flirts with Williams (“Is it a dirty book? I’ll bet/it’s a dirty book, she said.”) The deadpan, leveling slashes breaking up the remarks; the minimal differentiation between voices; the eerie effect of banter without character or dramatic setting: this is Carson at her finest, and it makes her, despite her allegiances to Greece and to Canada, a telling recorder of American speech.

Because Carson is so pushy about naming her ancestors (in Autobiography it was Emily Dickinson, along with Heidegger and Whitman, among others; here Proust shares the spotlight with Daniil Kharms, the Soviet Surrealist who died in a Leningrad prison), her actual influences sometimes blur. It is hard, reading Carson, to get out from under Carson, who is far from the gnomic riddle some of her readers, enamored with their own taste for hard literary productions, make her out to be. Eliot’s preposterous footnotes to “The Waste Land” were added as a pacifier for those who bridled at its obscurity, and struck an obnoxious tone of mock edification. Carson flips it around and often gives the pantomimed instruction primary position, telling us what to think and feel about texts that are only barely present. It makes for a very passive reading experience, with Carson so busy reading herself. Her great predecessors were all scramblers: Carson is a born unscrambler—“a teacher of Greek”—which accounts for her poems’ equal investment in riddles and solutions, but also for her occasional inability to make riddles that are hard enough to want to solve.

2.

Red Doc> is, like its predecessor, a work of broad empathy, its emotions hitting us hard by making such a big target out of us. There is a lot of baloney you have to tolerate, but the baloney is part of what makes this work, whose force is inseparable from sweetness and folly, so humane. The book wears its difficulty like some bright accessory. Carson apparently hit a stray key one day and the entire text center-justified, leaving gulfs between some words and jamming others together. Much of the book is in this format, which suggests A.R. Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year, an earlier eexperiment with arbitrary material constraints. Unlike Ammons’s poem, which ends when the adding machine tape he wrote it on runs out, Carson has a real conclusion, here—even, since this is a road trip book, a destination, a homecoming, a nostos.

Carson, as famous a poet as any living, is famous partly for resisting fame; a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Sam Anderson fell hook, line, and sinker for this irritating bit of PR. Her author’s notes have always been garishly uninformative: recently she has favored one that says, simply, “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches Greek for a living.” (Really? Does she give her royalties to charity?) I would prefer not to think at all about author’s notes, but Carson’s does not afford that luxury: what hers reveals isn’t her secrecy, but rather her need to design the totality of her persona down to her author’s note, a trait that ought to compromise the actual lines and stanzas she writes but somehow usually doesn’t. That they are also so congenial—so funny and humane—is their great surprise, a surprise that is also, I suppose, part of the design: Carson’s hand is everywhere on everything she does.

Red Doc> is dedicated to “the randomizer,” the muse as mischief-maker, the defier of logic and narrative sequence. The flesh-and-blood embodiment of that principle turns out to be Carson’s husband, Robert Currie, the dancer and choreographer. Currie and Carson have collaborated frequently over the last few years, notably on idiosyncratic dance and theater productions of Carson’s writing. I saw them perform “Bracko” a few years ago at Wellesley College: this was a collaborative reading of Sappho’s fragments with the word “bracket” inserted everywhere the fragment had a missing word, along with other abstract actions on stage and in the aisles.

The performance presented many problems, at least for me. When I asked Carson, afterward, why she had chosen the word “bracket” to represent brackets in performance (instead of, say, “space” or “gap” or some other possibility), she professed never to have thought about it: it seemed clear enough to her that a bracket was a bracket and should be called by its name. The problem, for me, was that the word “bracket,” repeated over and over, had taken on a kind of ribbiting quality, as though a large bullfrog had gotten loose in the theater. Added to this was the problem that, in having selected students from the college to move ominously through the aisles, young women who had just hours before asked me for extensions on their final papers had to perform the office of seeming spookily remote, like the shades in Tartarus.

Plenty of distraction, to be sure: but “Bracko” brought Sappho’s phrases to life in an uncanny way, by forcing them to fight for the foreground. Every work of Carson’s recent career seems ponderously arty on the surface, and yet from every depth shines speech, and sadness, and empathy, painstakingly measured and represented with a straightforwardness belied by the arthouse veneer. Red Doc> is no exception. After much foolishness about ice bats and musk oxen, its final pages bring us full circle to the mother, now on her deathbed, “as/big as a speedboat and she/a handful of twigs/under the sheet.” Little in recent poetry rivals these passages, whose flatness is a kind of implicit reprimand to the necessary fancy that sometimes mars this imperfect, extraordinary book:

Not a casual
solitude. He and she.
Oxygen machine is
wheeled in and hooked up.
Her eyelids flutter but do
not open. He sits. The
room is hot. There is a
smell. Does Proust have a
verb for this. This
struggle she faces now her
onetime terrible date with
Night. First date last date

soulmate. Old song lyrics
scamper in him. He moves
the chair back to the
window. She’s counting

my soulmate gasps of
make my heart beat at a
fast rate. Oxygen. He
dozes. Waking to her avid
gaze.
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