The Spirit of Play

Autobiography of Red

by Anne Carson
Vintage, 150 pp.,$13.00 (paper)
Anne Carson
Anne Carson; drawing by David Levine


Decreation is Anne Carson’s ninth collection of writings. It includes poems, essays, a screenplay, and an opera libretto. In the last twenty years, she has published two books of essays, one of translations, and five other books that are not easy to classify, since they contain not only poetry but a great variety of prose. While she is perfectly capable of composing a straightforward essay or a poem, montage is her preferred technique, allowing all her multiple talents as an essayist, a literary critic, a classical scholar, a translator, and a philologist to come into play. “A fictional essay in 29 tangos” is how, for instance, she describes one of her book-length poems.

Carson is also a painter who has worked in mixed media, so in all probability that has been an influence on her literary work. What for most other writers would be an irresolvable clash between genres has become for her an opportunity to express herself in an original way. This makes reading her books both an exhilarating and a bewildering experience. Carson takes risks, subverts literary conventions, and plays havoc with our expectations. She is a wonder: an unconventional, often difficult poet who has a huge following among today’s readers of poetry and whose work has been honored with our most prestigious literary awards.

Her first book of poems, Glass, Irony and God, came out in 1995. The title was not particularly inviting, but the book had an introduction by Guy Davenport, a writer I admired, so I bought it. The poems often sounded like fragments of essays or short stories, but they were nonetheless enthralling. When it comes to content, most poetry is boring compared to Carson’s. Glass, Irony and God is made up of five poetic cycles: “The Glass Essay” is a memoir of a love affair and an essay in verse on Emily BrontĂ«; “The Truth About God” is pretty much what the title says, a group of poems about God; “TV Men” is a series of short verse sketches about Antonin Artaud, Socrates, Sappho, and others; “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide” is a diary of being a stranger in that city; the “Book of Isaiah” is a masterful evocation of the visionary rhetoric of Old Testament prophets. The book concludes with an essay on the subject of gender and sound: the differences in vocal pitch between male and female voices and how we respond to them. It is an engaging essay, as all Carson’s essays are, but it doesn’t belong in a book of poems.

The poetry itself varies in style and quality. It can be overly poetic or very prosy. Here are examples of both:

Night kneels over the sleeper.
Where did his journey begin, where will
It burn through to?
And what does he swim for now.
Swim, sleeper, swim.
Your peace as an…

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