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 Brontë; “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 evangelist to me.
Your transformations unknown.
I study your sleeping form
at the bottom of the pool
like a house I could return to,
Like a head to be cradled in the arms.
Unless you are asleep I cannot make my way
across the night.
—from “The Sleeper”
Kitchen is quiet as a bone when I come in.
No sound from the rest of the house.
I wait a moment
then open the fridge.
Brilliant as a spaceship it exhales cold confusion.
My mother lives alone and eats little but her fridge is always crammed.
After extracting the yogurt container
from beneath a wily arrangement of leftover blocks of Christmas cake
wrapped in foil and prescription medicine bottles
I close the fridge door….
“The Sleeper” is a nice poem and “Kitchen” is not much of anything. Still, Glass, Irony and God is a striking book. Narrative is Carson’s strength. Her poetic cycles, Davenport says, are “richer than most novels nowadays.” The cast of characters is small. There are her mother and father, an ex-husband, and another man or two. Most of them reappear in her other books. “I know my source…it is a moment like no other,/when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore,” she writes in “The Glass Essay.” The stories of men who have left her are told in conjunction with other lives Carson is reading about, and are interspersed with quotes. She writes as if every poet, writer, religious thinker, and philosopher who has ever lived is still our contemporary. A great many of her quotes are stunning and appropriate; others strike me as completely superfluous.
Carson is immensely learned. Born in Canada, she studied Latin and Greek there and abroad and has since taught classics and comparative literature at Princeton University, Emory University, the University of Calgary, and McGill University. She is now a professor at the University of Michigan. Her first work of scholarship, Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (1985), is a study of ancient Greek poetry, romantic love, and erotic desire. Carson’s prose, with its clarity, compactness, and memorable epigrams, reminds me of Emerson. Interestingly, she talks in the book of the similarity between the wooing of love and the wooing of knowledge. Sappho, the lyric poet, and Socrates, the professor of wisdom, have Eros in common, she says. If that is true—and I believe it is—it explains the marriage of Carson’s twin passions, that of a literary scholar and that of a poet.
Carson’s long experience of translating ancient Greek poetry with its fragmentary and unreliable texts is often mentioned as being one of the decisive influences on her writing. This is undoubtedly true. Translation of poetry is that pigheaded effort to convey in words of another language not only the literal meaning of a poem but an alien way of seeing things. Since poetic imagination cannot fully be detached from the place of origin, no two languages share identical associations. Can one truly convey in English the elements that elude the translator’s complete understanding and yet contribute to the character of the work for the native reader? In short, can one translate another person’s view of reality, which, as it happens, is already a kind of translation? If all writing is a conversion of some subjective or objective reality into language, translation is the most philosophical of all activities. To translate is not only to experience what makes each language distinct, but to draw close to the mystery of the relationship between word and thing, letter and spirit, self and world.
To work with fragments of ancient lyric poems, as Carson does, is to return to these questions again and again. As if that were not enough, it’s not only the meaning of words that she has to worry about, but also the gaps where the words that once were are no more. The translator in these circumstances is an archeologist of the invisible whose tools are her learning and her imagination. This is what she says about that in her Paris Review interview:
After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage, and I admire that—the layers of time you have when looking at sheets of papyrus that were produced in the third century B.C. and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in the museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your life. Stains on clothing.1
The way the Greek poem breaks off and leaves a white space for some thought that no longer can be apprehended invites conjecture. “Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you,” she says in the same interview. Here we have the essence of the poetic act, the creation of something out of nothing, the sudden detection of resemblances, and the mysterious eruption of a figure of speech. “Ray grinned his beautiful wicked grin like a skirt flying up,” Carson writes. Individuality resides in the way links are made, she says. A long poetic sequence in Men in the Off Hours, again entitled “TV Men,” conflates lyric poetry, documentary film, drama, history, and essay in what reads like an imaginary shooting script for a television series about Sappho, Artaud, Tolstoy, Lazarus, Antigone, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam. One section of the poem is called “Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf.”
Carson’s hope is that a new kind of poem will arise out of such unlikely and surprising juxtapositions. There are inspired moments and telling bits of writing in “TV Men,” but overall these improvisations, as she calls them, seem contrived to me. I like much better how she reworks the story of the mythological monster Geryon and his slayer, Heracles, as a gay romance in Autobiography of Red and how she uses quotes from Keats in The Beauty of the Husband, her long narrative poem about a disintegrating marriage. These two books deserve high praise. Equally impressive for me is a series of short pieces about a camping trip across the United States in Plainwater, in which anecdotes from ancient Chinese history as well as Ray Charles’s lyrics are wittily interpolated:
Listening to ancient trees stream upward in the China black rain night of Indiana and the long river sound goes plundering, harpooning past. Lying on my back with arms folded on the chest, a posture I find helpful for thinking, while beside me the emperor sleeps. Forest birds perch together all night but when day breaks, who the enemy is is no longer clear. Drops of water from a leak in the roof of the tent are hitting my forehead one after another like items on a list. I am bad at building a fire. Bad at folding the tent. Bad at driving the truck. Bad at sticks. Bad at snakes. Bad at coffee. Bad at clothesline. Bad at knives. Bad at water fetching. Bad at unpacking. Bad at packing. Bad at shortwave radio tuning. Well the anthropology of camping is a hardy subject. We can trace it back at least as far as the summer of 1553, when the Hades emperor of China packed up the imperial court, including three hundred palace women and the household goods loaded on 1,110 carrying trays, and trekked them to the Ta’o River region to view the landscape. His consort at the time was the forty-year-old Lady Cheng, with whom he shared delight in the printed page—nearly one hundred trays of poetry, essays, medical textbooks, drama, detective novels and pornography. From the emperor’s own brush we have four sheets of calligraphy on what made a woman a woman, what made her part her lips and close her eyes. It is a beautiful scroll, in the dry and lean style cultivated by that period.
Dawn. The emperor turns in his sleeping bag. Opens his eyes. Smiles and says quietly, “Fuck me.” Bad at pelting the rat for fear of smashing jade bowl beside it, says classical Chinese wisdom. Lady Cheng’s special interest was mapmaking.
As this piece demonstrates, it may be that the content Carson works with is better suited for prose than for poetry. Even when her narratives are set on the page to look like poems, they still read like prose that has been broken down into lines of verse, their pace slowed down so that more emphasis may fall on discrete phrases and words. This delights readers who have little patience with poetic diction and exasperates those who feel that poetry and prose are not the same thing. Evidently, when she chooses to, Carson can write a straightforward poem, as this beautiful one from her book Men in Off Hours shows:
FATHER’S OLD BLUE CARDIGAN
Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.
I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.
I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes from paring down from the moonbone in the sky.
His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.
He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived.
He had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done up all the way
to the top.
Not only because it was a hot July afternoon
but the look on his face—
as a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning
for a long trip
on cold trains and windy platforms
will sit very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers
over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.
The difficulty that I have with Carson is that she labels almost everything she writes as poetry. I don’t see the point. We don’t care if Beckett’s later prose and theater pieces are truly novels, short stories, or plays. Whatever they are, they are strong writing. The same is true of Carson. Her three long “poems” in “Archeology of Water,” from the volume Plainwater, the first of which describes the onset of her father’s Alzheimer’s disease, the second a pilgrimage with a man to Compostela, and the third the camping trip (from which I quoted), are profoundly moving prose narratives, whatever they are called.
She is interested in her characters in a way that most poets are not. Her language is the language of fiction and the manner in which the stories are told resembles magical realism with its wild imaginings and its carnival atmosphere. As for her subject matter, she writes perceptively and amusingly about men and women in love, their jealousies, their misunderstandings, and the solitude which they are not able to overcome. “Love makes fools, fools make love,” Ray Charles sings on the car radio in “The Anthropology of Water.” This is marvelous writing.
Strangely, it is not enough for her. Many of her poems and narratives come annotated with serious scholarly commentaries, introductions, footnotes, appendices, postscripts, and even mini-interviews. The effect is annoyingly didactic and futile. It’s as if Gertrude Stein, worrying about the effect her hermetic poems will have on some future reader in Australia, composed her own Cliffs Notes to make sure she was understood. “Knowing when to stop is what makes a good piece of writing,” Carson says in her Paris Review interview. I wish she had taken her own advice. Otherwise, the impression she gives with her addendums is that she is unsure whether her poems can stand alone. Here is an example from a cycle of ten poems on Edward Hopper’s paintings, where each poem is paired with a short passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions set as verse by Carson:
Pink bedspreads you say
are not pleasing to you
yet you sit very straight
till the pictures are through.
Two suitcases watch you like dogs.
You wear your hair parted
low on the right.
look like beds without night.
Two suitcases watch you like dogs.
Glass is for getaway.
Hot is out there.
You seem to know
the road ends here.
Two suitcases watch you like dogs
Future things then are not yet: and if they be not yet,
they are not. And if they are not,
they cannot be seen.
Yet foretold they may be
from things present which are already and are seen.
All of these distractions are still present in Decreation, Carson’s new book. There are fourteen poems about her aging mother; an essay in praise of sleep and an ode to sleep; a piece on the sublime in Longinus and the Italian filmmaker Antonioni; another piece about the day Antonioni came to film the mad in an asylum; a sequence of poems called “Sublimes,” which includes two odes to Monica Vitti, the actress in many of Antonioni’s movies; a series of poems entitled “Gnosticisms”; a short prose piece about a painting by Betty Goodwin, “Seated Figure with Red Angle”; an oratorio for five voices entitled “Lots of Guns”; a short prose piece in the style of Beckett entitled “Quad”; a screenplay about Abelard and Heloise; a short essay on total eclipse; another essay called “Decreation” about the writings on ecstasy by Sappho, Simone Weil, and the French heretic Marguerite Porete, who was burned at the stake in 1308. This is followed by the libretto of an opera in three parts, also called “Decreation,” about the life and martyrdom of Porete and Weil; and, finally, there is a three-page short list for a documentary called “Longing.”
If this inventory makes Decreation seem like a substantial book, it is not. What reinforces that impression is the thinness of much of the writing, poems that seem like rough ideas for poems, a libretto and an oratorio that read like mere outlines, still lacking a believable speaking voice and a convincing dramatic situation. Here, for example, is the chorus from “Lots of Guns”:
The mythic past.
The curious past.
The man has the wound.
The woman has the gun.
The mythic past.
The curious past.
Lots of guns against the wall.
Lots of guns in the usual world.
The man is conscious.
The woman disastrous.
The mythic past.
The curious past.
Wasn’t it here
by the lonesome pine
you carved your name and I carved mine?
I’m blue for you
like the lonesome pine.
This is dreadful, in my view. There are even worse examples of bad writing in the book. Carson labors too much to make her work appear novel. Many of her experiments with typography and form are not really innovative. They have been around at least since the days of Dada. Her mixing of genres has, too, become predictable. There’s too much poetics and too little poetry in Decreation. Carson confuses ideas for poems with poetic material. She is most convincing in the new book in her least programmatic pieces. The poems about the old age solitude of her mother are poignant and well written:
Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
Cicatrice by cicatrice
all the links
Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.
The essays in Decreation—many of which sound like lectures reworked into essays—are full of marvelous insights. And yet, despite her pains to make them serve as introductions to the poems and the libretto, they only point to the weakness of the material that follows. As it happens, the title essay, “Decreation,” is far more interesting as a piece of writing than the opera that follows. It deals, among other things, with an incomplete poem by Sappho that has obsessed Carson since her first book of essays and that has influenced both the plots and the ideas behind much of her work. Here’s the poem:
He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty…
When she first discussed the poem in Eros the Bittersweet, what interested Carson then was the erotic triangle formed by the speaker, the girl she desires, and the man she is speaking to and their fluctuating perception of one another. While a number of other critics describe the subject of the poem as being simply jealousy, Carson is far more probing. It is a poem, she writes, about the lover’s mind in the act of constructing desire. Sappho’s subject, she goes on to say, is eros as it appears to her; the poet makes no claim beyond that. In her new book, Carson puts forward an even more complex interpretation of the poem that now focuses on the last line where the poem breaks off. What is this new thought that combines daring and poverty? she asks herself. Perhaps what the poem does, Carson speculates, is teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love, not the usual lover’s complaint, why don’t you love me, but a deeper spiritual question, what is it that love dares the self to do?
Sappho’s answer, according to Carson, is that love dares the self to leave itself behind and enter into poverty, a state which she likens to a mystic’s experience of ecstasy. She quotes Simone Weil in her essay, who says that “we participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.” Decreation, in other words, is the undoing of the creature in us, the creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo the self, as mystics remind us, one must first move through the self. We have nowhere else to start from. “If only I knew how to disappear there would be a perfect union of love between God and the earth I tread, the sea I hear…,” Simone Weil wrote, but she wasn’t a poet. It is much easier to say that about the self, of course, than escape its consequences. Carson’s reading of Sappho’s poem is resourceful, but it relies greatly on her own translation of the last line of the poem, which other translators render without the key word “poverty.” Still, she’s right about the link between eroticism and religious ecstasy. If the highest love must be the purest, it is a mortal sin to love a human being with the love one owes to God, except that is precisely the heresy many poets and mystics have been accused of.
Translating fragments of early Greek philosophers and trying to imagine what made it possible for philosophy even to exist, Heidegger comes to a startling conclusion that the thinking of such a writer as Heraclitus is the primordial poetry from which all other poetry follows. What the poet and the authentic thinker share, according to him, is their ability to wonder at how things exist and to live with that wonder.2 That which doesn’t change through the annals of time, the experience of time itself, the experience of Being, is their concern. Carson reminds us that poeticizing in this broader philosophical sense and in the narrow sense of the poetic have always been related. The play of philosophical ideas makes even her weakest books worth reading.
Of course, ideas in poetry, if they are to matter, need to be grounded in our experience of the physical world, the events in our daily lives, a father or mother dying, a lovers’ squabble, the smell of fresh bread on the table. When Carson keeps that in mind, as she does in the following short poem, which starts with the opening of a window at night, the cold coming in, a car door being slammed on the street—and which inevitably, by its inner logic, turns into something far more mysterious: an apparition, a vision—there’s no need for her to say anything further on the subject:
Forgot? How the mind goes at it, you open
the window (late) there is a siffling sound,
that cold smell before sleep, roofs,
frozen staircase, frozen stair,
a piece of it comes in.
Comes in, stands in the room a bit of a column of it alive.
At first no difference then palely, a dust,
an indentation, stain
of some guest
Some guest at this very hour, was it final love or the usual
I said! you said! oh the body,
no listen, unpinning itself, slam of car door,
snow. Far, far, far, far.
Washed in the blood of that.
November 3, 2005