The Muse Makes Mischief

Red Doc>

by Anne Carson
Knopf, 167 pp., $24.95


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.

Jeff Brown/The New York Times Syndicate
Anne Carson, New York City, 2013

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…

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