Sunday, April 11, 2010

MINDS WIDE OPEN: Reading Anne Carson

"The real stuff going on today is women's poetry" so David Shields quotes Richard Stern, "almost famous for being not famous," a University of Chicago professor and "friend of Pound, Beckett, Bellow, Mailer, Roth."

I mentioned Shields book, Reality Hunger, in a post about Virginia's celebration of women in the arts, MINDS WIDE OPEN.

His genre-bending book--and Stern's quote--brought to mind the most engaging, original and genre-defying writer I know, the poet, classicist, librettist, scholar (I'll stop there, for the sake of expediency) Anne Carson.

I first encountered Carson's poetry in a $3.75 anthology at the Shenandoah Valley Book Fair: The Best of American Poetry: 1988-1997. I now make a point to peruse the annual publication of this volume, as it is a great "view from here" look at what is happening in the world of poetry in this country.

The anthologies are arranged alphabetically by author, which allows for a fascinating juxtaposition of voice and tone, subject and style.

Carson's entry was "The Life of Towns." It is really a series of 36 short poems, aphoristic and haiku-esque. The collection appears in a slightly different version in Carson's fourth book, Plainwater: Essays and Poetry.

Another cherished anthology is Carolyn Forché's Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. One of my essays earlier this year on the Chorale's program of women composers, Ears Wide Open, is on that very subject: "the axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart" (after Kafka).

Carson's poetry does that and more. On opposite pages in Plainwater are "Lear Town" and "Sylvia Town" referring to the great & flawed father of Shakespeare's most human tragedy (King Lear) and the tragedy of one of poetry's most gifted daughters, Sylvia Plath (one of too many women writers to die by their own hands in the 20th century).

Both feature Carson's unique voice--at once lyrical, imaginative, and arresting:

Lear Town

Clamor the bells falling bells.
Precede silence of bells.
As madness precedes.
Winter as childhood.
Precedes father.
Into the kill-hole.

Sylvia Town

The burner and the starvers.
Came green April.
Burning and starving her.
Eyes pulled up like roots.
Lay on the desk.

(Vintage. 1995, 2000).

A classicist, Sappho and Greek myths are subjects to which Carson returns and refers throughout her multivalent work. One of her earliest books is the essayistic Eros the Bittersweet. It opens with this succinctly engaging paragraph:

"It was Sappho who first called eros "bittersweet." No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?"

Described as "a lyrical meditation...Epigrammatic, witty, ironic and endlessly interesting," this is one book where the publishers do not exaggerate its merits on the back cover (Dalkey Archive edition, 1998, 2005).

Her first book to resemble (I use the term loosely) a book of poetry is entitled Glass, Irony and God (New Directions, 1995).

The opening section is a series of referential poems on Emily Bronte called "The Glass Essay."

Carson delights in language's ability to renew and reinvent itself, and muses on Bronte's invention of the word "whacher" (replacing "whether"):

For example

in the first line of the poem 'Tell me, whether, is it winter?'
in the Shakespeare Head edition.
But whacher is what she wrote.

Whacher is what she was.
She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.
She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.

She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
wide open.

Carson whachs me every time I crack open one of her one-of-a-kind books.

Last week, in the thrall of Tippett, I wrote about Achilles and Greek myths, and my post prior to that was about adaptations of Shakespeare. Carson heightens my craving to keep revisiting the Greeks. The central section of Glass, Irony and God is a genre (and gender) bending series called "TV MEN." The first 'man' under consideration was Achilles' greatest victim:

"Hektor was born to be a prince of Troy not a man of TV,
hence his success."

The series ends with "TV Men: Sappho," which opens with a line that describes its authors m.o:

"No one knows what the laws are."

Carson's Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (Vintage. 1998, 1999) is another line blurring series of variations on classical themes. Here, Geryon, the red-winged monster, is coupled with the cavalier hero, Herakles.

A typical "chapter" roams between the ancient and contemporary worlds, the erudite and mundane, the philosophical and quotidian.

IX. Space and Time

Up against another human being one's own procedures take on definition.

Geryon was amazed at himself. He saw Herakles just about every day now.
The instant of nature
forming between them drained every drop from the walls of his life
leaving behind just ghosts
rustling like an old map.

As typical with Carson, instantaneous shifts occur--voice, tone, setting--and we move to a haltering conversation between the young red-winged monster and his mother:

So Geryon what do you like about this guy this Herakles can you tell me?

Can I tell you, thought Geryon.

Thousand things he could not tell flowed over his mind. Herakles knows a lot

about art. We have good discussions.

She was looking not at him but past him as she stored the unlit cigarette

in her front shirt pocket.

"How does distance look?" is a simple direct question. It extends from a spaceless

within to the edge

of what can be loved. It depends on light. Light that for you? he said pulling

a book of matches

out of his jeans as he came towards her. No thanks dear. She was turning away.

I really should quit.

The first book of Carson's I bought was Men in the Off Hours (Vintage. 2000, 2001). Her earlier series of "TV MEN" is here continued, along with the expected layers of references from antiquity to modernity, Sappho to Catherine Deneuve: "IRONY IS NOT ENOUGH: ESSAY ON MY LIFE AS CATHERINE DENEUVE (2nd Draft)." Just before that "chapter" is an imagined dialogue: "TV Men: Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the Set of The Peloponnesian War."

Her most lyrical (and accessible?) book is The Beauty of the Husband (Knopf, 2001). It is

"an essay on Keats's idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in twenty-nine tangos.
A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end."

You don't have to read Carson cover-to-cover to soar with her flights of fancy and groove to the colorful instrumentation of her lyrical literary scores. Her latest paperback is one book that rewards such attention and consideration. Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Vintage. 2005, 2006) is headed by Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's "Essay on Some Verses of Virgil:"

"I love a poetical kinde of a march, by friskes, skips and jumps."

As do I. In addition to the poetic panorama, the libretto to an oratorio ("LOTS OF GUNS") is juxtaposed with an imaginary screenplay between Heloise and Abelard. The central essay gives the book its title. "DECREATION: How Women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God" is a three part essay about three visionary women:

"Part One concerns Sappho, a Greek poet of the seventh century BC who lived on the island of Lesbos...Part Two concerns Marguerite Porete, who was burned alive in the public square of Paris in 1310 because she had written a book about the love of God the papal inquisitor deemed heretical. Part Three concerns Simone Weil, the twentieth-century French classicist and philosopher whom Camus called 'the only great spirit of our time.'"

This brilliant essay is followed by the opera (libretto) mentioned in the subtitle, and it is another triptych. The final third centers around Weil, and the middle section concerns Marguerite de Porete. The opening section, "Love's Forgery" is a lyrical fantasy on Greek myth. Instead of Sappho, the central characters are Aphrodite, and her husband, the forger, Hephaistos, maker of, among other fate-laden gifts, the shield of Achilles.

Only connect.

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