Professor or Pinhead
Some writers discover their powers gradually. Others – Anne Carson, for example – spring from the head of Zeus. With three books in four years during the mid-1990s, the Canadian poet, classical scholar, essayist and translator became suddenly prominent in North America; she had found readers in Britain as well by 2001, when The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos won the T.S. Eliot Prize. A memorial to Carson’s late brother, Michael, Nox has found as much attention, and as much praise, as any book by any poet in the past couple of years. The praise is disturbing, sometimes wrongheaded, and reflects a category mistake; it also makes a good excuse to look back at the spiky virtues of Carson’s work.
Carson was born in 1950 to a banker, and the family moved frequently. She embraced Latin, and then Greek, at high school; her poems describe, and interviews suggest, an early and troubled marriage, and a peripatetic youth. Studies at the University of Toronto and at St Andrews led to a PhD in classics and in 1988 to a job at McGill. Carson then began to teach at American universities, including UC-Berkeley, Emory, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and now NYU. Without obvious contemporary influences, and without clear ties to the world of creative writing, Carson the poet was more or less discovered by Ben Sonnenberg, then the editor of Grand Street, in the late 1980s. Her reputation emerged with the books that followed: Plainwater (1995), Glass, Irony and God (1995) and Autobiography of Red (1998), a mysterious narrative poem about a gay teenager who is also the ‘red monster’ Geryon of Greek myth. Carson’s first book, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), was a playful study in prose of Sappho, Plato, the limitless nature of desire and the origin of the alphabet. The essay – capaciously understood – is a form still important to her, and most of her more recent books have included prose essays with topics or jumping-off points from the classics: Men in the Off Hours (2000), for example, contains an essay entitled ‘Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War’.
Men in the Off Hours remains the most diverse, and the best, introduction to her prose and verse. Here is ‘Epitaph: Zion’:
Murderous little world once our objects had gazes. Our lives
Were fragile, the wind
Could dash them away. Here lies the refugee breather
Who drank a bowl of elsewhere.
First hear the lines, with their run of dactyls (‘murderous’, ‘world once our’, ‘objects had’) leading to the much slower, largely iambic last line. Then interpret, or track allusions: Rilke’s Death, a bluish drink in a saucer; the refugees of postwar Europe, bound for ‘Zion’ as in Israel-Palestine or as in the afterlife; perhaps a suicide; Greek pneuma, the spirit or breath of life. Like Carson’s other ‘Epitaphs’, it offers mysteries where no single solution will do. (Their look on the page, though not their sound, suggests the distichs of Greek epitaph that she discussed in her 1999 book, Economy of the Unlost.)
Men in the Off Hours is full of fragments that carry a similarly bizarre power. ‘New Rule’, a break-up poem, asks after
The night of hooks?
The man blade left open on the stair?
Not enough spin on it, said my true love
when he left in our fifth year.
In another sequence Carson adapts Catullus, sometimes entertainingly, or outrageously:
On her lap one of the matted terriers.
She was combing around its genitals.
It grinned I grinned back.
It’s the one she calls Little Bottle after Deng Xiaoping.
The terrier replaces Lesbia’s sparrow: this louche woman – masturbating her lapdogs perhaps – unsettles the grinning observer. Carson’s Catullus uses the page as a canvas, or a stage:
No one but you she says she swore.
Why one night a god threw open the door.
I loved you more.
River river river river river river river
Here Carson wants you to look up the Latin, or to look up a faithful translation, unless you have either by heart: in the original four-line poem, Catullus’ lover says she will marry nobody but him, not even Jupiter. Catullus then says that lovers’ oaths may as well be on ‘rapida aqua’, ‘swift water’. Carson’s ‘river’ therefore flows speedily down the page, to the sea, in the shape of an L for ‘liar’, or for the turns lovers’ dialogues take.
Carson’s writings show a brusque yet intimate manner with ancient texts, a fractured, anti-mellifluous cadence (especially in her verse), and a sense of discomfort: she seems at home nowhere, not in her own head, or in our time, or in the ancient world. Carson wrote in Economy of the Unlost that Paul Celan ‘uses language as if he were always translating’: we could say the same thing about her. Her translations usually sound like the rest of her poems, obtrusively contemporary but studiedly idiosyncratic, plainly weird (they may reflect their weird originals). You could also say that her poems sound like Carsonian translations, swivelling between the credible replication of complex syntactic patterns and the sound of conversation today:
In fact Odysseus would have been here long before now
but it seemed to his mind more profitable
to go to many lands acquiring stuff.
(‘Alive That Time’)
Carson’s individual lines and sentences fit a world of continual, often unpleasant surprise: ‘Sycamore trees at dawn are big, unbandaging themselves.’ ‘Coldness comes paring down from the moonbone in the sky.’ But she has never seemed satisfied with such creations: she has to accompany them by frame-breaking devices, strings of quotations, visual texts, ways to break out of the genre of mere poetry, the medium of the ordinary book. One of the sequences in Men in the Off Hours runs a different quotation from St Augustine at the bottom of every page; the next has a ticker (as on a news channel) made up from quotations, in French, from Antonin Artaud.