Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000

Four Poems from ‘The Beauty of the Husband’

Anne Carson

2010 words

IX. But what word was it

Word that overnight
showed up on all the walls of my life inscribed simpliciter no explanation.
What is the power of the unexplained.
There he was one day (new town) in a hayfield outside my school standing
under a black umbrella
in a raw picking wind.
I never asked
how he got there a distance of maybe three hundred miles.
To ask

would break some rule.
Have you ever read ‘The Homeric Hymn to Demeter’?
Remember how Hades rides out of the daylight
on his immortal horses swathed in pandemonium.
Takes the girl down to a cold room below
while her mother walks the world and damages every living thing.
Homer tells it
as a story of the crime against the mother.
For a daughter’s crime is to accept Hades’ rules

which she knows she can never explain
and so breezing in she says
to Demeter:
‘Surely mother here is the whole story.
For slyly he placed
in my hands a pomegranate seed sweet as honey.
Then by force and against my will he made me eat.
I tell you this truth though it grieves me.’
Made her eat how? I know a man

who had rules
against showing pain,
against asking why, against wanting to know when I’d see him again.
From my mother
emanated a fragrance, fear.
And from me
(I knew by her face at the table)
smell of sweet seed.
Roses in your room’d he send you those?

What’s the occasion?
No occasion.
What’s going on with the colour.
Ten white one red what’s that mean.
Guess they ran out of white.

To abolish seduction is a mother’s goal.
She will replace it with what is real: products.
Demeter’s victory
over Hades
does not consist in her daughter’s arrival from down below,
it’s the world in bloom –
cabbages lures lambs broom sex milk money!
These kill death.

I still have that one red rose dried to powder now.
It did not mean hymen as she thought.

XIV. Running your hand over it to calculate its dimensions you think at first it is stone then ink or black water where the hand sinks in then a bowl of elsewhere from which you pull out no hand

Today I have not won. But who can tell if I shall win tomorrow.
So he would say to himself going down the stairs.
Then he won.

Good thing because in the smoke of the room he had found himself wagering
his grandfather’s form (which he did not own)
and forty thousand dollars cash (which he did).

Oh to tell her at once he went slapping down the sidewalk
to the nearest phone booth, 5 a.m. rain pelting his neck.

Her voice sounded broken into. Where were you last night.
Dread slits his breath.
Oh no

he can hear her choosing another arrow now from the little quiver
and anger goes straight up like trees in her voice holding
his heart tall.

I only feel clean he says suddenly when I wake up with you.
The seduction of force is from below.
With one finger

the king of hell is writing her initials on the glass like scalded things.
So in travail a husband’s
legend glows, sings.

XXIII. How rich a poor pleasure to a poor man

What can save these marks from themselves.
What if we drop a little more solvent
on the seam

between foreground and background.
Ray was no Mont St Victoire
but his curiously crystalline little body
did set up a wise and fleshy relation
between world and retina.
His world your retina.
As he says himself
No one stays innocent very long around Ray.
Ray is a painter.
He cooks (most nights) at the Sincere Diner and paints by day.
When do you sleep Ray? asks the wife.
Instead of answering Ray flips two half-fried eggs with one hand
and catches an explosion of toast (too light, shoves it back down)
then spins left
to pick a clean plate off the dishwasher stack.
Clock above the pies says five to five.
Off at five Ray? I’ll walk you home.
Or do you have
a date.

Ray flicks past her at the counter
and a splash of Sincere coffee fills her cup – Ray is all yours lady!
No date no wait no fate to contemplate! he grins.

Contour of a person so different from what you can get into bits of speech.
His calf muscles for instance were huge.
Like a ballet dancer’s. She thought about it walking beside him.
Or a bicycle courier’s.
He rolled from step to step as if on ball-bearings and she knew from experience
he could walk like that all day without tiring,
then paint most of the night,
then prowl the bars.
You’re strong Ray.
He nodded.
What makes you so strong.
He thought about it.
Lust he said.
You mean like Vincent Van Gogh. Lust for life.
No he said. Like a bee.
Pollen she said.
He laughed.
Pollen keeps callin old Ray.
They rolled along.
Dawn was pushing the night sky up like a Venetian blind
and blue
ran straight into the world from somewhere.
So you say he’s phoning you lately.

Tells you he’s a better person now.
More or less.

And what else.
And he can’t live without me.
I saw him at a club the other night you know he looked alive to me.
Ray what does he want me to say.
No question is what do you want him to say.
Want him to say he can’t live without me.
Well bingo.
But in a way I can believe.
Now there you go knocking on heaven.
Or feel the way I feel like a body ripped in half like an incomplete state of some
metal in a chemical process like a blob of scalded copper waiting to be resurrected into gold –

Don’t wait for that.
Figure of speech.
He still got his clothes at your house?
Throw them out.
You know what are the rules for this?
That’s because there are no rules for this. A ship passes, there’s a bit of wake and some spray then it disappears.
Shut up Ray.

He spat. Want to come in for some mashed potatoes? Then I have to paint.
They were at Ray’s house.

Mashed potatoes were his usual breakfast.
No thanks Ray. What are you working on now?
Mother’s Day said Ray.
Ray was painting his mother for a long time.
on the same canvas almost four years of them,
by now a thick painting.
I like to keep the hesitation in Ray’d say.
Can I look at it? No not today.
Okay see you Ray. Bye lady.

XXV. Sad severe tango dance love and death dance of night and men dance of the dark kitchen of the poverty of desire

Shall we sharpen our eyes and circle closer to the beauty of the husband –
carefully, for he was on fire.
Under him the floor was on fire,
the world was on fire,
truth was on fire.
Around him green fire blew straight off every tree.
He was almost never sad, a god led him on.
Nor did he doubt his fate which looked as Napoleon used to say like this:
       I write myself between worlds.
What he wrote depended on who he was with.
Once he met Ray
he began to write paintings.
In Ray’s room they worked side by side, the husband talked.
Ray liked learning about places in the world,
for he had scarcely travelled and about books,
for he did not read.
What are the Alps like?
From the plane they look fragile like pieces of pottery. Thin silences float in between.
And up close.
Up close more like cheese. Parmesan.
Is it expensive?
Yes and no.
You stay with your Italian sweetie?
She got married.
To who.
Man named Ricky.
They happy?
She had to unlock him she said.
Meaning sex.
I guess.
You know what’s good for that is tango.
For unlocking?
Cures the digestion too.
How do you know these things.
Remember Flor?
The one before Karl.
Karl was the one before Saul.
And Flor was a tangoist.
That seems a long time ago to me.
Poor pure Flor.
Seems so long ago.
Flor was defenceless.
Doesn’t that seem a long time ago to you Ray.
No not so long but you were married then it was all different.
It makes me tremble.
To think back. I remember exactly how I thought life would be.
Everyone has dreams.
No not dreams it was a precise picture.
What went wrong.
Take the divorce for example, not her idea to divorce me. Middlemen got to her.
She knew you were lying and sleeping around.
Ray please I never lied to her. When need arose I may have used words that lied.
Way too philosophical for me.
Philosophers say man forms himself in dialogue.
That I understand.
So did she.
Now there you’re wrong.
Why do you say so.
I saw her go down.
She was far stronger than me.
She went down.
Everything I did I did for her.
Why are you yelling.
I’m going to see her this weekend.
You’re insane.

I’ll write first.
She divorced you three years ago why not leave her alone?
I have faith.
In what.
In us.
There is no us.
Deep pure faith.
But why.
Ray you know I wish I lived in another century.
You used to say the body is the beginning of everything.
I don’t believe that anymore.
You still sleep around.
I do.
You make me sad.
The way people live here –
Land of no miracles.
What do you hope for now.
To be reborn as a great warrior in the year 3001.
On a June evening.
What did you say.
It’s a line from a tango song.
On a June evening yes.

They went on working, he at his easel
and he on the floor by the lamp
while high black banks of twilight came and stood around them close as sentries.
The husband was making a plan of the battle of Epipolai

which he hoped to transfer to a wall of his house using acrylic paint
and small flags.
Why Epipolai? This bloody Athenian defeat
began with one surprise night move in 413 BC.
Blurring a line between courage and folly

the Athenians attacked uphill in the dark
against fortified Syracusan positions.
Its originality at first
brought success to the plan,
then the Syracusans grasped it

and charged and disorder flowed everywhere.
Visibility was by moonlight,
they could see outlines but not who was who.
Hoplites got churning
in a space no bigger than a stairwell

for those Athenians who were already routed and descending the cliff
met others arriving fresh to the attack
and took them for enemies – moreover,
constantly shouting the password
they revealed it to the enemy and with this word

coming at them wrongly in the dark the Athenians panicked.
Friend fell upon friend.
It was like a beautiful boiling dance where your partner
and stabs you to death,

cauldron of red Sicilian moon and white Greek lips.
He hums as he works.
Rectangles for the Syracusan outbuildings,
broken lines for the brave Athenian assault,
triangles for likely places of confrontation,

black dots of varying sizes for estimated casualties along the path of the rout.
In his mind
he is composing a letter
to explain to her (again)
about the fog of war and need for endurance and splendour

they will come to in the end.
We need a new password he whispers with a smile,
as he imagines himself arriving exhausted and hoarse,
dusty from the road, riding a tank one fine evening.
June evening.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences