Vol. 46 No. 11 · 6 June 2024

In My Life as a Visiting Lecturer I Meet Various and Sundry People or, Another Way to Think of This, Here Are All the Novels I Never Wrote and You Are Welcome to Them

Anne Carson

2895 words

Julio likes to ask a good question in a bad way. Do most of your students fall in love with you? He is a recovering addict but he does not see himself as a statistic, here I am quoting. He describes his novel, which is about the 65th Infantry of Puerto Rico. I watch the clothesline out back, bouncing on the wind with its four frozen shirts.

Long talks about waking beside a man bleeding from the eyes. It sounds like Antonioni. Possibly a dream, but I don’t pay much attention, I am more concerned about the coffee pot, which still has a melted cord although missing parts have been replaced.

In every room she slinks to the wall and hunts it as if for shelter. On the street or on stairs she pulls herself along, yet her body gives the message to get there will be worse. When she goes to visit her child he says, How do you do?

The Dales
Giggling and beautiful they stand in the doorway after dinner discussing the names they will give their children. He kisses her face, her filthy knuckles, laughs, everyone laughs, the two of them glow like leaves. I watch, roaring. We all go by car somewhere, come back. I get out, close the car door, they drive off.

Her teeth are stained like an old bathtub. Her studio is rows and rows and rows of objects. Why did you do the vests? I ask. She stirs her hands up and down. The bones? Oh the bones, she says. They meant something to me. People died. Can answers matter? Work, can work matter? They just wasted away. Handfuls of it.

A tree has no way of going back yet Elsa visits the town where her mother lived and died. She cannot stop walking. She walks and talks. Mostly she is talking to her mother. You took all the stairs for yourself, she says, even the ones I needed, anyway, where would you like me to have thrown you, that black rushing night?

I am living the wrong life, I tell her and she smiles. She has recently fallen in love and is describing her plans, to conceive a child and move to an island, finish the novel. She hasn’t had a haircut but looks good anyway, she always looks good, dirty, fatigued, depressed, rummaging for a cigarette. I am testing the plank to see if it will hold. I tell her I am on a plank over a chasm. She readjusts her shawl.


The hotel has a pool. The hotel has no pool. The hotel has a pool but it is three strokes long. The hotel has no pool but there is a university pool. The university pool is closed for a swim meet. The university pool is not closed but requires a keycard. There is no university or university pool but there is an ocean, loch, lake, fjord, river, local spa. These are wildly pounding, freezing cold, rocky, muddy, reedy or crazy expensive, nonetheless all will be well, the visiting lecturer knows as she slides into the water. You too are made of stars, someone is saying later as she passes the breakfast room.

Nurit reads her work aloud to me at dinner beside the crashing sea. She is a surrealist and may be a little mad (but one thinks that of lots of people here). Narrow cats slide past our feet. You shatter, she translates a poster on the wall (burning city) exhorting all to join the army.

Heloise goes to a dinner party. She leaves work early and walks carefully on one stalk. On the way home is the smell of night sidewalks after rain, that crumbled smell, and one clear star. Heloise makes up a song as she goes along. Old roses. Never die. They just. Get pure. Become foxes. Set off for Rome. Bark to be fed. Weep. Have one gear and no brakes. Deliquesce.

Sly boy, is how Rick sums it up. He mops his face with a black handkerchief while reading from his memoir and keeps his voice way back in his head so we have to lean forwards. I learned to give tough explanations, he says of old women who lashed questions at him from their dark verandas. He pronounces certain words (sly, tough) as if buttering a bun.

I could be dying! yells Ellen’s mother from the phone. Ellen noses around this claim, half-wishing to fall into real pity. But mothers forfeit pity fairly early in such a phone call, don’t they? Suppose the highwayman demands not your money but that you jump a ravine.

When the singer upstairs starts her scales Antonia goes out walking. There is new white snow over dark slush and mirroring blue-grey skies. To be kissed by something more than the raw sunset wind is what all the old men in Beckett long for too, she thinks, and we have the same overcoat.

I have a problem, he says, I talk too much. Tobyhanna’s eyes are narrow and tossing. He is standing near the punch bowl. He lives in a van on the edge of town. Once he went to a Buddhist monk to explain his problem. I talk too much, why do I do that? The monk looked at him and without hesitation said, Bad character.

Passing his old office she remembers her mentor, who liked to give her suppers at posh restaurants in return for light fondling in his office. A large, monumentally ugly man who had written an important book on Plato, On Plato’s Roaring Darkness. He smelled like dust. She was 22 and thought him too old to worry about, anyway that’s how things worked then. Flakes of skin scattered over his lapel where her face got pressed into it she learned to ignore.

Alain is suicidal again. The stifled voice, the little pulled-up threads of rage waving. Then a night at the sauna and he thrashes back to normal. To me it seems the same as all the other sauna anecdotes, to him a miracle. We don’t talk about this. We lived in the same town for years and never talked about this. He is a hot one, I am a cold one, was our understanding. I don’t want your skin on me, neither of us was allowed to say.

If I come back from a walk and can’t remember which house it is, I just listen for the parrots. She wants to get rid of the parrots, they kill each other. She wants to get rid of me – only day three of my visit and I hear her late at night pouring paragraphs of Amiga this! Amiga that! over him as he stares (no doubt) down into his glass of whiskey at the kitchen table.

Alberto is learning Quechua. He tries out a few phrases on his Quechua servant, who is from the hills north of Lima and rides to and from his house by bus each day, one and a half hours each way. What does Maria think of you learning Quechua? I ask. Alberto does not answer. His wife looks up. She thinks he is completamente loco, she says. Maria continues sweeping.

Mottled red fists of flesh clench on her ankles, knobs of white nerve poke up. You could hear the dressing changes coming down the hall by the screams, she says. We lean in the doorway, then one by one sit down at the kitchen table to listen. I have no soles to my feet, she begins again.

Lunch with Paola has the looseness of night, everything loose and running around a bit. She is tiny, ancient, bobbing, Italian and until dessert I am not sure if we are talking about her family or Alec Guinness. Do I have long do you think? she says before toppling into a car beside her Polish husband who is very deaf. I can hear them shouting at one another as they speed off into traffic.

Julia weeps throughout her wedding, perhaps from fatigue, being eight months pregnant and from Istanbul, but the wine is like dawn and the young man to whom I imprudently confide (blame the wine!) that I’m finding the ceremony harder to bear than my own wedding years ago with its liturgy in Latin, responds, Oh did you marry in South America?

At the donor’s dinner he tells me stories from when he was stationed in mainland China, the drizzly day he witnessed the execution of five common criminals. The condemned were given umbrellas. It was a question of clean-up, he explains, a soaked corpse being so much heavier to drag out.

On her free day she signs up for a tour of the national museum and is conducted to a frigid storage room, not open to the public. The paintings are stacked around the room with faces to the wall. These, these are insane objects, says the curator, each one an insurrection in itself. The curator has small silver paws, very like the paws of the ermine in the painting Lady with Ermine, now on display in the nation’s other museum, which the visiting lecturer had been told was not worth visiting. After the tour, as they exit the storage room, an older man walks beside the curator whispering, Stop blushing, just be here.

After his death we turned out his desk and found quite a few beginnings of the novel that was to rival Ulysses, we found 75 beginnings, but then where does a beginning begin? A first vibration of the branch after the bird, but then the bird? but then the sky before the bird? but then the white before the sky? and what before the white? and so you go, and so he did.

Larry Littlebird
He was a tour guide in the hotel where I stayed. You live a room-service life, he told me, all white people are carrion. We were blazing beside the pool at the time. I felt ashamed paying for his orange juice. But they had fabulous orange juice at that hotel.

She has one drooping eyelid and lives with Uncle Peter beside a big shallow lake. To swim you walk out miles. She tells me I had written all the lyrics of Joni Mitchell songs and in her dream sang them to her. Uncle Peter, once an architect, wears colour co-ordinated shirt and tie at all times. To walk me to the beach he adds a plaid ski hat.

She has an obliquity that’s part of her genius. She offers you two cigarettes and suddenly you’re in her movie. Why two? Her genius. Do we all spend our lives arranging gaps that we ourselves fall into? Yes.

Laskio went to Eastern Europe to organise raves and smoke black hashish. He called himself the Why-Do-They-Hate-Us Correspondent of the New York Times. Difficulties arose with the former war heroes he hired as security, who robbed him blind. These days he makes comic books and gives talks to small groups in libraries. Change is almost never revolutionary, he tells them, it is slow and dull.

I got the dogs in here, you keep back, Nathaniel says from behind his door. Just arrived for the week, I need to borrow a corkscrew. It reminds me of Lima, the way the building feels crawled around by the city and the city feels crawled around by the sky and the sky, well, the sky has a flesh side somewhere else.

When I asked what she thought of the portrait she said, None of my deformities is missing.

Ming Pen
I lived in a time of moral decay, he tells me, and an absence of breakthrough people. He wrote a rule book. Part One deals with daily tasks everyone should know, Part Two with hungry ghosts. When he got his tonsure a girl begged for the clippings because they might turn into jewels. Yet most of his life he worries about being a dull person.

Manouane is a black-eyed Cree with a small, blond boyfriend. They kiss against the back wall at school, then she moves to his place by the river and stops coming to school. She phones me to talk in long circles about Plato. Her father had been a policeman who quit to roam the world, then there he was one day on their front lawn with a shotgun and blew his brains out. Her brother recovered a fragment of skull from the grass. There, she points as we drive past.

Cy has big gnarled paws and a voice like a buttock. He has been reading Homer and got some ideas. He doesn’t so much tell me his ideas as carve me with them. Cy is a Special Level Donor. He’ll up the annual donation by half if they get artists doing some real art not just bullshit brushstrokes.

Cy’s son is deaf. He brings him to the dinner to perform sonnets. Giles pulls a mob of Shakespeare out of his breastbone. Larks flood the room. None of us can breathe.

Her lifelong love of people half-turned away, or busy with something else, or gone by morning, needs to be looked at, her analyst says. Today arrives a postcard from the one who left for Beijing. He is enjoying breezy days on his bicycle. He thinks of her as a wakeful cat putting up wisdom for old age. Years later, when this card falls out of a book, she will reread it and feel skinned alive all over again.

Beth is a small soft person. She breeds small soft dogs and lives in an English cottage. In personality, a glob of honey on a saucer. She has an entirely other personality, involving an orange Corvette and an NBA point guard, which I cannot explain.

Bates was living in the trailer even before his mother died. They had treated it as temporary, soon to go back to the house by the lake with the birch trees, their golden age, their best of times, their little paradise. Birch trees all the way to the lake. He admits it was also him upstairs gritting his teeth against the blare of her TV, her in the kitchen in tears. Birches all the way to the lake and now and then a deer.

Every night about ten Darly listens to the upstairs man drag a piece of heavy furniture across the floor. Then he drops pins. Sometimes he has a visitor, tapping one heel, tapping both heels. Darly will someday meet the upstairs man and ask, What was it with those pins? and he’ll say, Oh those weren’t pins, and tell her some fact from inside physics that astounds her.

Go to law school, his father commanded him. Instead Sylvester became a connoisseur of African art. Descended from African kings, he is packed with king anger. The stupidity of museum labels in European museums, for instance, angers him. They call everything an idol, having no idea what it is. When he was 7 he ran away from home with his friend T. His father had them both brought back and obliged Sylvester to watch the ceremony in which T was beheaded.

Bishop Hugh
On a very English afternoon, chill rain riddling down, Bishop Hugh had travelled by train to Fécamp to view a relic of Mary Magdalene. It was a long journey, rain changing to heavy rain. The relic was wrapped in three layers of linen and one of silk. Bishop Hugh suddenly leaned forward and bit off a good chunk of the holy ulna.

He cuts off his father’s feet. It is an accident, then the father sits in the canoe with feet cut off, looking baffled, as if to say, Here’s one more bad thing, what will the boy do next? The boy is screaming down the phone to 911, his mother laughing, lifting her hand to her lips, why does she keep hanging up the phone? I’ve got the feet, he screams, I’ll bring the feet, they’ll sew it back on. The mother laughs, the father sits mildly, the boy is searching his brain, Do you wrap the feet separately or together with the ankles? The canoe rocks on its own wake.

Migraine may accompany a visit. She has brought with her Beckett’s book on Proust. Sometimes Beckett appears to be just horsing around. But then a sentence is so intelligent she lays the book down, unable to go on. After the lecture there had been Q & A. She heard herself tell the students all storytelling is a cliché, just go down into the barking heart of the thing and see how a pineapple is made, to quote Wallace Stevens, and they said, Who’s Wallace Stevens? The bunch of green bananas on her kitchen windowsill at home is still green when she gets back. This makes her think of T.S. Eliot, his infant vows of chastity while writing big black knotty penis in letters to friends.

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