Flesh and blood of tragedy

Cana­dian poet Anne Carson is re­defin­ing not just po­etry but lit­er­a­ture in the broad­est sense, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN 1998 Anne Carson pub­lished a long poem, Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Red, that knocked the socks off ev­ery­body’s ex­pec­ta­tions about what con­tem­po­rary po­etry could achieve, cer­tainly mine. It is a book-length poem about a man who is also the red-winged prodigy Geryon from Greek mythol­ogy, and in the course of its novella-like un­fold­ing it cre­ates an ex­tra­or­di­nary but in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar sense of ado­les­cence meta­mor­phos­ing into some­thing else, of a fluid sex­u­al­ity, of young men and older women, of the lean, mas­ter­ful Amer­i­can In­dian guy, of the moun­tains of Peru, and the loom­ing por­tent and sym­bolic land­scape and cu­ri­ous re­al­ity of vol­ca­noes.

It wasn’t clear what, at the level of sym­bol­ism, Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Red was about. What was ap­par­ent was that we were in the pres­ence of a ma­jor po­etic talent. Ma­jor like Anna Akhma­tova or WB Yeats, not Philip Larkin or El­iz­a­beth Bishop. Not just a very good poet but one of those fig­ures who ap­pear once in a blue moon and change the shape not just of po­etry in the nar­row sense but lit­er­a­ture it­self as a cru­cial map of the world.

Carson’s ma­jor po­etry stands in re­la­tion to David Fos­ter Wal­lace’s In­fi­nite Jest the way TS Eliot’s po­etry stands in re­la­tion to James Joyce’s Ulysses: as the ir­re­duc­ible clas­sic ex­pres­sion in a par­al­lel medium to the great in­no­va­tive work of the age, the mas­ter­work of un­gain­sayable sig­nif­i­cance.

Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Red was fol­lowed by The Beauty of the Hus­band (2001), a de­lin­eated drama in a se­quence of son­nets, again in ex­tended form and with a sear­ing author­ity. Now, af­ter a long de­lay, we have Red Doc, which is some kind of con­tin­u­a­tion of Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Red and has the same red-winged hero who breathes and speaks in the ac­cents of young men we’ve known or been.

Red Doc, which was short­listed for the in­au­gu­ral Fo­lio Prize, is a work of breath­tak­ing grandeur, ut­terly weird and de­na­tured and dream­lit but with an evo­ca­tion of voices and bod­ies that is as fa­mil­iar as the voices and bod­ies we have been in­ti­mate with be­cause they seem to em­anate from some lost con­ti­nent of col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, some id­iomatic Amer­ica of the mind that we know like the backs of our own hands or wher­ever our hands have been.

The eas­i­est way into Carson, who can seem like a dizzy­ingly dif­fi­cult writer, though she is not — she’s sim­ply not in­ter­ested in mak­ing some things clear (and she’s also stren­u­ously ex­per­i­men­tal) — is sim­ply to re­alise she’s a mas­ter of di­a­logue to equal the great drama­tists, and she also has what can seem the clair­voy­ant gift of turn­ing it into a kind of mu­sic. This is the Shake­spearean gift, the one that turns crit­ics’ heads, which de­luded Hei­deg­ger into say­ing po­etry could speak Be­ing.

But let’s go down a few steps and lis­ten to the open­ing of Red Doc. Bear in mind it’s two voices we’re hear­ing, a mother’s and her son’s. Imag­ine her as per­haps late mid­dle-aged, him as into his 30s but with what re­mains in some ways a boy’s man­ner. One voice takes over from the other at ev­ery slash. The mother speaks first, of­ten in the form of a ques­tion that is not in­di­cated.

“GOOD­LOOK­ING BOY wasn’t he / yes / blond / yes / I do vaguely / you never liked him / bit of a rebel / so you said / he’s the one wore lizard pants and pearls to grad­u­a­tion / which at the time you ad­mired / they were good pearls / you said he re­minded you of your friend Mil­dred / Mil­dred taught me ev­ery­thing I know she

March 22-23, 2014 Red Doc By Anne Carson Jonathan Cape, 163pp, $32.95 taught me how to en­ter­tain / you must miss her / I miss her mar­ti­nis [stubs cig­a­rette] so what’s he up to now / just got out of the army / wounded / messed up / are they giv­ing him care / a guy shows up with a padded en­ve­lope of drugs ev­ery night I guess it’s care ...”

This is shape­lier on the page and stranger, but that’s the point be­cause Carson makes you dig for the im­pli­ca­tion that in­di­cates which char­ac­ter is which and the fact she sub­merges any ease of mean­ing, the fact she makes things dif­fi­cult, adds to the hal­lu­ci­na­tory re­al­ity — the re­al­ism and the depth of in­ti­macy — when things come clear.

You may won­der why the ghost of mod­ernism should be wear­ing its spooky shroud quite so os­ten­ta­tiously but you can’t com­plain be­cause Carson is a ge­nius and the way in which she fid­dles her plain over­heard speech into weird es­trang­ing pat­terns scarcely mat­ters be­cause if you get the mu­sic in this dream­scape of scrib­bled mythol­ogy in a sub­ur­banised world you’ll be get­ting most of what’s there to be got.

A mo­ment later we get a voice that sounds like the cho­rus of a play and which iden­ti­fies it­self as Wife of Brain. Does that sug­gest the Muse in­voked by Homer and the rest? Carson teaches Greek and has trans­lated bits and pieces of the Greek play­wrights, not as riv­et­ingly well as she in­hab­its a par­al­lel uni­verse but ef­fec­tively. She has a very Fos­ter Wal­lace like ver­sion of the Elec­tra of Euripi­des: af­fect­less, dead­pan, droll. And, yes, she also writes mad- dening crit­i­cal es­says in a be­wil­der­ing style slightly rem­i­nis­cent of that most alien­at­ing of French the­o­rists Lacan, but with a gift like Carson’s even such knowl­edge de­serves for­give­ness. Here’s Wife of Brain: “we en­ter we tell you / we are the Wife of Brain / at this point you have lit­tle grounds to com­plain we say / a red man un­fold­ing his wings is how it be­gins then the lights / come on or go off or the stage / spins it’s like a play omnes / to their places / but / re­mem­ber / the fol­low­ing faces / the red one (G) /you al­ready know (what’s he done to his hair) his old friend / Sad / But Great / looks kind / be­ware / third Ida Ida is lim­it­less and will soon be our king / scene is / a lit­tle red hut where G lives alone / time / evening /”

Al­though what it dis­closes is se­ri­ously weird this is verse of mar­vel­lous mu­si­cal lu­cid­ity, sin­u­ous and com­mu­nica­tive. Of­ten with Carson we are in some­thing like the ter­ri­tory of Eliot’s — “We know we have been there but we can­not say where” — though she is not a late sym­bol­iste the way he was. It’s a bit as though a set-up, some­thing like those no­to­ri­ous notes to The Waste­land that func­tioned in Eliot’s case like a black joke on the reader as well as a won­der­fully provoca­tive tease to set the schol­ars in­ves­ti­gat­ing, serves as an ac­tual dra­matic frame­work for Red Doc, though an oblique one.

So there’s mytho­log­i­cal data though of a ran­dom kind. Geryon, the hero, has his red wings — and at times flies. He also has a herd of musk oxen and there’s also a cow­girl — or girl cow? — called Io who may be il­lu­mi­nated by the mythol­ogy hand­books. Then there’s the cen­tral fig­ure of Sad But Great, Geryon’s old friend who also has been his lover who has been ter­ri­bly messed up by Iraq. He’s the boy al­luded to in the open­ing di­a­logue by the mother and son and


much of the ac­tion of Red Doc is con­cerned with his treat­ment and en­durance. Is this dam­aged war vet­eran the Her­cules fig­ure lum­ber­ing to­wards his fu­neral pyre? There’s also a bad girl called Ida who con­founds the hero as well as stim­u­lates him.

Red Doc takes place in an all but de­ranged dream­scape, a kind of crypto-post­mod­ern jokey world of mytho­log­i­cal crea­tures that are swiv­el­lingly pointed to­wards and ev­ery so of­ten an­i­mated. Though what hap­pens within this sham­bolic, makeshift world of fly­ing bats and ap­pari­tions of Prometheus has great power be­cause the lan­guage is so rich and far out, so ex­pert in its ev­ery re­ca­pit­u­la­tion of how words go and so ca­pa­ble of dis­lo­cat­ing grandeurs at the same time.

Af­ter wrestling with the dense ver­bal pat­tern­ings and con­fu­sions, hu­man faces (and the char­ac­ters that go with them) loom into fo­cus in this strange, un­tamed mon­stros­ity of a book that is also a great poem that will sus­tain the at­ten­tion of the largest kind of read­ing pub­lic.

Carson in fact uses her frac­tured mytholo­gies as a kind of trip, as a phan­tas­mago­ria of dra­matic pos­tu­lates in a beau­ti­fully or­ches­trated ac­tion that makes no ob­vi­ous sense though it does have a kind of dra­matic shape in which things hap­pen and are ren­dered in ways that are by turns dras­ti­cally funny, lyri­cally ap­pre­hended, ele­giac, at times loom­ing to­wards tragedy.

Red Doc is a long poem and an ur­gent story about po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary atroc­ity (as it is ex­pe­ri­enced by Sad, the sol­dier boy) and it is also the story of Geryon, and of his mother’s death in hospi­tal from cancer.

It is re­mark­able what a haunt­ing mas­ter­work Carson has made out of the de­bris of frag­mented clas­si­cal mytholo­gies as they might ex­ist in the mind of some eter­nally im­ma­ture sen­si­bil­ity, some teenager of the soul, spec­trally lit by the eter­nal pos­si­bil­ity of resurgent de­pres­sion, and for­ever speak­ing or whis­per­ing through the small-town sub­ur­ban life that is the only epic id­iom we have.

Carson has learned all there is to know from the icon­o­clas­tic masters of Amer­i­can po­etic mod­ernism. From Eliot’s sense of drama in an un­lo­cat­able place, from Pound’s sense of the world of bro­ken stat­ues that con­sti­tutes the ar­chi­tec­ture of the mind. But she also knows about Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams’s clean lines and small words. And per­haps there’s a trick or two learned from HD and Gertrude Stein.

It scarcely mat­ters be­cause her Red Doc po­ems are starkly orig­i­nal. They are writ­ten in a free verse and in stunted lines that be­lie them­selves be­cause the pat­tern­ing of the mu­sic is ex­quis­ite and the sense of drama ef­fort­less and over­pow­er­ing in its punch and panache, and in its hard-won tact in the face of the worst things in the world. The epi­graph is the fa­mil­iar Beck­ett one about fail­ing bet­ter, which may re­fer to Carson’s dif­fi­culty in fol­low­ing up on an ac­claimed mas­ter­piece in Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Red. What it in fact points to is a level of achieve­ment com­pa­ra­ble to the Ir­ish mas­ter’s.

Red Doc is that rarest kind of poem, a long work of in­sur­mount­able power and achieve­ment that needs to be read again and again. It de­mands the at­ten­tion of any­one who wants to know how lit­er­a­ture — that all but im­pos­si­ble thing — has been re­struc­tured and re­con­fig­ured in the mind of what­ever spirit shapes it.

Her­a­cles fight­ing Geryon, de­picted on an At­tic am­phora dated circa 540BC; Anne Carson, be­low

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