Flesh and blood of tragedy
Canadian poet Anne Carson is redefining not just poetry but literature in the broadest sense, writes Peter Craven
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
IT’S A HAUNTING MASTERWORK MADE OUT OF THE DEBRIS OF FRAGMENTED CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGIES
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