Poet Goes to Building on Fire: Anne Carson’s Beautiful, Wacky, Heroic New Book

The Canadian poet and classics scholar Anne Carson began her 1998 “novel in verse” Autobiography of Red with the line

Anne Carson
Anne Carson

The Canadian poet and classics scholar Anne Carson began her 1998 “novel in verse” Autobiography of Red with the line “He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” That is a perfect sentence. Its built-in double take is typical of Carson’s straight-faced comedy. Red Doc> (Knopf, 192 pp., $24.95), Ms. Carson’s new “sequel” to Autobiography, begins like this:

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

No, there aren’t any words missing, nothing to orient you—just this weirdly spaced dialogue. So Anne Carson might be a little crazy. I’ve suspected this for some time, but her new book confirms it. Not that I’m complaining.

Autobiography of Red tweaked the ancient myth of Geryon, a red monster killed by Herakles, until it became a teen gay monster romance, which is probably, by now, a genre with its own section at Barnes & Noble. Ms. Carson’s version is very loosely based on, or in other words has almost nothing to do with, the few surviving fragments of Stesichoros, he of the difficult interval: monster meets boy, monster loses boy, monster reads Heidegger in Buenos Aires. Now Geryon is all grown up, a musk-ox herder with red wings who goes by “G.” He is reunited with Herakles, fucked up by war and now known improbably as Sad But Great (“I’m / Sad / why / no it’s my / name”).

The obnoxious formatting of Red Doc>, mostly centered columnar prose that can’t be accurately reproduced here—“a result of an accident with the computer,” according to a profile in The New York Times Magazine: “Carson hit a wrong button, and it made the margins go crazy”—is tame by Ms. Carson’s standards. Stesichoros’s fragments, Ms. Carson tells us, “read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat.” This is, not coincidentally, an accurate description of Ms. Carson’s own Nox, a literal box of elegiac poems, photographs, lecture notes and scraps of meat released in 2010. Ms. Carson’s last book, an idiosyncratic translation of Sophocles called Antigonick, was hand-lettered and had cartoons. I was hoping Red Doc> would be written in crop circles. But no, it’s just another book. With words in it.

With Anne Carson words in it. I didn’t pay too much attention to the plot, but who reads Ms. Carson for her narrative drive? It’s her phrases and images—half Simonides, half TMZ—that swoop and beguile like hidden messages. Cryptograms from other civilizations, or hoaxes perpetrated by pranksters by moonlight? Say what you will about Ms. Carson, she doesn’t play it safe:

Rain continuous

since the funeral a

wrecking rattling

bewildering Lethe-

knuckling mob of rain. A

rain with no instructions.

Listening to rain

he thinks how strange

all its surfaces sound like

they’re sliding up.

I can’t think of many poets who can pull off a line like “Lethe-knuckling mob of rain,” with its cod-Homeric tag. I’m not sure Ms. Carson does, but I’m glad she’s got the balls to try. And I’m almost certain the bit about rain’s surfaces sounding like they’re sliding up doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense (what would that sound like, exactly? Is it G’s imprecision or Ms. Carson’s?). But it tickles my mind.

Ms. Carson doesn’t skirt preciousness, she plows through it on an ATV, kicking up shadows and moons and “the ancient smell of ice.” In Autobiography of Red she calls an airplane, wonderfully, “this dangling fragment of humans.” Less wonderfully, in the new book, G is obsessed with Proust. Of course he is; in Autobiography he was always asking what time is made of. Better is his obsession with Daniil Kharms, and even better is when Ms. Carson doesn’t feel the need to prop up G’s passion with highbrow signifiers:

Time smeared

under the eyes of the

miners as they rattle down

into the mine. Time if you

are bankrupt. Time if you

are Prometheus. Time if

you are all the little tubes

on the roots of a gorse

plant sucking greenish

black moistures up into

new scribbled continents.

Time it takes for the postal

clerk to apply her lipstick

at the back of the post

office before the

supervisor returns.

That slide from Prometheus and gorse to “scribbled continents” and postal lipstick is echt Carson. Her preciousness usually doubles back on itself. When she goes for beauty—whether it ends in a swish or an air-ball—she follows up with a prophylactic dose of demotic. G and Sad visit a glacier (last time it was a volcano—Ms. Carson’s metaphors for emotional life are less than subtle): “A sort of cavern all / one color as if squeezed /
out of a tube. Wow the / blue says G.”

Autobiography of Red was sometimes annoyingly coy, but then Ms. Carson would nail Geryon’s loneliness to the page as if she’d had a heart all along. In Red Doc>, it’s G’s dying mother who provides the all-too-human relief. Ms. Carson doesn’t over-pollinate the death scene. G’s mother is worried about some whiskers on her chin, asks him to pluck them. Afterward, the requisite musing on death, but wow the blue:

Silly! Silly law! Look at

the hours stacked ahead of

you bales of time shining

in the sun—just reach your

arms in she must be there

somewhere maybe at

the kitchen table in the red

velour bathrobe crouched

over her coupons reaching

for her smokes he half

turns back—

But there is only “some / big old black crow just / now shuffling itself off / into flight.”

Red Doc> is about the transition to adulthood once youth is just a dream song, the downgrade from “acid and / Thunderbird wine and a / battered Karmann Ghia” to “Well not every day / can be a masterpiece,” from Herakles to Sad. From poetry to prose:

what is the difference between

poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose

is a house poetry a man in flames running

quite fast through it

Ms. Carson’s unevenness starts to seem integral to her insight after a while. She is writing the poetry that remains once our equations start making sense. A house > being on fire Poet Goes to Building on Fire: Anne Carson’s Beautiful, Wacky, Heroic New Book