(This is the third in a series of letters about poems and what I love in them.)
"Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living," says the biography inside the dust jacket of her most recent book. No alma mater, no accolades, no current residence even. Just place of birth and ancient Greek. I love this biography for how it elides the wealth of wisdom and originality in her poems.
Reading Autobiography of Red, Carson's novel in verse, gave me that teenage fervor of listening for the first time to the albums that became lifelong favorites. The book is an extended riff on the myth of Herakles's tenth labor: to kill a red monster named Geryon and take his red cattle. In Carson's telling, the red monster grows up as a boy. Geryon writes some fragments of autobiography, takes photographs, travels, and falls painfully in love with a young man called Herakles. The book captures the sensation of forever that pervades adolescence: everything feels heightened, glorious and painful. Everything feels like a new chance to define yourself, testing the limits of who you are.
Take this excerpt from a poem that appears under the heading "Fruit Bowl." Geryon, returned home from a visit to Herakles, sits down across from his mother at the table:
"He sat forward. She exhaled. She was watching his hands so he unclenched them
from the edge
of the table and began spinning the fruit bowl slowly. He spun it clockwise.
Why is this fruit bowl always here? He stopped and held it by the rims.
It's always here and it never
has any fruit in it. Been here all my life never had fruit in it yet. Doesn't
that bother you? How do we even
know it's a fruit bowl? She regarded him through smoke. How do you think it feels
growing up in a house full
of empty fruit bowls? His voice was high. His eyes met hers and they began
to laugh. They laughed
until tears ran down. Then they sat quiet. Drifted backto opposite walls."
The movements (unclenched hands, a spin of the bowl in each direction) draw me through into the rush of Geryon's speech. The repetition (particularly always here/it's always here) underscores the sense of inertia he's mentioning, plus it sounds more like speech. People are always repeating themselves as they talk. Space and time feel both real and surprising in this poem -- I've seen and had so many conversations where one funny exchange shines prominently, then everyone gradually draws away into themselves: the drifting back to opposite walls.
In this passage, I can hear a teenage me, or the girls I volunteer with, questioning, challenging, making a space to be the people they'll become. I admire Carson's ability to mix speech with action with image; it's a challenging balance to write that she presents effortlessly, tinged with humor. When that poem ends "The fruit bowl / stayed there. Yes empty." I smile. Of course it does. Things persist in their patterns.
Poems offer ways of seeing patterns from all sorts of angles. Whenever I reread Autobiography of Red, I find new threads running through it. My Anne Carson enthusiasm has expanded fractally as I've become more familiar with her poems and prose. If you're looking for a small book to spend some time with over the holidays, this one has my fervent accolades. If you're looking for a devastatingly beautiful poem about loss and Emily Brontë, "The Glass Essay" is online in full. If you're looking for a meandering conversation on the works of a certain Canadian who teaches ancient Greek, just hit reply.
With warm wishes for your new year,