What Walden Pond was to Thoreau, what the sea was to Conrad and Melville, what seeing is to John Berger, Greek and Latin are to Anne Carson: an immense space—because the words now contain the world that once existed around them—that allows her imagination a measureless boundary. Carson wrote her first few books, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), Plainwater (1995), and Glass, Irony and God (1995), with the brio of one who had sighted an undiscovered country where imagination could renew itself and break free of the well-trodden territories that have served, tragically, to marginalize poetry (an art that sulks like Achilles when it is cut off from an active readership). Glass, Irony and God, one of the finest debut books of poetry published in English in the twentieth century, was written with an almost inconceivable urgency and power. In "The Glass Essay," Carson moves through searingly painful meditations on her father's dementia, her lover's unreliability, and Emily Brontë. But as she predicted in Glass, "The vocation of anger is not mine / I know my source." Over the years, Carson has learned how to transform anger into an empowering force, and her works after her mother's death in 1997 are studies in solitude, all the more affecting for the number of scenes that take place in harsh northern winters.
In some ways, it is difficult to think of Carson apart from her sources and subjects, which are never more powerfully on display than in her new book, Decreation. It's a kind of Anne Carson Reader—populated with such icons as Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Porete, and Michelangelo Antonioni—and her most cohesive, integrated book since Glass, Irony and God. This comes as a relief because, with the exception of her incisive critical work, Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan, and Men in the Off Hours, recent publications have seemed less sure-footed. Men in the Off Hours, with its hybridity, its dialectical interaction between modes of discourse and varieties of form, and its zany, man-crazy quality, was alone in showing her gifts to an advantage. Autobiography of Red (1998), with its photographer, prisms, shattered glass, and hip semiology, verged on shallowness; The Beauty of the Husband (2001) was enjoyable but too easily digestible. There is less and less tension in the language, no architecture—her line breaks seem arbitrary—and yet the splashy all-over-the-page freedom still works through her phrasing, bold juxtapositions, and emotional daring. But the composition of Decreation reveals that Carson knows there is a law of diminishing returns to the method she employed in these late '90s works. Having access to a dizzying number of ideas and techniques is not a sign of authenticity.
It could be said that the collective unconscious willed Carson into blossoming, the work appearing at a moment when there was a sudden revival of the classics among poets. After a century of experiment, with forays into Dadaism, surrealism, confessionalism, objectivism, and language poetry, a reinvestigation of Greek and Latin sources was akin to a cold bath, especially for American poets like myself who were not exposed to the classics in their early years. There was nothing so eye-opening to me as beginning to study Horace at the age of forty and encountering a mind as shrewd, subtle, foresighted, and contemporary as any I had come across. Carson's poetry and prose, scholarly and intrepid, move with an almost unparalleled swiftness among myths, ancient languages, and contemporary life, casting a semiological eye on those things that exemplify our culture's obsession with surfaces. An ironic sequence of poems in Glass and Men in the Off Hours, "TV Men," was inspired by a documentary series on Nobel-winning scientists. In the sequence, Carson plays the role of classical wit.
Propped on three Inca Kola crates
facing the table is the TV. Jeopardy! is on, volume low. Four guns rest by the door.
Her "TV Men" poems are all the more ironic for a woman who refused to even
own a television until she could rent art films, such as André Téchiné's Les Voleurs, in which Catherine Deneuve, who becomes an alter ego for the poet in "Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve (2nd Draft)," plays a philosopher. In her "TV Men" series, Carson evaluates our culture's perceptual conundrum—the fact that the image often substitutes for and threatens to take the place of experience. The phenomenon is most pointedly evident in the "Lazarus" section of Men in the Off Hours:
As Lazarus is an imitation of Christ. As TV is an imitation of
Lazarus. As you and I are an imitation of
TV. Already you notice that
although I am merely
a director of photography, I have grasped certain fundamental
notions first advanced by Plato
e.g. that our reality is just a TV set
inside a TV set inside a TV set, with nobody watching
the channel in 399 B.C.
Carson's work brings readers to a mediated but unmitigated place where men and women, with the stress on the latter, are enmeshed in nature, as in The Metamorphoses. An implacable victimization is active in her work, yet these tortuous turns are also
seen coolly as the price of being alive; and her "ecstasy," a subject she reinvestigates in Decreation, allows her to stand outside herself and present these examples—this slide show of her icons—to her readers, whom she here calls her "students."
Carson's conception of her audience as students slows her down a bit; she often has to begin at the beginning. It's a problem that faces every writer today—whether to simply mention Simone Weil or to mention Simone Weil and tell the reader who she is. The element of difficulty in a work of art is part of what makes it alluring. I don't mean the difficulty that the allusions of modernism create, but the difficulty that arises from
wrestling with the material that allows the artist to enter the sublime, the state of mind in which there is what Carson calls "spillage, foam": It's "the sign of an artist who has sunk his hands into his own story, and also of a critic storming and raging in folds of his own deep theory," she writes in the new volume's essay "Foam: On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni."
Carson has the ability to isolate details so that a few lines of poetry can carry the weight of a short story, and one of her long fugal poems, readable in one sitting, has the heft of a novel. Her works are a totality and hence don't lend themselves readily to quotation. But this short poem, "Would Be Her 50th Wedding Anniversary Today," from Decreation, moves rapidly from the external to the internal to the external manifestation of the internal pressure. The poem traps cognition:
Cold orates upon a Roman wall.
Light is extreme (caught)
and shadows wait like
hoods to drop.
Was it Ovid who said, There is so much wind here stones go blank.
In earlier works Carson raged at the injustice of her father's malady, but the mother's death she mourns in Decreation is just that, death. Her anger has been replaced by loss and grief, and an ensuing solitude. This more distant tone, common to all her later books, is a way of covering up what she revealed in Glass:
Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself
thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
These are not wounds that are going to be healed, "holes," "mouths"—to use terms Carson has exhaustively examined in an essay on the female voice in antiquity and the "gender of sound"—that are going to be filled. The beauty of her use of Greek sources is that she takes us into the bicameral mind and arduously resists the dubious mitigating force of modern psychology. About psychoanalysis she writes, "As if the entire female gender were a kind of collective bad memory of unspeakable things, patriarchal order like a well-intentioned psychoanalyst seems to conceive its therapeutic responsibility as the channeling of this bad sound into politically appropriate containers." She's too shrewd to dismiss psychology altogether, but she wants to dip us in energies that existed before and will exist after psychology. In Decreation, when she clears a path to the sublime, it rages, froths, and foams; it is informed by an energy verging on madness. Forcing herself "to reckon with" her father when he was shriveled by dementia gave her strength to face the extremity without backing away.
My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room. Then I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.
Later in life, when I was learning to reckon with my father, who was afflicted with and eventually died of dementia, this dream recovered itself to me, I think because it seemed to bespeak the situation of looking at a well-known face, whose appearance is exactly
as it should be in every feature and detail, except that it is also, somehow, deeply and glowingly, strange.
The dream of the green living room was my first experience of such strangeness and I find it as uncanny today as I did when I was three.
What's fascinating about Carson's recounting of the dream is that nothing—not one detail—is out of place, except that the room is suffused with an
unearthly strangeness. She will not relinquish her emphasis on the importance of what the Greeks unearthed. Her apprenticeship to madness through her father's dementia, which is of nonpsychological origin, along with her knowledge of ancient cultures and ways of knowing, gave her access to an irrefutable reality—visions and voices.
* * *
In Decreation Carson identifies Michelangelo Antonioni—through his films and interviews—as an artist who has melded ancient truths as they manifest themselves in contemporary situations. His aesthetic posits a reality where primal energies are still present, even if repressed, in everyone who is alive. She focuses on an interview in which Antonioni discloses how he was forced to shake up an immature Lucia Bosé while directing the final scene of his first movie, Story of a Love Affair, by crossing a dangerous boundary: "She was not an actress. To obtain the results I wanted I had to use insults, abuse, hard slaps." Carson ends the "Spill" section of her essay "Foam (Essay with Rhapsody)" with this move: "‘Sublime natures are seldom clean!' is Longinus' way of putting it. Slap." This "slap" brings us back to a stark passage in "The Glass Essay."
Every night I wake to this anger,
the soaked bed,
the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I want justice. Slam.
I want an explanation. Slam.
I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.
In her recent books, Carson is loath to identify her own spiritual crises in the same way that she exposes the tensions that fuel her doomed dramatis personae: Sappho, Woolf, Weil, and various representative women from myth. She points to the darkness; she doesn't place us inside it. Nor do we find ourselves wanting Carson to jump off a cliff like Sappho or drown herself in a river like Woolf or starve herself to death like Weil—all of whom figure prominently in the poems, essays, and opera libretti that constitute Decreation.
The reader of Decreation is strongly advised not to begin anywhere but at the beginning: The suite of broken and intense poems to her mother that prefaces the book and the screenplay for a documentary that ends it throw the wide and wild variety of texts in between into another light. Without the beginning and the ending, Decreation could give the appearance of a miscellany. "Anne Carson," who will be the creator of essays on sleep, the sublime, eclipses, and decreation itself, more or less disappears in the course
of these meditations. For the title of her book Carson appropriates Simone Weil's well-known but not easily defined concept of decreation: "to undo the creature in us" in order to arrive at God. Carson's project has become self-effacement, verging on erasure; she's like a curator, inviting the reader to look at an exhibition she's put together, the quotations she's assembled.
Carson wants us to attend to these quotations, not to her. One of the most curious documents in Decreation is a footnote to an essay she was asked to write on a work of art for Artforum. She had chosen Betty Goodwin's 1998 drawing Seated Figure with Red Angle (reproduced in the book) and came up empty. Was it that she had nothing to say? The footnote reveals how she can stand at a distance from herself, an unusual capacity for a poet, but not perhaps for a poet whose knowledge of word roots drives directly into Greek soil. As she mulls over the ecstasy in Sappho's poetry, Carson defines the sensation, as if it were adjunct to decreation, as ekstasis, as "literally, ‘standing outside oneself.'" It isn't our first association with "ecstasy" in English, where it is often associated with intensity; Hamlet rebukes his mother's imputation of ecstasy with the line: "Ecstasy! / My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time."
The effect of staring at Seated Figure with Red Angle was, to find myself in a place in my mind prior to opinion. What place would that be? An early place, a hesitant place, blinking. How to represent it? By using the most hesitant of syntaxes, the conditional sentence—not the conditional sentence in its entirety which, although hesitantly, does arrive at an opinion by the end: just the if—clause.
The effect of this "thinking" is a remarkable document that leaves every sentence open-ended, stimulating in a way that is manifestly taut and poetic.
If conditionals are of two kinds now it is night and all cats are black.
If how many were killed by David exceeds how many were killed by Saul by tens
If they don't feel pain the way we do.
If you drove here with toys in the backseat.
If you wrote a word on the floor of the cell in water drops and videotaped it drying.
If Vitruvius says no temple can be coherently constructed unless it is put together
exactly as a human body is.
If art is the servant of allure.
If Vitruvius does not talk about taking temples apart but we may assume the same
If there is no master of allure.
There is no master, no system of allure. But if anyone knows how to be alluring, it is Carson.
* * *
The mother's absence is the most palpable presence in Decreation. Carson feels that loss most acutely when she performs the simplest acts that she used to
do in tandem with her mother. There is a beautiful contrast between Carson's strategy in the opening suite of poems and the little screenplay, "Longing, A Documentary," at the end in terms of transitional objects. In the collection's third poem she writes, "While talking to my mother I neaten things. Spines of books by the phone. / Paperclips / in a china dish. Fragments of eraser that dot the desk. She speaks / longingly / of death. I begin tilting all the paperclips in the other direction. / Out / the window snow is falling straight down in lines. To my mother, / love / of my life, I describe what I had for brunch."
In "Longing, A Documentary," the open-ended finale of Decreation, a woman drives alone into the night, down an empty highway, and performs a strange and silent act that she hopes will be purgative. She stops and unpacks trays—trays for developing photographic negatives, not for carrying food—which she places in a stream. This is a ritual laying her mother to rest. Work brings Carson closer to an invaluable sentence by Simone Weil that didn't enter into her project in Decreation: "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer." It is work, not love, that keeps her from thinking about her mother's absence, and the book ends in solitude on a sobering, italicized note: "SUBTITLE: As usual she enjoyed the sense of work, of having worked. / Other fears would soon return."
Carson reminds us how gratifying an understatement can be when it is not a form of hedging or holding back. Her natural reticence allows her to keep a steady tension through all the literary forms that she uses in Decreation. I am not the happiest reader of libretti, so I was surprised by the pitch-perfect tone of her opera, "Decreation." In the libretto, Weil fills in what the conditional tense of Seated Figure with Red Angle forced Carson to leave out. Here Simone converses with her father:
Simone: Chairs are not a question.
Worldly need is a question.
The world must be somehow a void to have need of God.
M. Weil: Simone could not tolerate anything flawed—fruit
with a spot on it,
Simone's proposition has a prior appearance in the essay "Decreation," which takes us painfully through "how women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil tell God." (Porete, a fourteenth-century author, was burned at the stake "for writing a book about the absolute daring of love.") The annihilation of the soul for these women is an affirmation of faith. They aspire, paradoxically, to decreation, to an emptying out: "The process of decreation is for [Porete] a dislodging of herself from a centre where she cannot stay because staying there blocks God."
It is this attempt to wrestle with a plenitude to be found in emptiness that also leads Carson into her series of stark meditations on Antonioni and the luminous actress who was the magnetic center of his best films, Monica Vitti. It is no accident that she is fascinated with an artist who both portrays women in a strikingly positive light and also films the void between people as if it were a palpable presence. The void that Antonioni
films is not a reflection of personal despair; it's an acknowledgment that this emptiness is a space that people inhabit and often feel compelled to deny. Carson frames her meditations here as an essay on the sublime. She focuses most on Vitti in her role as the neurotic Giuliana in Red Desert. For Carson, Giuliana's neurosis gives her a kind of privilege; Vitti's characters in the other films are defined more in terms of an environment, as in L'Avventura, where they are "caught / in the time of the island, scraping themselves back and forth over / the rocks, men slant against the wind and her golden / hair going horizontal in whips on the ecstatic sea." The errors that Antonioni learned how to use as he let the camera run after the scene had formally ended enabled him to capture "dead moments" that paradoxically caught the actors when they were most alive and "sincere." Such moments allow for what Carson calls the "possibility of foam." This foam of the sublime paves the way for the echo effect that is part of what transports individuals beyond the self, until they are beside themselves and undergoing another form of ecstasy. But where Antonioni foams with an elemental fury, Carson is content with eloquence.
It is loss that engenders the transformative state of mind that enables the artist to embark on a journey to search for what only the imagination can uncover. The root and origin of art lie here, ready to be taken unaware: "Astonishment / inside me like a separate person, / sweat-soaked." At times Carson subverts herself by writing to demonstrate an overarching point instead of following a process of discovery. Given the weight of the philosophical arguments used in Decreation, the reader is hungry for surprise, for something just to happen outside the frame of a larger discourse. And it does, though clearly she fears its approach, which is disarming.
Walking the wild mountain in a storm I saw the great trees throw their arms.
Ruin! they cried and seemed aware
the sublime is called a "science of anxiety."
What do men and women know of it?—at first
not even realizing they were naked!
The language knew.
Watch "naked" (arumim) flesh slide into "cunning" (arum) snake in the next verse.
And suddenly a vacancy, a silence,
is somewhere inside the machine.
This aspiration is consistent with that of Woolf, who, in a famous passage in her diaries that Carson quotes, also longed more than anything else to catch "the feeling of the singing of the real world"; it is this aspiration that provides the link in Decreation from Woolf to Sappho and Sappho to Antonioni/Vitti and Antonioni/Vitti to Weil. It is strange to witness someone in the middle of a violent storm, working her way through a mounting terror with reflections on language. This capacity to stand outside herself separates Carson from classical sources and subjects that end in ruin.
Mark Rudman's Sundays on the Phone, the final volume in the "Rider" quintet—of which Rider won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994—will appear this fall from Wesleyan University Press.