Anne Carson’s new “re/verse-novel” re-spins time, grief, thinking, psychoanalysis and the poem
by Margaret Christakos

Spin One: Time

Anne Carson is a writer whose compulsion to understand time is bottomless. One of the few poets in North America obsessed with the ancients, Carson delivered in 2006 her intimate, profoundly contemporized translations of Euripedes under the collection title Grief Lessons. Last year a quirkily illustrated Antigonick appeared. Alongside her own body of poetry, she has ably translated Sappho’s fragments. And her litcultquaking “novel in verse” Autobiography of Red erupted in 1998 re-spinning characters invented in Homeric myth and reversioned in Stesichoros and Euripedes’s Herakles, drawing into our collective psyche a present-day version of the mythic multi-bodied red-winged Geryon, oxherd on the red island of Erytheia.

In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon in his tenth labour of heroism; in Autobiography of Red the murder is emo: Herakles ditches Geryon after an impassioned and instructive sexual relationship when Geryon is a teenager. Carson’s adult Geryon becomes a photographer, whose pessimistic view of things and recurring quest –“What is time made of?” – lead him to a fascination with extended-time lapse exposures of volcanic eruptions.  How can you tell exactly when a thing happens, is happening? When is a person dead, for example, and when are they alive?

Carson’s novel imprints many indelibilities on the imagination, but perhaps most significant formally is how she enacts this time-lapse simultaneity as a poetic exploration of the enigmatic substance, affect, tactility and embodied curiosity of human being-in-time. I use the term human loosely. Carson, like the Greeks, imagines a sloping dreamlike swap-zone between human and animal consciousness, and therefore constantly inquires into notions of the decent and of the monstrous. Are we human when at the edge of extreme rage, pride or grief? Does an animal think? How does pre-human vestigial memory circulate in language structures? Might a cow suicide?

In her new verse-novel, Red Doc>, Anne Carson lays out a field of stages, some natural, like a glacier, some urban, like an auto-repair shop on a highway, traversed by car. There is a domestic bed and a psychiatric clinic’s common-room. The world of objects continually shifts settings; characters fluctuate through multiple aliases, often across gender – a Carson trademark. Gradually the dramatis personae announces itself: there’s a woman dying from a leukemia-like disease (I’m speculating – it’s something involving bloodwork, and HEK cell science); G, her son (the Geryon re-spin); a deflated gay clubhound (the Herakles re-spin), now Sad But Great; a woman named Ida who ends up in a car, a clinic, analysis; a lover riven through by the kind of bad-love echo that does not fade (both mom and son); and a soldier experiencing PTSD after returning from the brutality of war (pals with Sad) whose name is cleverness incarsonate: 4NO [hear: quatre carres-n-o, an anne-agram; I have finally seen that Carson is a total pun whore, which I love]. Although it is higgledy-piggledy, the story does mount toward an allusive climax involving eruptive electrical luminosity. Such inner states of interstitiality – dreams, love, grief, dying, psychoanalytic turns — can become incandescent and obliterating, and also transformative.

Though we all have a visual literacy with collaged narrative space in cinema and the visual arts, Carson is pressing onward in her field of letters to try to depict these enormous ambivalences of reality, identity, surreality and the suggestion of death’s immolation of the subject alongside artistic epiphany while one remains, duh, almost disturbingly alive in the acts of writing and of reading.

The degree of uncertainty about where you are at any given moment in this book is extreme; therefore its author’s imaginative license is a kind of uneraseable phantom. Far more than in Autobiography of Red, Carson floats, tinkers, refigures, points, disperses her inner handiwork. Her reversals dodge and make the “us” of the reading self batty. You lose track of time when you read this work. According to an interesting piece in The New York Times recently, she considers herself to have spent a virtual decade writing it. In a sense the book seems a chronicle of the artist’s shifting awarenesses about self-knowledge, almost diaristic; a sketchbook, perhaps.

Spin Two: Hubris

Carson, through all of her work, writes about love as the atomic leveler of the self. Love is shit that smears us in its radiant nakedness; it can’t really be survived. Yet, humans love. How’s that for tragedy. I really get this about Carson. To emerge from love is to emerge stripped and trussed. That doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy yourself. No. To enjoy yourself that much is to be displaced, to appallingly suffer in its aftermath, when it’s over.

Many literary grief narratives wear the memory-house mask of the victim. In Autobiography of Red we were mostly immersed in the residual pain experienced by a closeted Geryon, who kept his extravagant red wings of gay desire and liberty bound inside a [shame] jacket until his love affair with Herakles. In this sense the first verse-novel was conventional. We knew who deserved empathy, we sideline-coached Geryon’s journey of self.

At the same time, Anne Carson was asking us to consider what it is the writer is composing once we acknowledge that subjectivity is the only story we ever tell. Although seemingly a contemporized telling of Geryon’s victimization by his lover/murderer the heroic Herakles, Carson’s subject was meta, something like the “Autobiography of Autobiography” itself.

That book mobilized the enigmatic reversals in the taletelling of that tale’s most famed teller Stesichoros as a good way to describe “fiction” in general: as a series of scenes told and retold, moral moments spilled in blood and then tidied, respilled and re-tidied. As Carson proposes, Stesichoros takes back his Helen diss; but his self-critique is self-interested. The storyteller is a wiley and charismatic trickster, describing events as he/she likes, which is why good stories cause the eros of turmoil in the reader.

Especially in mainstream Canlit, fictional retellings of historical subjects are still generally held to an evidence test; was it really that way in ancient times, does Annabel Lyon have the correct toga style in Chapter 3, etc? Reviewers enumerate a score on the Accuracy register; and wave praisingly at how much the story moves a contemporary reader, how affectingly we can bridge Time and conclude that humans feel universal sorts of pain. Writing that does anything different is called “experimental prose” or “innovative poetry.” If it’s written by a less-commodified writer, it may be called indulgent gobbled-gook. If by a superstar, “inscrutable.”

Carson’s Autobiography of Red importantly challenged critics, poets, fiction writers and readers alike. It was decided Carson was a fullfledged genius, an avant-garde sorcerer whose work was so far ahead of the pack that she was, well, kind of goddish, leading to the easy but not easily dismissable joke, Who’s Afraid of Anne Carson? I remember years ago when Erin Moure’s genius was treated this way in the Canadian literary press: she had exceeded all the accepted categories of writing, and reviewers had not read all of her informing source texts. They quite literally did not know where her poetic writing was coming from. Moure was a reader and thinker as much as she was a lyric poet. Her book Furious included a section of poems called “The Acts” whereby she theorized her own poetics. By not writing only from her confessional angst or her observational prowess, she exceeded the evaluative framework of most litstream poetry critics. The press about her writing became cattier and more out of touch; this happens to Canadian writers when they deconstruct form and unitary subjectivity. Our most interesting and adventurous writers, for example Nicole Brossard and Gail Scott, are not commodified in the press because reviewers do not know how to translate these writers’ innovative importance alongside that of practitioners in other artistic fields. Consider the “genius” of Cohen, Ondaatje and Atwood. Their early works were much more intergenre and formally forward-moving, swerving across fiction/documentary/autobiography dotted lines more than anything they have gone on to publish to mass audience appeal.

Fast-forward to 2013. For many not living the literary immersion we might like, there’s the draw of instant “knowledge” on the internet. Don’t recognize a name or place? Wikipedia it. Since it’s hard to make any money as a literary author or critic, who really has time to spend twenty or thirty hours swimming upstream into a good book’s depths? Read all of Proust? Baudrillard? Derrida? Are you kidding? And another thing, who really has time to grieve these days? Someone you love dying? Get it done. When Beckett said “Fail better,” surely he must have had more time on his failure-hands.

Although our lives are longer and ostensibly healthier than any generation before, we believe more than any other civilization that time itself is not our own. We are in debt to our ugliest duckling, the great slick neoliberal democracy that now spends its surplus on how best to dispatch drone missiles against the Other. Avant-gardism – although so often in the 20th century used to describe innovative artistic investigation – refers again much more accurately to its original military portfolio of “warplay,” with an ever-more larded budget in place to improve its speed, stealth and killing accuracy. Scientific genius at the lead; Philosphers and poets — not so much.

In Red Doc> Carson is teaching North Americans about grief, I think, with the stonefrozen centre that the Ancient Greeks allowed. And grief is a subject about which North Americans prevaricate. Talk therapy is our answer to the heart’s chaos, a healing ritual that has become humorously Dr. Philliifed, telemediated, junkfood-medicated and treacherously commodified in late-2oth century pop culture.

And then, on a drive somewhere, to get some honey, someone you actually love, dies.

In Red Doc>, the most searing narrative thread is one along which a mother’s death creeps. It is barely visible. Pain is not a story to be told head on. As in all her work, Carson’s carmine wit is in the driver’s seat, in this case toward grief’s gates. Where she leads us is to the land of bewildered and glacial [frozen] lostness, to get her/our (autobiographical) head “red,” um, “read,” by a shrink. The text symptomizes a threshold between personal sadness and antisocial mania that tries unsuccessfully to self-erase. Just trying to name the affliction brings on circuitous and contradictory authorizations. In antiquity one might have visited the oracle: hey Doc, help – “I am an intellectual giant.” (9, italics in original) This I would say is one of the more important phrases in the book. Clandestine, wry, revealing. There is something wrong with our culture that we do not know how to feel, how to grieve, that we have few rituals, that we need a performance artist like Marina Abramovic to sit in state in a modern art gallery, to perform a wake for humanity. That we gather online to watch others have sex. That we follow schmaltzy news reports about Aboriginal leaders willing to fast to the death for their tiny community of impoverished citizens. That we go to a Patti Smith concert and ask permission to dance. These are problems we cannot drive anywhere far enough to avoid. Somehow we stay in our heads, frozen, determined to “carry on” as if what is happening is not happening.

In Red Doc> Carson enacts this sort of writhing writing struggle between intellect and emotion; I don’t like the frigid face-off going on but having confronted my own father’s death a while ago and my mother’s illness I get it. I think many readers will get it. The book excuses itself: ”Other people’s labyrinths really were tedious as it turned out.” (128) However annoying it is to rely on reflection, some nuggets emerge from the oracle:

  1. Being brilliant doesn’t protect you.
  2. About what it means to see and be seen — in both cases, to become inflamed.
  3. Having a body is a nuisance in the soul department.
  4. Time passes. “Memory is exhausting.”

Spin Three: Shock

I have sketched in a reading of Red Doc> that centres on personal grief. In this section I want to elevate that set of vibrancies to a discussion of its more resonant effect, which is a time-lapse exposure of the victor’s blaze of pain at having slaughtered others. For that is the shaking arm of this book’s relevance to the present moment. I think its accomplishment is the very opposite of “inscrutability” — a kind of awestruck praise being foisted on Carson once again; instead, what’s notable about this book is its effectiveness  as tragedy in a contemporary literary voice that refuses commodification by insisting on grief’s unresolvability.

Red Doc> again picks up on the Euripedean story of Herakles, but long after his heroic duties are accomplished, and after he’s been dumped by vengeful Hera’s orders into a cesspool of inner madness, within whose thrall he has turned his prowess violently back on his family, slaughtering them. Narratively the book is centred on denouement, the denuding of pride, the unhealable grief of the soldier, the killer, the hero — and alongside these notoriously empowered and lonely subject positions, the denuding of the brilliant writer, the celebrity prophet who must be fingered as Carson herself a.k.a. no less a supernova than Proust. Proust’s sleeping Albertine is an odalisque Red Doc> repeatedly roves over — the exquisite fantasy of sleep as a refuge — questioning whether people really are as out of it as Albertine manages in the face of disturbance.

No such luck for Herakles, who wakes from “madness” to discover the automatonic massacre he has committed against his own wife and three sons. Recognizing his own bitter violence, he must grieve like the worst sort of ordinary human soldier, until Theseus helps him see that even the gods are fallible and that he should let himself off the guilthook. In Red Doc> a bout of electroconvulsive therapy is administered to 4NO, intercut or described simultaneously with a flashback to a suicide-bomb “exposure” – these are collaged onto a scene in which the mother figure quite possibly dies, or is transfigured. At about the same time one of G’s female oxens leaps into a void; her name is “Io,” which in many of Carson’s tragedy-translations stands as a Greek verbal utterance connoting unparaphraseable grief.

By now you may have noticed the gaminess of both “her” in Herakles and “Car” in Carson. Not to mention subterfuging self in the literary avatar of legendary “son”s… Red Doc> far more deeply than Autobiography of Red allows Carson to drive [in a car; both Auto, hey, auto!-biography of Red and Red Doc> zoom zoom] about her text in a variety of masks, in a layered self-obfuscating and subjective pilgrimage away from our literary culture’s fixation on Artist as Conquestor and Prophet toward something like artist as questor and pilgrim.

I figure Carson is writing a heavily coded lament for our era, when the abiding mythology of heroic warplay in the name of civilization’s progress masks not only our warriors but ourselves as grand murderers of the Other, when we must contend with the inescapable truth that the Other is ourself. Yes, she is speaking in tongues like your average Pythia: Note how the title reversed is, pretty much, “coder.” As the titular arrowhead indicates, one “read doc”-ument leads (onward or backward) to another inside it. The ordinary arrowhead of the keyboard, “>” signifies Progress, the kind of agency that activates a drone warhead against a remote enemy.

I propose that Carson wants us to see our own finger pressing the button and our own body as the target: simultaneity, explosion and suicide, all as figments of a mind trying to re-spin itself, to exist, to remain at all sane, and in the world with love as a location in which to narrate experience. A ration/al reading of Red Doc> will include a revisitation to Autobiography of Red, as well as to Euripedes, Proust, Freud, Stein, Dickinson, Beckett et al. Carson’s not really launching a single book here; she’s getting you onboard reading as its own vehicle to the incandescence of intertextuality. If there’s any way to exceed death, it is not military. It is literary.

Spin Four: Serum

After devoting her attentions to translation, Anne Carson in this self-translating text seems to have moved into a honeyed syntax that circulates free of precedent. There is a fluid excursion set out upon in each sentence unit that attests to a much more private unfurling than occurs anywhere in Autobiography of Red (where the layers of retelling Herakles seen from a distance of the intervening decade seem over-determined and somewhat surgical). By contrast, I’d have to say Red Doc> enters me like chemotherapy, a toxic, perilous, necessary serum of the brain thinking its own existence while the option still exists. It slays as much as it cures, is the point. Thought curls, with perennial reversals, as if beyond the control of any strategist.

Red Doc> is being genre-ized by its publisher as a work of poetry, sort of the way Bill Clinton used sexual relations to mean sex but not intercourse. I think it is quite explicitly a novel, as much as Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter and Brossard’s Fences in Breathing and Gail Scott’s Main Brides, My Paris and The Obituary are experimental prose novels that accordion-proliferate subjectivity, bringing self-shifting characters into mercurial presence and unpresence – body and spirity chimera. Poetry doesn’t need crossgenre as much as fiction does. Canada’s fiction community could benefit from more instruction on how to write the sentence as a mesh of phrasal torques tumbling into their own grammartoppling honeyfuture, for example, “Spaces change shape on her nothing matches chunks fall out the back of a real day.” (99). Perhaps my strongest surprise reading Red Doc > is its many momentary overtones of Gail Scott’s work, particularly its polyphonic and transcanonical compressions which lean toward the inarticulable articulation of the real problem for us all: “those pesky traumatic memories.” (70) In particular, Scott’s mid-1980s essay “A Feminist At The Carnival” — which also recodes Proust — sets to buzzing a very similar metaphorical memoryfield of troublesome and excessive mosquitoes literally bugging the subject, quite parallel here to Carson’s deployment of a flock of magical icebats who lift the female subject leaping into grief’s void, which prevents death, sure, but guarantees the bloody onslaught of loss as it must be born by the living.

Anne Carson is a master of untelling, which in the final analysis may in fact be an uncontrollable limitation on her writing. Grief is the master, and a master of disguises and aliases begetting misrecognitions and retributive reversals as tragic subjects flail for a clarity that detests itself. Real grief will not tell you anything in words, which is a challenge for a wordsmith. No wonder Carson has spoken of preferring drawing to writing, and yet write is what she does, with a cagey discomfort at what is being admitted along the way. “With red pencil G had underlined the sentence where Proust observes the momentarily impaired surface of the eye of a person who has just had a thought she will not tell you. It traces a fissure in the pupil and disappears back down its own involuntary depths. Watch the wake.” (89) This new book keeps ghosting me up at night, like a Greek island whose name is Leuke. Fuck. How many layers have I missed?

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Margaret Christakos is the author most recently of Welling. She has published eight collections of poetry and a novel, and has been active in the Toronto writing community since the late 1980s. Book include, What Stirs and Sooner (both Coach House Books). She has been a nominee for the Ontario Trillium Book Award and The Pat Lowther Memorial Award (twice), and a winner of the ReLit Award for Poetry and the Bliss Carman Poetry Award. Born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario, she lives in Toronto, where she parents, writes, and has been the long-time host of the remarkable Influency series in Toronto. She is Publishing Editor and a member of the Editorial Group of Influency Salon.