Essays & Fragments: Tanis MacDonald on Anne Carson and the daughter’s elegy

Reading: Tanis MacDonald. “The pilgrim and the riddle: Father-daughter kinship in Anne Carson’s “The Anthropology of Water.” Canadian Literature 176 (Spring 2003): 67-81.

“When is a pilgrim like a photograph? When the blend of acids and sentiment is just right.” (Anne Carson, “The Anthropology of Water” 170)

One of the earmarks of a wonderful essay is the essayist’s ability to occupy paradoxical space. If she is able both to surprise the reader and herself, to interpret in the course of her attempts, her work of trying then there is the possibility of feeling your own synapses fire with hers. Such was my experience of reading Tanis MacDonald’s essay on Anne Carson’s poetic essay. MacDonald is a professor: she teaches in the Department of English and Film at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is also a poet. There is in her approach to academic analysis and attentiveness to the line that sparks a special alchemy with Carson’s own craft.


“Anthropology of Water” is a meditation on the intricacies of loss. In her own introduction to the essay Carson explains her use of the word anthropology:

Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried. Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts and God, one by one all took themselves out of my hands. Maybe this is the way it should be—what anthropologists call “normal danger” in the encounter with alien cultures. It was an anthropologist who first taught me about danger. He emphasized the importance of using encounter rather than (say) discovery when talking about such things. “Think of it as the difference,” he said, “between believing what you want to believe and believing what can be proved.” I thought about that. (Carson from “Diving: Introduction to the Anthropology of Water”)

In “The pilgrim and the riddle” MacDonald approaches Carson’s poetic essay through the normal danger of encounter and discovery. In her consideration Carson’s work of mourning is a kind of devotional encounter in an attempt to encounter the paternal function. The daughter becomes a devout pilgrim who practices her work of mourning as an ethical anthropological endeavor. “Carson makes her elegist both a pilgrim and a philosopher,” writes MacDonald. “She assumes the pilgrim’s persona to search for new ways of asking for penance, and she takes on the philosopher’s persona in order to question the function of knowledge in a limited, sinful body.”

You can read MacDonald’s essay here. You can read a revised version in chapter six of her recent publication The Daughter’s Way: Canadian Women’s Paternal Elegies (2012).

Finally, if you have an opportunity to see Tanis MacDonald read her own poetry please, do not hesitate. Get up. Pull on your boots. Make your way through winter.