Poetry News

The New York Times Profiles Anne Carson as 'Someone from Another World'

By Harriet Staff


The New York Times has profiled Anne Carson, with a piece titled "The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson," and check out that photo; she's looming. But it's more than a profile:

Anne Carson was uncomfortable with the idea of a traditional profile: a journalist following her around for a few days, like a private detective, noting her outfits and mannerisms, shadowing her on errands, making lists of furniture and wall decorations and pets, quizzing her students, standing behind her holding his breath while she tried to write in her journal. Carson is a private person. She prefers to be alone.

Dot dot dot: "In the end, she agreed to exchange some e-mails. This felt like a significant victory." Before those, Sam Anderson writes:

Carson gives the impression — on the page, at readings — of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved — phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project — in directions that a human brain would never naturally move. The approach has won her awards (MacArthur, Guggenheim, Lannan) and accolades and an electric reputation in the literary world.

The emails do come up. It's a lovely five-page piece, in fact. "On contradiction: 'i realize all this sounds both chaotic and dishonest and probably that is the case. contradiction is the test of reality, as Simone Weil says.'" More (and on her newest, Red Doc >):

I was e-mailing with Carson on the occasion of the publication of her new book, “Red Doc >” (that angle-bracket is, yes, a part of the title: “Red Doc >” was the default name Carson’s word-processing program gave to the file, and she stuck with it). “Red Doc >,” too, is arguably not poetry. Most of the text runs like a racing stripe down the center of the page, with a couple of inches of empty space on either side. This form was also a result of an accident with the computer. Carson hit a wrong button, and it made the margins go crazy. She found this instantly liberating. The sentences, with one click, went from prosaic to strange, and finally Carson understood — after years of frustration — how her book was actually supposed to work.

“Red Doc >” is the sequel — sort of — to Carson’s most popular book, “Autobiography of Red,” which was published in 1998. In the intervening 15 years, “Red” has become known as one of the crossover classics of contemporary poetry: poetry that can seduce even people who don’t like poetry. It boasts one of the more impressive roster of blurbs you are ever likely to see: full-on gushing from Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Susan Sontag. The book is subtitled “A Novel in Verse,” but — as usual with Carson — neither “novel” nor “verse” quite seems to apply. It begins as if it were a critical study of the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros, with special emphasis on a few surviving fragments he wrote about a minor character from Greek mythology, Geryon, a winged red monster who lives on a red island herding red cattle. Geryon is most famous as a footnote in the life of Herakles, whose 10th labor was to sail to that island and steal those cattle — in the process of which, almost as an afterthought, he killed Geryon by shooting him in the head with an arrow.

“Autobiography of Red” purports to be Geryon’s autobiography. Carson transposes Geryon’s story, however, into the modern world, so that he is suddenly not just a monster but a moody, artsy, gay teenage boy navigating the difficulties of sex and love and identity. His chief tormentor is Herakles, a charismatic ne’er-do-well who ends up breaking Geryon’s heart. The book is strange and sweet and funny, and the remoteness of the ancient myth crossed with the familiarity of the modern setting (hockey practice, buses, baby sitters) creates a particularly Carsonian effect: the paradox of distant closeness.

“Red Doc >” is both close to and distant from its predecessor. The cast of characters has changed almost entirely. Geryon is referred to only as G. (The book is obsessed with initials and acronyms, which G at one point calls “name rations.”) Geryon has returned to his pre-Herakles state as a herdsman, lovingly tending a group of musk oxen. This idyllic life is interrupted, however, when he meets a woman named Ida, who introduces herself by knocking him unconscious with a two-by-four. The two of them, along with a traumatized war veteran called SBG (Sad But Great), embark on a picaresque road trip. There is a dreamlike journey into the heart of a glacier, where Geryon meets a flock of ice bats: “They are blueblack. They are absolutely silent. They are the size of toasters.” There is a sweet lyrical passage in which Carson takes us inside the mind of Geryon’s favorite musk ox, Io, as she wakes up one morning. There is a combination auto-repair shop/psychiatric hospital. There is an erupting volcano. Throughout the book we hear from a kind of Greek chorus — called, mysteriously, Wife of Brain — which pops in to comment elliptically on the action.

Read the full piece here.

Originally Published: March 15th, 2013