Prose from Poetry Magazine

Autobiography of Reader

Anne Carson's Red Doc>

Red Doc>, by Anne Carson.

Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

The first thing I notice, flipping through the new Anne Carson, is fancy lining: the Canadian poet and classicist has center-justified the bulk of the text, leaving it to the word processor (not for the first time a collaborator) to work out the spacing — and leaving a strip of aerated text down the middle of most pages. Is this poetry? Prose? Like other recent Carson productions, Red Doc>, the sequel to 1998’s verse novel Autobiography of Red, is a feast for first glances.

But when I resolve finally to turn away from surface pleasures and reckon with the words, I encounter nothing less than the voice of, well, Anne Carson! — learned, deadpan, comma-less, and frequently carried away by tangent. In other words, I encounter page after page of this:

GATHERING            SWIM 

GEAR in the bathroom   he

glances     at     the    mirror.

Sharp   stab    his   face   no

longer    young    no    more
beauty  impact.  Get    used

to this.   Other     ways     to 

navigate   the   world.   Did
Daniil  Kharms   have   this

particular  rug  pulled   out

from under him one day in

a bathroom in Leningrad it

seems unholy to ask.

A consistent, distinctive voice isn’t usually a problem. (Most poets should be so lucky.) But I’m not very far into Red Doc> when I find myself wondering why a voice so unperturbed by its latest packaging — long and short lines, rival columns, the screenplay, the essay, opera — needed such packaging in the first place. It’s hard to think of another more restless poet, whose adventures in form and genre, from book to book, have left less of a mark on her sensibility. Is it that the medium isn’t so much the message as the marketing strategy? Carson poems, I’m convinced, will soon come packaged in a Cornell box — but they will sound like Carson.

I’m also not very far in when I find myself wondering what’s going on. Already I’m leaning far too much on a rather slim crutch, near to buckling: the advance copy’s blurb. It explains that Geryon, the red-winged monster from Autobiography of Red, has reached manhood and now goes by “G” (we should be grateful; a savvier poet, sensing an opportunity, would’ve selected the Twitter handle “@Geryon”). The blurb also identifies some of the supporting characters and their professions (artist, war veteran). This is most helpful; pronouns in Red Doc> don’t always have obvious owners, and dramatic dialogue doesn’t always earn the backslashes the poet seems to feel are sufficient to parse the speakers. Indeed, doesn’t this rapid-fire deadpanning between Ida (the artist) and Sad (the war veteran) — 

                                         why’d   you

           enlist  /  oh  people  thought

           I’d be better off / off / I was

           getting    into    mischief    /


           like  who /  Dad /   mischief

           like   what   /   is    this     an

           interview / I like to close all

           the loops /

— sound a lot like this rapid-fire, deadpanning between G and one
Lieutenant M’hek—

                            you’re  the 

team /

small team  /   you’re   the

guy    who    comes   every 

evening with the drugs   /

no        my        team       is 

nonpsychotropic / so

what  do  you  do /  talk  /

does that help him  /  one 

test  for   this  question   /

what  test  /  did   he   cap

himself   yesterday /

Are these the voices of four characters talking? — or is Carson merely in talks with herself?

Far scarier than keeping the characters straight: the blurb hints that Red Doc> is “haunted by Proust.” Carson books typically have truck with an intertext or two, and I typically do ok. I know enough about Wuthering Heights, Keats, Duchamp, and the like to have gotten by in the past. But Proust? I empathize with G’s mom who, early in Red Doc>, declares, “well I’m // not fond of those multivolume things” and “[it] could be too late for me to appreciate Proust on / the other hand I’m at a loss / I’ve read all the Len // Deightons in the library.” Oh, moms and their middlebrows! Carson’s text seems to sigh. But 
I empathize with G’s; this review is her autobiography, too.

I want to write something like, “When last we left Geryon, he was lighting out for the territories” — but Autobiography of Red wasn’t that kind of book, with characters you especially cared about and a hairpin plot to organize them. It was more a weave of  loose ends: set pieces in which an arty teenager lives among humans who aren’t terribly concerned he’s a red monster out of myth. (To wit: his 
mother “neaten[s] his little red wings” before sending him “through the door.”) In one kind of early Carson poem, the past exerts its pressures on the present; for instance, Wuthering Heights weighs on a forlorn woman. In another kind, the past breaks cleanly through; Hektor writes his wife from the set of a tv shoot. Red was the cartoony culmination of that other kind of poem. The original Geryon is slain for his herd by Herakles (or Hercules); Carson’s mythic red monster goes to school, works a library’s stacks, pines for Herakles (now more asshole than hero), inscribes postcards with “bits of Heidegger,” and produces an autobiography in “the form / of a photographic essay” — begun, as such things are these days, at a young age (five!). Think highbrow Hellboy, and you’re not far off; Red would’ve appealed to a readership aging out of an enthusiasm for Anne Rice or Neil Gaiman and into seminars on deconstruction, queer theory, and classical mythology. It even came equipped with an apparatus of playful scholarship — grad school made cool. But the cover’s cursive (“A Novel in Verse”) and strategic stain (suggesting the book had been steeped in Earl Grey) called out to old souls everywhere.

In a verse novel of moments, some of Autobiography of Red’s were masterfully engaging, but only to the extent that they made an original observation (a new simile, say) with precision: “Passengers streamed / on board like insects into lighted boxes and the experiment roared off down the street.” Other, less visionary moments, however, were conspicuously opaque:

The instant of nature
forming between them drained every drop from the walls of   his life
leaving behind just ghosts
rustling like an old map.

Was that mixed drink of a metaphor, layered over four lines, the sort of thing Michael Ondaatje was drunk on when he announced, “Anne Carson is, for me, the most exciting poet writing in English today”? Was Ondaatje, a master of overwriting himself, anointing a 

Carson is too successful to be condescended to; she doesn’t need my help. But the autobiography of any reader will betray its weak spots, moments of humanity (or vanity) in which the reader wishes he could protect the author from, well, all her other readers! Some of these enablers — otherwise reasonable critics — defend Carson’s unevenness. “If a good line happens, it happens,” wrote Guy Davenport back in the nineties. “What you get is the over-all action of the mind rather than the high-shine lacquer of the apt image,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke in 2010. Carson as uncooked savant — that’s one way of explaining away the longeur between her better lines. It also establishes two bars of commitment: a low one for the poet (who’s an innocent anyway, a flake adrift on her breeziness, on autopilot) and a high one for the reader (who should be grateful merely for the work of  interpreting the innocent’s utterances). If Autobiography of Red didn’t present Carson’s best (that would be the Wuthering Heights poem), it did provide, as commercial successes will do, a version of Carson that’s convenient to recall: uneven, but daringly — necessarily — so. 
It takes slightly more effort to imagine a poet who can capture the 
insects in lighted boxes, but who can’t keep (or won’t abide) an editor to corral her other, flightier impulses.

A particularly amiable group of misfits has gathered itself around G, now a mature herdsman of musk oxen. Carson has headhunted the quirkier elements of some quad: these include Sad (the aforementioned war veteran, who seems to have ptsd), Ida (the artist, who takes no shit), 4NO (some guy who thinks he’s a god), and Io (an ox who will get high on a hallucinogen and take flight with G — 
monster’s best friend). As in Autobiography of Red, the characters live from set piece to set piece. Nothing else — such as voices of their own — conspires to give them life. By Red Doc>’s midpoint, some of the misfits have made fast friends, observed oxen, and traveled to a glacier. The text takes occasional, scholarly sidebar to hash out the nature of polar exploration, the principles of flight, the role of oxen in military history. Near the glacier is another chilly place: a psychiatric clinic where G’s entourage holes up for a time and encounters authority figures like cmo, which would seem to be short for “Chief Medical Officer.” This particular cartoon (Ida calls him “Pig Doc”) “laughs / horribly” and believes in, natch:


Principle     of     order.    A

prescribed   amount   at   a

prescribed  time. It’s   how

you keep animals in line it

works for people too.

When we first meet CMO, he is fixing a car. Will the menacing mechanic also try to fix the minds of G and co.?

For every gleamingly exact image in Red Doc> 

                    Each [ox] head 

has two horns that part as

neatly   as  a  boy  about to

play   the  piano   wets  his 

hair   and   hopes   it  stays 

flat  for  the  whole  recital.

— there are many more vague, unrealized ones:


that     runs     along     the

convolutes   of      his   ear 

licking    in   under   every 

bone  like  a bad  emotion.

“Night’s bones are still / forming”; “A / bright smell streams into / the car”; “the entire / cold sorrow acre of human / history.” Of course, I’m over the moon for crescent-crisp similes like “The moonlit / ironing boards / grandstanding like steeds.” And I’m all for economical solutions like “He sits / up suddenly drenched in / ringing. Phone.” But what do we make of a book that also finds room for the following: “His / heart sinks”; “stop on a dime”; “her nerves are / already tingling”; “right on / the money”; “come at her with / murder in his black eyes”; “who had / the heart”; “a smile that / dazzles”; “a stab of envy”; “clean as a / whistle.” Surely even a daringly uneven talent shouldn’t be permitted as many cliches as Carson is?

Halfway through the book, I seem to be getting by without the background in Proust. I’m sure I’m missing resonances; but Carson has 
assumed I share enough of  her knowledge to ask a rhetorical question, while also ensuring the reference, if  it escapes me, is self-explanatory:

What a scamp that Proust.

That      Albertine.       Does

anyone  really  believe  the

girl  stays  asleep   for  four

pages in  volume   v   while

Marcel roams  around  her

prostrate       form         and

stretches out  beside it  on
the bed.

Other kindred souls — that flapper-era reader of The Waste Land, say — didn’t have it half as good. (Can you imagine Eliot deigning to clarify themes in the colloquial: “What a mess this modern world. That fisher king. Does anyone really believe the scamp can make the thing rosy again?”) Is this, then, part of Carson’s appeal — she allows amateurs a little bit of light contact with literature they might not otherwise read? Those of us who don’t have our Proust have already been encouraged to identify with G’s well-meaning mom. If we press on to the end of the section, we discover that the sleeping girl, prostrate in the eyes of Proust, is “a sleep plant that / cannot tell him lies or / 
escape his knowing. Poor / Marcel. What is there to / know.” Not much, it turns out. I don’t need to lug around “multivolume things”; I just need to linger a little in a seminar on the male gaze.

To what extent is Proust — or Beckett, or whomever a Carson book recruits — an interchangeable signifier of hefty, high culture? Discussing the typical Paul Auster novel, James Woods elegantly describes the maneuver: “A visiting text — Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Poe, Beckett — is elegantly slid into the host book.” Whom, I’ve started to wonder, will Carson host next? What is there to quote?

In one scene of Autobiography of Red, gazing out a car window, young Geryon “thought about thoughts.” Is Carson’s ideal reader the sort of person who enjoys the thought that he or she is the sort of person who thinks about thinking?

In the latter half of Red Doc>, Carson’s misfits help put on a play, spring one of  their own from the clinic, and pick up by the side of  the road — who else? — Hermes in a “silver tuxedo.” A slightly stiff lieutenant, a colleague of Sad’s, pitches in and learns to tend oxen (and, I suppose, his soft, springy side; instead of being pilfered by some violent hero, some Herakles, the herd is seen to). Someone always seems to be weeping in Red Doc>: “G weeps / thinking of Proust”; “[Sad] weeps in a sort of fury”; “[Sad] starts to cry”; “Tears pour in Ida’s / heart”; “[G] grips / his arm and weeps”; “The / weeping has been arriving / about every seven / minutes.” Is it that characters who are types are typically given to tears? Carson’s are given to breaking into song, waltz. They find themselves befriended by bats, who swoop in to lend a wing, the way small critters will do at cartoon’s crescendo. Their antecedents would seem to be  J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, Wes Anderson’s moody prodigies — creative, misunderstood souls. Ida, for one, “often gets lost in basements well in fact Ida often gets lost. Despite map or compass.” I would expect no less than aimlessness from Carson’s right-brained heroes.

And then there’s G, already an autobiographer, about whom the text observes:

Writing   itself  is  what   he

loves     now    the     mental

action   the physical  action.

He thinks about writing all

the time while  doing other

things or  talking to  people

he  is  forming sentences in

his head it keeps the  white


In the life of every reader comes a moment, maybe several, when he thinks, hey, maybe he should try his hand at poems. But passages like the above are insidious to the extent that they portray writing as painless, pleasurable “action.” “I hate writing, I love having written,” said Dorothy Parker, who had the love-hate balance about right. The genius of G’s ongoing saga — and surely one reason for the first book’s success — is the silent appeal it makes to the alienated adolescent in all of us: we, too, can be memoirists of our own monstrosity. We would be better off  heeding Elizabeth Bishop’s observation: “it’s true, children sometimes write wonderful things, paint wonderful pictures, but I think they should be discouraged.” We would be better off clipping G’s wings.

In the last act, G arrives at his mother’s deathbed, and the reader arrives at the best writing in all of Red Doc>. It may be that a person starved for verse is primed to receive even the slightest noise as music — but Carson has written beautifully about parents before: “The Glass Essay,” “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” The Beauty of the Husband. Here, she writes so well about G’s dying mother, you 
wonder why she felt she needed the preceding picaresque, the Proust-dropping, the oxing around. Check out, instead, Carson’s eleventh hour meditation on time, a poignant page of doggerel on mothers, and these other, assorted epiphanies:

WHEN  HE  IS  there  they

lift     the   stones  together.

The stones are her lungs.


strange his mother is lying

out     there   in   her   little

soaked Chanel suit.

                   At home they

all  seemed  caught  in  a

badly  blocked  play  and

faces put on wrong.

Were this a true autobiography of reader (and not what it actually is: broadsides of book reviewer), I would’ve bailed on Red Doc> the moment Io, in flight, “lets loose a great fart and poops gloriously just missing [G’s] head.” That was the real end of me. The death of the reader. But given the nature of the gig, I had to resurrect my resolve and push onward; I had no choice. Those who have the choice may wonder, not unreasonably, whether a few late fragments — that hint at some better book, set at a hospital: Red at a Death Bed — are worth their effort. It’s a valid question, though one that probably doesn’t occur much to classicists. Or archaeologists. Or the sort of person who takes solace in a scene that would seem to be about Proust but is, in fact, about a much more Sisyphean figure — the Anne Carson fan:

                            this  lost city

whose  smashed   clues  and

indecipherable        evidence

poor    Marcel    has   to   dig

through       each       evening

feverish    for   a  real  shard.

How    was    your  day?  this

question   on which so much

hangs.     You     don’t   really

want     to    know.     Yet   he

keeps digging.

Originally Published: March 1st, 2013

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

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  1. February 22, 2015
     Edward Ferrari

    Enjoyed this. Entertaining, and
    found enough of the book came
    across for me to judge for myself.