by Anne Carson
Getting the Self Out of the Way
A review by Alexis Smith
Anne Carson's latest book of poems and essays is now out in paperback. For those readers who are familiar with Carson's daring, gorgeous books Autobiography of Red, Plainwater, and Glass, Irony and God, among others, news that Decreation is a stunning, genre-defying masterpiece will not come as a surprise. For readers who have yet to experience Carson's work, let this be your introduction.
Known for her classicism (she has a stunning translation of Sappho's fragments, If Not, Winter), Carson aims a very modern eye at ancient forms and subjects, creating a style that is somewhat idiosyncratic. Her sources bound from ancient Greece to Emily Dickinson to twentieth-century Italian cinema. Her use of forms -- poetry, prose, song, dialogue, screenplay, monologue, libretto -- and the way she draws on non-literary forms like film and painting, at once deconstruct genres and recreate them, giving literature new spaces, new contexts, new movements. And yet the passion in her phrasing and the particular reverence she has for language are always apparent, in the lure of lines like, "leaves huddle a bit" and "being/always/fatally/reinscribed/on an old cloth/faintly,/interminably/undone."
Decreation opens with a haunting series of poems. These first few lyrics are laced with domestic details bereft of their comfort and safety. "Sleepchains," the first of the series, links sleep and death:
Who can sleep when she—
The "sleepchains" somehow connect them -- the speaker and her mother -- but also keep them apart. The links -- "cicatrice by cicatrice" -- evoke literal chains, but also DNA, cellular structure, the connective particles of being -- the genetic connections between a mother and her child. They also evoke fences, barriers -- thresholds not to be crossed. Carson stresses that connections are also contradictions: to have a connection is to be separate beings. In another poem she asks, "In the sum of the parts/where are the parts?" The links are the important part because they delineate. Carson draws out this delineation throughout the series using imagery of lines: telephone lines, clotheslines, anchors, spines of books in a row on a shelf.
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
Cicatrice by cicatrice
all the links
Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.
One emerges from the lovely, wintry, sad lyrics of the first section as if from a dense fog, only to find that she is on the brink of another fog: sleep. "Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)" follows. The essay is a reading of sleep (that is, it explores the uses and meanings of sleep) in Keats, Elizabeth Bishop's "The Man-Moth," Homer's Odyssey, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, The Voyage Out, and "The Haunted House," Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Plato's Krito. Again Carson concerns herself with sleep as a link to death, but one that disguises itself as a barrier. "Keats ascribes to sleep an embalming action. This means two things: that sleep does soothe and perfume our nights; that sleep can belie the stench of death inborn in us." Sleep as a disguise, as "incognito," allows the imagination to perceive things from another reality. "Virginia Woolf offers us, through sleep, a glimpse of the kind of emptiness that interests her. It is the emptiness of things before we make use of them, a glimpse of reality prior to its efficacy." Though the essay meanders somewhat through Homer's Odyssey, its good-natured enthusiasm is catching. To call Carson's essays "literary criticism" (a term with far too much baggage) would be doing a disservice to the unique work that she does with the essay form. But the essays here, which span hundreds of years of literary and philosophical history, are the kind of criticism that is a joy to read: witty, passionate, colloquial, and utterly enthralling engagements with writers, artists, and their work.
In "Every Exit Is an Entrance," as with many of the sections that come after, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with Carson. There are sometimes too many chords to follow -- too many lines of thinking, and too many threads trailing out of images, drawing readers through film shots as if they are crime scenes, where something dramatic and important -- but also messy and mysterious -- has occurred.
The detour into the sublime and Antonioni's films, "Foam (Essay with Rhapsody)," is fascinating for its lyricism, and it succeeds in pulling readers along, whether or not they have seen Antonioni's films or read Longinus. The poems that follow, in a section called "Sublimes," stand alone as intriguing, delicious verse, but they also succeed in reiterating some of the notions of the preceding essay.
The librettos and theatrical pieces, such as "Lots of Guns" and "Quad," are a tougher sell, however. Reading stage performances -- especially avant-garde ones -- is a little like looking in the windows of a locked house and seeing the keys on the table: you can't gain access without the key; you can't get the key without gaining access. In other words, one is aware, while reading the speaking parts and (rare) stage directions that seeing the performance would open up the text. Of course, that is one of Carson's themes throughout the last half of the book: inner v. outer; the blurry line between actor and witness. Performance is both a connection and a separation.
This challenge, to be both inside and outside the performance of these pieces, leads subtly into the themes of the final sections of Decreation, where Carson hits her stride. The puzzling title, Decreation, comes from Simone Weil, and Carson's essays on Weil, Sappho, and Marguerite Porete integrates much of the book's previous material. "Decreation," according to Carson, reading Weil, is "a program for getting the self out of the way" of God. Carson reads Sappho's poetry and Marguerite Porete's heretical fourteenth-century text The Mirror of Simple Souls (for which she was burned at the stake), and Weil's journals and letters (all from the early twentieth century). All of these women discuss a triangle -- between two lovers and an observer, or between God, creation, and human being -- and all, according to Carson, work their way out of their dilemmas (wanting to be near to a lover or God) by retreating from the Self. Of course, all of these women practiced writing, which is a self-conscious act, and Carson ads a fourth essay to the first three exploring this contradiction.
At one point in the essay "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God," Carson does what most literary critics would never do: she confesses ignorance. Porete claims of God that "His Farness is the more Near." To which Carson responds, "I have no idea what this sentence means but it gives me a thrill. It fills me with wonder." The same could be said by readers of Carson's work. One feels, throughout Decreation, that Carson is ruled by her utter abandonment to language. Both reading and writing are opportunities to reveal something hidden, something vitally important to the spiritual and physical human condition. Carson escapes us, her readers, at times, like one of the extremely smart kids on the playground who is pleased to invite you into her imaginary realm but just as happy to explore it on her own. But the beauty of Carson's work is that it never ceases to offer a thrill -- in a surprising, lovely turn of phrase, or a startling connection between an ancient myth and a childhood memory. Sometimes it is a blessing simply to be "filled with wonder" at the possibilities of language.