Reading Proust Backwards: Anne Carson at the Geffen

from Media Cake Issue #4/Spring-Summer 2008

Michael Ondaatje describes her as “The most exciting poet writing in English today.”  Susan Sontag admits that if she sees something of hers in a magazine, she “buy[s] it automatically.” Hers is a “new kind of poetry” according toBooklist. It is at once modern but steeped in the classics; experimental yet learned; avant-garde with permission from Sappho, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. Anti-tradition cloaked in archetypes of the Greek masters. Carson’s impressive resume includes essayist, translator, teacher of classics and comparative literature. She has received the Lannan Literary Award, the Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, the Griffin Poetry Prize for Men in the Off Hours (Knopf) and the T.S. Eliot Prize for The Beauty of the Husband(Knopf)

First introduced to her work by Terry Wolverton ten years ago, I first read Autobiography of RedA Novel in Verse(Knopf) and was initially turned off by the extensive notes on Stesichorus and his original poem that the book is based on. I skimmed, skipped, and then arrived at the actual narrative. When finished, I urged every poet I knew to read it. Carson’s imagery tore at my insides, made me writhe in my seat. Such imagination, such unabashed bravado in her metaphors, but they worked! And they were always relevant to the narrative, the adolescent love story of two boys, one representing Herakles, the other the monster Geryon with red wings hidden inside his long coat.

I waited almost a decade to finally meet Carson, so when Red Hen Press produced the Poets Move Language series at the Geffen Playhouse on February 28, and her name was on the ticket, I was ecstatic, digging up every book I had bought, even purchasing Glass, Irony and God, again, in a panic, forgetting that I had packed it away in the middle of a move. Peggy Shumacher was also on the bill, reading from her new book Just Breathe Normally(University Press). The conversation was moderated by Elena Karina Byrne, who had the difficult task of interviewing Carson, a reluctant subject at best. When asked, “How did you decide to subvert the voice in your work?” Carson’s response was at once poetic and flippant. “The self is not the same that writes [the poems]….like doing an autopsy on yourself. That’s why I don’t do interviews.” Byrne’s questions were met with questions, as Carson appeared dismissive, confused, or simply unwilling. While Byrne remained professional and plugged away with optimistic curiosity, Carson seemed aloof, her wariness giving way to exasperation. I wasn’t sure if she was simply shy and awkward or arrogant. It was an uncomfortable exchange.

Blessedly, Carson did settle in eventually, expounding on the principles of stacking and the technique of parataxis, the act of placing side by side (a device that favors short, simple sentences, often without the use of conjunctions). In poetry, parataxis is used to juxtapose two images or fragments, usually contrasting ones, without a clear connection. There was more revealed during the Q&A session when one audience member asked the exact question on my mind: “You are very experimental, yet I get a lot of out of your work. There’s a lot of avant-garde poetry that I don’t get anything out of. How do you do it?” Carson’s response was true to form: “Poetry has to make the listener feel like they’ve never heard their own language before, like trying to see the back of your dress in a mirror.”

Carson read from her new work, which the Classic Stage Company, a New York based theatre company, will produce in repertory in their 2008/2009 season. A multi-media work in progress, the piece will be not only accompanied by dancers, sculptors and stacks of objects on stage to illustrate the principle of stacking and restacking things, people, and ideas, but will include the translations of Aeschlyus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’Electra, and Euripides’ Orestes (as The Oresteia). It isCarson’s opportunity to set her beautiful mind free in the playground of language, history, astrology, psychoanalysis, naming and renaming, and listing.

Despite the discomfort of the interview portion of the reading, Carson’s live reading aptly captured the subtlety of her craft. Words and images leave the room of Carson’s poems through one door, only to enter through a window or side door, and they fit in once again; they are relevant. Words from one poem peek into another poem, a conical amalgam of words on top of words on top of words. Biblical characters are woven in with mundane objects, Eastern Religions, pop culture, corporate machines, lunar bodies of water, Greek myths, and French philosophers. Her work is orderly, yet myriad in it starts and stops, at once whole and wholly undone. Carson admits, “I often start a book in the middle…. Reading in the wrong order is very helpful. Writing in the wrong order actually works well too.” 

Carson’s work is postmodern, fragmented, but, like an algebraic equation, the sum of its parts is what matters. And, if one listens with a discerning ear, they will pick up on the mastery, the skill with which the language marries itself over and over again, dizzying but not redundant, out of order but with a sense of rightness to it. The experience is like reading Proust backwards, which Anne Carson does, apparently, in the morning, while eating her cereal.

http://www.mediacakemagazine.com/cake_spring_07_133.htm