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Measure-taking

Philip Coleman

 

Red Doc>, by Anne Carson, Cape Poetry, 166 pp, £12, ISBN: 978-022409754

In an essay published in Metre in 2004, Ron Callan pondered the use of what he called a single “angle bracket” in the phrase “copulate / < copulare:” from the Jewish American poet Carl Rakosi’s poem “Everyman”. “But what of the angle bracket?” Callan asked, and continued:

Certainly it signals the introduction of the Latin word and is simply a bracket to introduce a different discourse ‑ the stem of the English word is presented. But why the single angle bracket? The symbol < means “less than” in mathematics. It might also suggest a way in, a way out, a signpost to penetrate and receive ‑ a medium strangely represented, and poised between italicised signs requiring explanation.

Callan’s musings on Rakosi’s punctuation are helpful as one begins to consider Anne Carson’s latest book-length work, Red Doc>, a text whose title invites similar questions about the nature and function of what appears, on one level, to be an invocation of the mathematical symbol for the inequality “greater than”. A cover note in the Cape edition reveals that the term “Red” refers to “the red-winged Geryon” from Carson’s earlier work Autobiography of Red (1998) and, in a KCRW Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt, Carson suggests that “Doc” simply refers to the Microsoft Word file on which the text was stored on her computer. Taken together, however, what is it that this new document (“Red.doc”) may claim to be “greater than”? The question is particularly troubling given Carson’s insistence, in the same interview, that the text is “not even a document” but a “truncated thing” bearing little more than “traces” of a person who may once have existed.

Red certainly precedes Red Doc>, and in Autobiography of Red Carson provides a profoundly moving reconstruction of the figure of Geryon – “everything about him was red” ‑ a “monster” who comes down to us out of Ancient Greek myth and was the subject of what Carson calls “a very long lyric poem in dactyl-epitrite meter and triadic structure” by the poet Stesichorus (“[b]orn about 650BC on the north coast of Sicily in a city called Himera”). In a sense, then, Geryon’s story is already greater than the attempts of either Stesichorus or Carson to retell it, and this goes some way towards explaining both the structural and the narrative openendedness of Carson’s text. Whether Stesichorus strove after closure in his writing cannot be known, given that only fragments of it remain. As Carson puts in Autobiography of Red:

Time has dealt harshly with Stesichorus. No passage longer than thirty lines is quoted from him and papyrus scraps (still being found: the most recent fragments             were recovered from cartonnage in Egypt in 1977) withhold as much as they tell. The whole corpus of the fragments of Stesichorus in the original Greek has been published thirteen times so far by different editors, beginning with Bergk in 1882. No edition is exactly the same as any other in its contents or its ordering of the contents. Bergk says the history of a text is a long caress. However that may be, the fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichorus had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat.

In Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, consequently, one is invited to delve into this box of fragments, but in both texts Carson uses structural (narrative) and formal (poetic) devices to aid the reader in this process.

Both texts play with ideas of narrative form. Autobiography of Red expresses a debt to Gertrude Stein from the outset ‑ we are told that Stesichorus “came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein” but the title also alludes to Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a work that challenges traditional ideas of autobiography and the novel in its radical interrogation of authorship, fiction and textual subjectivity. While her work owes a certain aesthetic debt to Stein and radical modernism, however, Carson’s writings ‑ and especially in Autobiography of Red and Red Doc> ‑ may also be seen to engage in important ways with many of the same questions of selfhood and fate that troubled the Ancient Greeks. What might be termed the ur-text of Red Doc> is then far greater than the (post)modernist procedures of Carson’s aesthetic methods might suggest. These are significant and reward close reading: Carson makes works that repay visual and auditory attention. At the same time, just as a fragment of papyrus can only say so much for the whole from which it was taken, Carson is keen to remind her readers that there is something far greater than what they might perceive on the modern printed page. As she puts it at one point in Red Doc>: “You / look at your face your face / is old but suffering is older.” It is this sense of the thing that is “older” – “suffering” in this case ‑ that haunts not only the work of Carson but the whole of Western literature back to and, indeed, before Homer.

Something “older” than the contexts that may be identified or excavated through the labour of scholarship, in other words, troubles both the formal surfaces and the narrative trajectories of Carson’s writing. Red Doc>, like Autobiography of Red, may be read as a quest narrative ‑ a twenty-first century trans-historical and hemispheric road-trip with identifiable characters and something resembling a plot ‑ but there are also significant gaps and moments of profound questioning that destabilise these footholds in the fictional worlds of Carson’s writing. Throughout the 166 pages of Red Doc> (including a page of “Notes”), there are eleven rhymed pieces in stanza form entitled “Wife of Brain”, a single “chorus” section about two-thirds of the way through, and over a hundred sections that resemble what Carson has called a “narrow sort of tunnel of words”. Through these tunnels one gains a certain amount of knowledge about Carson’s characters and their lives –“the red one (G)” and “his old friend / Sad / But Great”, as well as Ida, their companion ‑ but having come through these textual spaces it is hard to avoid the sensation that Carson herself describes in relation to the experience of reading Proust not far from the mid-point of Red Doc>. In these passages reading is described as an active experience for G, but the image of G reading and underlining “the sentence where Proust / observes the momentarily impaired surface of the / eye of a person who has / just had a thought she will / not tell you” exposes a hazardous process of infinite deferral, one in which the eye of the reader is denied access to the same insight that is withheld from the author. Author and reader, in other words, are both bound up in a reading process that promises no easy answers or ways forward. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Red Doc> contains an epigraph from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho ‑ a gesture that is at first dangerously clichéd but finally begins to make sense – “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In what sense can Red Doc> be described as a failure, a better failure than Autobiography of Red? Most importantly, both texts fail, and admit to the failure, of their historical belatedness. In this, however, they succeed in overcoming the delusions that beset those artists who attempt to assert absolute authorial control over the past, or the present. Rather, Anne Carson is a poet who, as Martin Heidegger puts it, writes poetry that “is measure-taking, understood in the strict sense of the word, by which man receives the measure for the breadth of his being”. Carson is not interested in trying to give an exact or merely factual sense of historical depths and distances ‑ whatever they might be ‑ measured out in years, dates, graphs and statistics: “Facts harbor many / incongruities”. Rather, she “makes poetry only when [she] takes the measure, by saying the sights of heaven in such a way that [she] submits to its appearances as to the alien element to which the unknown god has ‘yielded’.” Carson’s work can be alienating in its formal strangeness and textual complexity for many readers, but it is so precisely because it seeks to engage us in a new awareness of “the alien element” that is everywhere necessary in contemporary life ‑ a sense of the strange and a belief in the value of difficult art in forcing us to test known limits and forms of understanding.

Carson’s recasting of old stories in new forms is no more, or less, than this. As she puts it in the final moment of Antigonick (2012):

[EXEUNT OMNES EXCEPT NICK WHO CONTINUES

 

 

 

 

 

 

MEASURING]

The blank space before this phrase is completed evokes ideas of expansive earth and sky, as Nick – “a mute part [always on stage, he measures things]” ‑ continues his work, eternally, taking the measure of being in time. Carson knows that the work of translating Stesichorus, Sophocles and others will continue long after her own works have been forgotten, and in this sense Red Doc> is only a fragment, another small piece from a much larger whole ‑ a document that may never be known in its entirety. The denial that such a final or complete text exists, indeed, is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons to be learned from reading Carson. In Red Doc> she interrogates many of the terms and boundaries by which nature and culture have been understood historically, including the profound gulf between human and animal being: “Between us and / animals is a namelessness” as she puts it towards the end of the text. Into this space of “namelessness”, however, her work speaks in profoundly moving, provocative and complex ways to the sense of rupture and disconnection that is so often felt as part of contemporary experience. For all that is harrowing and violent about the world she portrays ‑ and Red Doc> may also be read as a war poem ‑ Carson is a poet whose vision ultimately attends to “the wild fantastic silence of the stars”. “Much is misnomer in our / present way of grasping the / world” she writes early on in Red Doc> (23), but Carson’s work grasps the world in a way that is ethically and aesthetically indispensable.
4/11/2013

Philip Coleman is a lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin, where he is also Director of the MPhil in Literatures of the Americas program. His book John Berryman’s Public Vision: Re-locating the ‘scene of disorder’ will be published in 2014.

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