The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos

Overview

The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

This clear-eyed, brutal, moving, darkly funny book tells a single story in an immediate, accessible voice — 29 “tangos” of narrative verse that take us vividly through erotic, painful, and heartbreaking scenes from a long-time marriage that falls apart. Only award-winning ...

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Overview

The Beauty Of The Husband is an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth, and is also the story of a marriage. It is told in 29 tangos. A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

This clear-eyed, brutal, moving, darkly funny book tells a single story in an immediate, accessible voice — 29 “tangos” of narrative verse that take us vividly through erotic, painful, and heartbreaking scenes from a long-time marriage that falls apart. Only award-winning poet Anne Carson could create a work that takes on the oldest of lyrical subjects — love — and make it this powerful, this fresh, this devastating.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Many poets of Anne Carson's stature seem to exist in a rarefied atmosphere only accessible to the insular world of 21st-century poetry devotees and academics, but Carson has a democratic touch that opens her work up to a much larger audience. In her this book-length poem, Carson tells the story of a marriage doomed to end in divorce. Her writing is so musical, you can't help but dance to the end of this affair.
From the Publisher
“The most exciting poet writing in English today.” —Michael Ondaatje

“Brilliantly captured…Reading her is to experience a euphonious, mystical sort of perplexity…punctuated by what the husband himself calls ‘short blinding passages’…moments of almost unbearable poignancy.” —The New York Times

“Her best book.... Her poetry’s form and sensibility are quite unlike anything else.” —The Globe and Mail

“With swift strokes depicting the illusions and disillusions of a marriage gone sour, Carson has managed to make the intellectual life hip. In her hands, a quote from Plato seems as natural as a pop reference…. Then there are the lines of sheer lyricism, lines that send us spinning back to the idea of beauty, of truth.” —Miami Herald

“An exquisite meditation on love and loss that reads with the emotional depth — and with the ongoing resonance — of a great novel.” —Elle

“I would read anything that [Anne Carson] wrote.” —Susan Sontag

Richard Bernstein
In a few swiftly cut lines, her 29 tangos, Ms. Carson tells what might be seen as a pedestrian love story: a marriage, a divorce, a sad life left behind. But there is nothing pedestrian about the way her verse pierces the mind with a laserlike light.
New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After the Canadian classicist, polymath and MacArthur "genius grant" winner's much-acclaimed verse-novel Autobiography of Red (1997)--and exactly a year after Men in the Off Hours--comes a second book-length, mostly-narrative poem: this charming, edgy, insistently intertextual and finally heartbreaking sequence about unlikely courtship, modern marriage, divorce and "primordial eros and strife." The 29 short chapters Carson calls "Tangos" imagine and analyze, in jaggedly memorable verse, the ill-starred romance between the narrator and her charismatic, needy and unfaithful husband, who writes her romantic letters in her teenage years, introduces her to his tragic friend Ray, cheats on her with women named Merced and Dolor, takes her on a tour of the Peloponnese and begs her to reverse her decision to leave him. The plot emerges through Carson's meditative, elusive fragments, mysteriously isolated couplets, excerpts from versified conversations and letters, interior monologues and (as Carson's readers have come to expect) digressions on matters of classical scholarship. This kind of thing is imitated badly and often by others, but Carson's phraseology within poems remains her own: "Rotate the husband and expose a hidden side," she urges early on; later, "words / are a strange docile wheat are they not, they bend/ to the ground." And if some of Carson's devotees seek just such cryptic moments, others will want, and get, more direct shows of emotion: "Proust/ used to weep over days gone by," she asks the reader, "do you?" (Feb.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A professor of classics at McGill University and the author of Autobiography of Red, a National Book Critics Circle nominee, Carson has rapidly become one of North America's most acclaimed academic poets. But even though she spangles her work with the costume jewelry of literary and historical allusion, challenging the reader with obscure, referential puzzles, she also evinces a rare grasp of emotional chemistry. This "fictional essay" on marriage and adultery--really an impressionistic poetic meditation--cuts more truly, more deeply than any plain-spoken confessional monolog, dramatizing inner and outer conflict with a precise, knowing wit. The husband holds "Yes and No together with one hand/ while parrying the words of wife." The wife marvels "at her husband's ability to place the world within brackets." Sensibilities unravel and reassemble as contradictions beget tautologies: "If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you./ Why./ To tell it to." Rooted in a literary consciousness at once Romantic and ironic, this is as fresh and compelling a poetic treatment of a familiar subject as one is likely to find in any century.--Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Is it verse or is it fiction? What a question. The most essential fact is that this is a story, a love story told by poet and novelist Carson (Men in the Off Hours, 2000, etc.) in 29 brief, lyrical "tangos" (which are kind of like stanzas, only a lot more romantic) that have little quotations from Keats in front of each. Basically, it's Girl-meets-Boy, Girl-gets-Boy, Girl-and-Boy-grow-old-and-get-tired-of-each-other. A marriage, in other words. Narrated mostly by the wife, it becomes quickly lugubrious in a sort of Liv Ullmann/Sylvia Plath-ish kind of way ("I believe / your taxi is here she said. / He looked down at the street. She was right. It stung him, / the pathos of her keen hearing"), but it is a vivid portrait all the same, razor-sharp and as quick as a flea. The lightness of touch is the saving grace—narrated in standard prose, this would be at once unremittingly drab and thoroughly old hat—that makes this doomed marriage different from all other doomed marriages we have read about. It even makes it feel somewhat less doomed. Slight, and slightly weird, but worth a look.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780676974751
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Carson lives in Canada.
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Read an Excerpt

II. BUT A DEDICATION IS ONLY FELICITOUS IF PERFORMED BEFORE WITNESSES — IT IS AN ESSENTIALLY PUBLIC SURRENDER LIKE THAT OF STANDARDS OF BATTLE

You know I was married years ago and when he left my husband took my notebooks.
Wirebound notebooks.
You know that cool sly verb write. He liked writing, disliked having to start each thought himself.
Used my starts to various ends, for example in a pocket I found a letter he'd begun
(to his mistress at that time)
containing a phrase I had copied from Homer: 'entropalizomenh is how Homer says
Andromache went after she parted from Hektor — "often turning to look back"
she went down from Troy's tower and through stone streets to her loyal husband's house and there with her women raised a lament for a living man in his own halls.
Loyal to nothing my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.
You if anyone grasp this — hush, let's pass to natural situations.
Other species, which are not poisonous, often have colorations and patterns similar to poisonous species.
This imitation of a poisonous by a nonpoisonous species is called mimicry.
My husband was no mimic.
You will mention of course the war games. I complained to you often enough when they were here all night with the boards spread out and rugs and little lamps and cigarettes like Napoleon's tent I suppose,
who could sleep? All in all my husband was a man who knew more about the Battle of Borodino than he did about his own wife's body, much more! Tensions poured up the walls and along the ceiling,
sometimes they played Friday night till Monday morning straight through, he and his pale wrathful friends.
They sweated badly. They ate meats of the countries in play.
Jealousy formed no small part of my relationship to the Battle of Borodino.

I hate it.
Do you.
Why play all night.
The time is real.
It's a game.
It's a real game.
Is that a quote.
Come here.
No.
I need to touch you.
No.
Yes.

That night we made love "the real way" which we had not yet attempted although married six months.
Big mystery. No one knew where to put their leg and to this day I'm not sure we got it right.
He seemed happy. You're like Venice he said beautifully.
Early next day
I wrote a short talk ("On Defloration") which he stole and had published in a small quarterly magazine.
Overall this was a characteristic interaction between us.
Or should I say ideal.
Neither of us had ever seen Venice.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The poem is dedicated to Keats, "for his general surrender to beauty." In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats concludes that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Clearly the speaker of The Beauty of the Husband knows a lot more than that, but she is not saved by her knowledge from the fatal beauty of her first love. The irony is that the beautiful husband is a liar, and his lies destroy the marriage. The speaker states, "Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony/ because this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive" [p. 37]. How is Carson using irony in this poem?

2. Carson has appended a subtitle to this work; she calls it "a fictional essay in 29 tangos." What effect does the word "fictional" have? Is it a warning that readers are not to take this as an autobiographical story? Does it make a difference, in terms of emotional impact and reading pleasure, whether The Beauty of the Husband is true or not? Daphne Merkin has suggested that "a story line in any conventional sense is not what fuels Carson's writing--or what she cares about, except as it may enable her to ask the questions that interest her: to what avail are Parmenides and 'the true lies of poetry' when set against the 'welter of disorder and pain' that 'is our life'?"4 How does The Beauty of the Husband read as a story? Does it share certain elements with fiction?

3. The wife in the poem says, "How do people/ get power over one another?" [p. 38], and later, "Why did nature give me over to this creature--don't call it my choice, / I was ventured: / by some pure gravity of existence itself,/ conspiracy of being!" [p. 49]. She also asks a related question: "What does not wanting to desire mean?" [p. 75]. These are crucial philosophic questions for the poem, and for the whole ideal of human self-determination. Does Carson suggest that people are helpless when in the grip of desire? Carson has written a book about the Greek concept of Eros; does she suggest that in fact a power like the god Eros still exists and can conspire to give one person over to another?

4. The wife states that her husband was "loyal to nothing," and yet she is "not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty. / As I would again / if he came near" [p. 9]. This is essentially a romantic and aesthetic approach to life. What role, then, does the rational mind play in this drama?

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