Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre is the first book of essays dedicated to the breadth of Anne Carson’s works, individually, spanning from Eros the Bittersweet through Red Doc. With contributions from Kazim Ali, Dan Beachy-Quick, Julie Carr, Harmony Holiday, Cole Swensen, Eleni Sikelianos, and many others (including translators, poets, essayists, scholars, novelists, critics, and collaborators themselves), we learn from Carson’s greatest admirers and closest readers about the books that moved and inspired them.
About the Author
Joshua Marie Wilkinson is the author of several books of poetry, and he has edited five anthologies of poetry, essays, and conversation. He lives in Tucson, where he runs a journal called The Volta and directs a small press called Letter Machine Editions. He is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.
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By Joshua Marie Wilkinson
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2015 Joshua Marie Wilkinson
All rights reserved.
Anne Carson's Stereoscopic Poetics
Of all the boundaries Anne Carson works to dissolve in her allusive, intergeneric work, the most trenchant is that of the self. A strong line of philosophical inquiry runs through her writing, which frequently addresses the startling question she poses in Glass, Irony and God: "I wonder," she asks, "if there might not be ... another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside. Or, indeed, another human essence than self." Carson explores the problems with the self most deeply in Decreation, a term she borrows from Simone Weil to indicate "an undoing of the creature in us — that creature enclosed in self and defined by self." While the mystics Carson describes find themselves in the painful position of being "at the crossing-point of a contradiction" and literalize the deprivation of the self in choosing death, Carson prefers a dialectical approach: she argues instead that "to undo the self one must move through the self, to the very inside of its definition." Carson's writing therefore privileges moments like ecstasy, a state of "decreation" that she describes as resulting from "being up against something so other that it bounces you out of yourself to a place where, nonetheless, you are still in yourself; there's a connection to yourself as another."
Carson has long maintained that desire is that very human essence that might supplant self. And yet desire is an odd sort of essence, since this "foundation of being" (OED) neither stems from nor is confined within the individual, although it "presume[s] to exist in human forms." Instead, Carson figures desire as a "vast, absolute and oddly general ... liquid washing through the universe, filling puny vessels here and there." She frequently imagines the erotic charge between people as water being poured between vessels: when Geryon meets Herakles in Autobiography of Red, for example, she writes, "The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice." Or, in "On the Mona Lisa," she imagines that when Leonardo painted his model "he poured his question into her, as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back." That Carson figures Leonardo's desire as his question is not accidental. Indeed, to want and to wonder are parallel actions for her, as she makes clear in Eros the Bittersweet, where she posits a "resemblance between the way Eros acts in the mind of a lover and the way knowing acts in the mind of a thinker." And yet imagination, and not possession, is the end point of desire — like one of Zeno's "famous paradoxes," desire is "a reach that never quite arrives," since it "folds the beloved object out of sight into a mystery, into a blind point where it can float known and unknown, actual and possible, near and far."
Carson's understanding of desire is fundamentally Lacanian — she describes it as "organized around a radiant absence" and as having lack as "its animating, fundamental constituent." Crucially, the blindness desire inscribes is not only at the point of the occluded object, but also within the subject, since the act of "reaching for an object that proves to be outside and beyond himself" shows the lover or thinker the limits of self: "From a new vantage point, which we might call self-consciousness," she writes, "he looks back and sees a hole." The "experience of the self as self" is therefore not, as one might assume, an experience of self-presence. Rather, Carson writes, "When we try to think about our own thinking, as when we try to feel our own desire, we find ourselves located at a blind point." This is, as she explains, a reiteration of Michel Foucault's argument about the Velasquez painting Las Meninas: "he calls the blind point 'that essential hiding place into which our gaze disappears from ourselves.'" Because "the vacancy recorded by the mirror ... is our own," the act of seeking our self-recognition — whether through reflection in the mirror or by the other, or through the attempt to "think thought or desire desire" — therefore only inscribes within us the central absence that is the cause of desire's unceasing circuit.
Carson's reenactment of the drama of the vanishing point is only one of the visual metaphors she uses to describe the split subject. Throughout her work, Carson adopts a related aesthetics of disjunction, which above all serves to show the fundamentally disruptive "underside of consciousness" that overturns theories of psychic and narrative unity. Indeed, Carson has been continually obsessed with forms of blocked visual perception, primarily with stereoscopy, which serves as a figure for desire's triangulated structure: "The difference between what is and what could be is visible," she writes. "The ideal is projected upon a screen of the actual, in a kind of stereoscopy." Although stereoscopy, like binocular vision itself, is meant to ensure the perception of three-dimensional reality through what is usually an occluded optical illusion, Carson instead trains our focus on the "edge between two images that cannot merge in a single focus because they do not derive from the same level of reality." The aim of the imagination, as she writes in this fascinating passage, is "to know both, keeping the difference visible," thereby providing "the reader that moment of emotional and cognitive stereoscopy which is also the experience of the desiring lover."
Carson's expressed desire for "sustained incongruence" helps to explain her predilection for intergeneric works, her commitment to translation and philosophical speculation, her love of figurative language, her penchant for yoking together an immense range of sources, and her tendency to "crash" her subjects "into other lives." Her brilliance as a writer is to show us the simultaneous proximity and distance between things, and in this sense she is always a translator — that is, one who carries something across a distance. Indeed, in a passage where she considers the "similes of the Iliad," she argues that poetry's task is "to translate our mind" by drawing the lineaments of "a likeness" between incommensurate things. Here, Carson is clearly drawing on the fact that etymologically speaking, translation and metaphor share the same root (from ferre, "to bear"). Homer's comparisons, she suggests, "build a parallel world," a contraption for sight not unlike the stereoscope, "with eyeholes through the war to gaze at it. You can look away from Troy, from the heap of broken toys, the soiled bandages and smell of cordite, to a woman staining ivory in a workroom." Carson is not only interested in creating the conditions whereby we might account for the "strange similar things [that] go on all at one time" within the material world; she also "likes to finger the border between nothing and something," between "the realms of sleep and waking, life and death." In an astounding passage, she describes the poet's role in figuring this relation of the physical to the metaphysical, once again defining poetry according to its function, rather than its form:
"If to you the invisible were visible," says Simonides to his audience, "you would see God." But we do not see God and a different kind of visibility has to be created by the watchful poet. The poet's metaphorical activity puts him in a contrafactual relation to the world of other people and ordinary speech. He does not seek to refute or replace that world but merely to indicate its lacunae, by positioning alongside the world of things that we see an uncanny protasis of things invisible, though no less real. Without poetry these two worlds would remain unconscious of one another.
While poetry cannot show the invisible, it can suggest its existence by drawing our attention to the holes in being, thereby further revealing "the absent presence of desire." In a recent essay, Carson describes finding such lacunae in the metaphysical silence of an untranslatable word, in the Rembrandt self-portrait where the eyes have no sockets, and in the haunting line from Hölderlin, "Often enough I tried language, often enough I tried song, but they didn't hear you." "Something about the way the pronouns in this sentence come face to face with themselves reminds me of Rembrandt's eyes," Carson explains. "Those socketless eyes are certainly not blind." Instead, "seeing is entering Rembrandt's eyes from the back. What his look sends forward, in our direction, is deep silence."
The struggle to find aesthetic forms equal to the task of figuring absence animates all of Carson's work, and is particularly charged when she turns her attention to death. In "Appendix to Ordinary Time," for example, she describes her fascination with the deletions in Virginia Woolf's journals and manuscripts, choosing one of them for her mother's epitaph. "Crossouts," Carson explains, "are like death: by a simple stroke — all is lost, yet still there. For death although utterly unlike life shares a skin with it. Death lines every moment of ordinary time." Weaving absence into the web of presence does not erase the differences between the two, but rather shows us again the movement of desire, which reaches across insurmountable distances. In the same way that a double negative makes a positive, the deleted assertion Carson quotes as part of her mother's epitaph, "[begin strikethrough]Obviously it is impossible ... to compare the living with the dead[end strikethrough]," affirms not the impossibility of the task, but rather its necessity. Just as "people who experience total eclipse are moved to such strong descriptions of its vacancy and void that this itself begins to take on colour," so too is death transformed into something like "a double negative of light."
In Nox, Carson radically extends the logic of the crossout, further undoing the opposition between presence and absence. The book functions stereoscopically: Carson's elegy for her brother — told through a mash-up of text, illustration, letters, and photos — unfolds in tandem with her word-by-word translation of Catullus's #101, in which he offers to his late brother "the last gift owed to death." In the unfurling pages of this accordioned, handmade, multimedia book, photographed for publication, she documents what one might call remains, recording on successive pages the ever-fainter imprint of writing, the ghosted reflection of image and type, the bleeding through of marker. "It may be I'll never again think of sentences unshadowed," Carson wrote in the piece for her mother, and indeed the sentences here are shadowy — soaked in tea, scumbled with charcoal, darkened through an overlay of transparent film. Both in content and in presentation, Nox maintains an atmosphere of incongruence, wherein no claim to coherence is left unchallenged, no lacuna unfingered; rather, the "stops and silence of various kinds" that punctuate Carson's text "defeat narrative wherever it seeks to arise, which," she explains, "is pretty much everywhere."
Although we "want other people to have a centre, a history, an account that makes sense," thinking that it might "form a lock against oblivion," we know from the beginning that there is no safe house. "To Death we are all debts owed" — this is a favorite line of Carson's, who uses it in an essay on poetry's economy, in a poem on her mother's death, and in Nox, where it hides under the lexical definition of the word "perpetuum" — but there is, she argues, "an endless space and time on the far side of restitution." Our death pays our debt, but, Carson writes, "in that silence, one has the feeling that something has passed us and kept going, that some possibility has got free." Although most of us see the play of absence and presence "as a zero sum game," Carson argues that "the benevolence of translation. ... give[s] us a third place to be." Because desire does not emanate from the individual, and was never wholly contained in the "puny vessels" it filled, its movement is unhalting, as Carson describes in this mysterious and compelling passage:
I was trained to strive for exactness and to believe that rigorous knowledge of the world without any residue is possible for us. This residue, which does not exist — just to think of it refreshes me. To think of its position, how it shares its position with drenched layers of nothing, to think of its motion, how it can never stop moving because I am in motion with it, ... to think of its shadow, which is cast by nothing and so has no death in it (or very little) — to think of these things is like a crack of light showing under the door of a room where I've been locked for years.
What is this residue? Just to think of it refreshes me. Desire, Carson might call it, which strips us of self and leaves us in the shimmering silence.CHAPTER 2
What Kind of Monster Am I?
I imagine the heat of the day is building and puts a fever in the air. Cicadas sing from the trees beside the river in whose cool waters they walk, Sokrates and Phaedrus. They are there with a third, though he cannot feel the current. He is rolled up and hidden in Phaedrus's sleeve, Lysias, speech-maker, who gave Phaedrus, beautiful young man, a speech. The speech says one should give oneself to a nonlover and not a lover, for the nonlover will bring no harm to the beloved. Lysias is there with them, all rolled up, text replacing body, word containing breath but not breathing in the blood-hot air. Sokrates follows those words; he wants to hear them read, he is "a lover of speeches." As they walk down the river to a place he knows, where the grass is long and the flowering trees bloom, where a plane tree offers its shade, he keeps asking Phaedrus a curious question, interrupting the conversation: "Do I seem inspired?" The question thrills because it doubts where doubt cannot be felt. It insists something as divine as inspiration can be but an appearance, even to the one feeling inspired. Sokrates admits to a glorious confusion, one that is self-mocking and mocking of other at once. Just before they stop, just before the day has reached its noontime heat, Sokrates admits the depth of his own ignorance — an ignorance excited into near-bliss by the words soon to be read, that speech Lysias wrote down, anticipation nearly sexual. He says:
I am still unable to fulfill the command of the Delphian inscription and "Know myself. ..." Am I monster more complicated and swollen with passion than Typho, or a creature of a gentler sort, naturally a part of some divine, and not monstrous, dispensation?
Sokrates's genius resides in him in such a way that it damages the solidity of the self. He feels his ignorance as a lover feels desire, and like a lover, his desire worries him, frets and frays self into selvage. He wants to know what kind of monster he is. Like Typhon, is hehundred-headed and from every mouth can he speak in every voice, using words to convince, to beguile, to seduce? Can he speak so as to mask his ignorance with knowing? Can he appear inspired? Or is he a monster of a gentler sort, a monster I might call a lover?
Excerpted from Anne Carson by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Copyright © 2015 Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Joshua Marie Wilkinson 1
Anne Carson's Stereoscopic Poetics Jessica Fisher 10
What Kind of Monster Am I? Dan Be Achy-Quick 17
Living on the Edge: The Bittersweet Place of Poetry Martin Corless-Smith 22
Reading Carson Reading Bronte RE; The Soul's Difficult Sexual Destiny Brian Teare 30
The Gender of Sound: No Witness, No Words (or Song)? Virginia Konchan 36
On Anne Carson's Shot t Talks Timothy Liu 42
How Is a Pilgrim Like a Soldier? Anne Carson's "Kinds ofWater: An Essay on the Road to Compostela" Christine Hume 50
The Unbearable "Withness of Being: On Anne Carson's Plainwater Kristi Maxwell 56
The Pilgrim and the Anthropologist Jennifer K. Dick 63
Masters of the Open Secret: Meditations on Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red Harmony Holiday 69
Who Can a Monster Blame for Being Red? Three Fragments on the Academic and the "Other" in Autobiography of Red Bruce Beasley 74
"Some Affluence": Reading Wallace Stevens with Anne Carson's Economy of the Unlost Graham Foust 82
To Gesture at Absence: A Reading-With Karla Kelsey 88
"Parts of Time Fail on Her": Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours Richard Grenefield 94
Lacuna Is for Reign Douglas A. Martin 101
The Light of This Wound: Marriage. Longing, Desire in Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband Andrea Rexllius 107
Who with Her Tears Soaks Mortal Streaming: Anne Carson and Wonderwater J. Michael Martinez 114
Antagonistic Collaborations, Tender Questions: On Anne Carson's Answer Scars / Roni Horn's Wonderwater Hannah Ensor 121
Opera Povera: Decreation, an Opera in Three Parts Cole S Wensen 127
"To Undo the Creature": The Paradox of Writing in Anne Carson's Decreation Johanna Skibsrud 132
No Video. On Anne Carson Julie Carr 138
X inside an X Ander Monson 145
Sentences on Nox Eleni Stkellanos 148
Your Soul Is Blowing Apart: Antigonick and the Influence of Collaborative Process Blanca Stone 152
"Standing in / the Nick of Time": Antigonick in Seven Short Takes Andrew Zawacki 156
What's So Funny about Antigoriick? Vanessa Place 165
From Geryon to G: Anne Carson's Red Doc> and the Avatar Lily Hoang 172
An Antipoem That Condenses Everything: Anne Carson's Translations of the Fragments of Sappho Elizabeth Robinson 181
Sappho and the "Papyrological Event" John Melillo 188
Bringing the House Down: Trojan Horses and Other Malware in Anne Carson's Grief Lemons: Four Plays by Euripides Kazim Ali 194
Lessons in Grief and Corruption: Anne Carson's Translations of Euripides Erika L. Weiberg 200
The "Dread Work" of Lyric: Anne Carson's An Oresteia Angela Hume 206
Collabotating on Decreation: An Interview with Anne Carson Peter Streckfus 214