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Um, O.K. (redux). So four or five years or so have passed since my wife and I sat down and watched the first episode of The L Word, where we watched a steamy exchange between budding novelist (and budding lesbian) Jenny (who would become the most annoying character on TV) and the exotic and erudite Marina. The centerpiece of their exchange? A strange, academic-type treatise on the concept of Eros in classical literature and philosophy called Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson. My wife looked at me and asked if I knew the work? No. How about Anne Carson? Nope. Can we get back to the hot, bathroom makeout scene now?
Five years later, I still know pitifully little about Anne Carson except that she’s Canadian and picked up several major awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the “genius grant”). Her work is heavily influenced by classical literature and she’s a skilled translator of classical works, including Sappho and, most recently, four plays by Euripides.
But I really haven’t read any of her work. Perhaps I had the misguided notion that because she was mentioned on the first episode of The L Word–a treacly, overblown premium-cable soap opera–that her writing would be disgustingly sappy as well and not worthy of my attention. I was wrong.
The good news is that by doing this so-called supplement, I will force myself to fill in the gaps in my contemporary poetry education. The bad news is, I knew there would gaps in my reading but I’m beginning to fear the gaps are more like chasms. And I can’t possibly bone up on these new-to-me poets and speak intelligently about them and their work week after week. So I’ll do what I can and farm out the rest:
Anne Carson reading at the 92nd St. Y:
It’s impossible for me, this being the first poem by Anne Carson I’ve read (or at least have consciously read) to place the first poem in the October 6, 2008, issue in context with the rest of her work. Obviously. It’s also very difficult for me to make much sense of it, though I very much like the forceful language she employs, and really the poem as a whole. But instead of pulling a Sarah Palin and responding or rebutting with a one-word answer and then move on to ANWR or energy issues, I’m actually going to address the issue at hand and do a little explication.
The title and section titles provide little instruction; “tag” could mean the childhood game or a label; “this” and “your” reveal nothing. “April” in the first line also proves troublesome initially. Is the “insatiable April” a person or the month? The description of trees and branches and “green shoot areas” point to the month, but we usually ascribe insatiability to human behavior, not the natural world, so it takes a reading or two to understand that Carson is talking about the month. Also troubling is that April famously appears in another’s first line: Eliot’s The Waste Land.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
For a poet, it’s very difficult to use certain words because another poet used them to great effect before you had your chance to bungle their usage. Shelley owns skylark, Whitman lilacs, Keats the nightingale, and Eliot–especially if it’s used in the first line of a poem–April. There’s really no getting around it. Some words have greater intertextual connotations than others and to use them, like musicians, you need to give credit to those who made the sample you want to co-opt. (Eliot gives a little nod to Whitman with lilacs–dead land, memory and desire; you can’t just use “lilacs” willy-nilly.)
There is a marked difference between the first section and the second. The first section uses the language in the traditional noun-verb-object way. Very direct and forceful. Enhancing this effect is that each line is end-stopped. It lends the feeling that something is being built–bricks-and-mortar like–something substancial so that by the time we get to the final lines of the first section we really feel the aggregate weight of the loss the speaker incurred.
Every line in the second section (aside from em dashes) is enjambed, which gives the sense of more fluidity. Milton said, when speaking of Paradise Lost, that the enjambed lines in his epic were to give the reader a moral choice, which was then resolved in the following line. Or something to that effect. (If I can track down the quote, I’ll revise this post.) I’m pretty sure that Milton is the only poet who used/uses enjambment that way. But when the majority of the lines are enjambed, it does give the poem a more fluid sense. Furhtermore, the second section is syntactically different (and more difficult). Carson brackets words in a couple of places and I’m not really sure how to take it. Perhaps it’s to denote how language becomes insufficient and inconsequential in times of grieving. Or it could be the imprecision of memory when the speaker is thinking back to this loss. I’m thinking specifically here of “[some noun]”. Does it matter which noun? At the moment, no.
The second section also introduces Friedrich Holderlin, the German poet-philosopher (who, like Carson, was a major Classics geek), and by doing so, changes the register of the poem. The poet steps back and we step back with her. And with her we no longer recognize the wonderful answer scars or the frantic hand in the address book.
It is because these things can never be fully recovered. Memory is faulty; the pressures of time change who we are and tints who we were so we can never really recall who we were when we try to recall who we were. (Like that?) The moments we lived are “unalterable” in one sense, but in another–in our minds–they certainly are. Perhaps that’s what Carson in driving at in the second section and now that I look at the poem again, it almost seems like two different poems, the first section written when the poet was younger and the second section thinking and responding to that youthful poet. Hmm.
Good poem. And I’m definitely going to pick up The Autobiography of Red when I get the chance.