by Keith Taylor
Anne Carson is a classicist who has become one of the leading poets of our time. As one might expect, the classics inform almost all of her work. As readers we come to expect that we will be finding some of the old connections in Carson's books; we might even have to look a few things up. What is a little less obvious, but what may be part of the explanation for her comparatively wide readership, is that our relationship with the classics is a two-way street. The influence comes not only from the past to us, but we, the readers, also shape the way we receive the work. In this now large body of work, the ordinary exchanges of our everyday reality become mythic.
This was clear in Carson's work from the beginning, but started reaching more readers with the publication of Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse, in 1999. In this long narrative, a character remembered only from a few surviving fragments--the red, winged monster and cattle-herder Geryon, whom Hercules must defeat as one of his assigned labors--becomes a boy from a place slightly resembling Carson's native Ontario. We watch him grow up, discover his sexual orientation and his love for the older Herakles, lose his love, become obsessed with time, and travel the world. Every so often, we are reminded of his redness and his wings.
The readers who grew to love Carson's odd little monster will be pleased to learn that she has brought him back. Red Doc>, as its computer literate title indicates, brings Geryon back traveling and even flying! Now known as G, with a new lover ("Sad But Great") and a new set of friends, the older man/creature resumes some of the old obsessions ("Time passes time/does not pass. Time all/but passes. Time usually passes. Time passing and gazing.") but adds some others that were less obvious in the earlier book. There is a greater concentration on memory and home. There is the very real loss of a parent and the meaning of what might be home after that. And, as one would also expect with Carson, there is a new form. Here, most of the long fractured narrative is told in small right- and left justified columns that look like something from a very packed old-fashioned newspaper. I'm still not sure whether I should think of these as blocks of prose or as verse. She clearly makes some choices about how much white space to put between the words, and the white spaces become the "rivers" running down through the text that print designers hate. It's a form that makes it difficult to quote, and that may be part of the pleasure this poet finds in it. She comments on the distinction herself in one of the few pieces that falls outside this form:
poetry and prose you know the old
is a house poetry a man in flames
quite fast through it.
In Red Doc> Anne Carson is clearly enjoying herself, yet she continues to demand that her readers engage with some of the greatest of the old themes. She reads from this new work at Nicola's Books on March 5.
[Originally published in March, 2013.]