Anne Carson defies categories. She has been called “the most interesting poet writing in English” by more than one peer, yet her books are usually a mixture of things that look like poems, that look like essays (footnotes and all), and that look like things you’ve never quite seen before.
Sometimes Carson writes frankly and emotionally about entirely personal matters like the breakup of a relationship or the death of her mother. Other times she will go on for pages in passionate dialogue with authors who have been dead for millennia. Because she has chosen the whole range of the Western intellectual tradition as her territory, she wins prestigious awards, including a recent appointment to the Order of Canada. Because she has written beautifully about the intersection of longing and the erotic, she gets quoted in a cable TV series that unsympathetic souls might label soft-core porn. She was trained as a classicist, and her translation of Sappho — perhaps the first lyric poet — has become the definitive one of our time. When the U-M made the successful effort to hire her a few years ago, it had to create a position that spanned its departments of classics, comparative literature, and English. Probably because of this range and her unwillingness to fit anyone’s prescriptions, she has become one of the few serious poets who are read even by those who never read poetry.
Her new book, Decreation, labels itself as “Poetry, Essays, Opera,” continuing Carson’s restless search through the usual categories. The title comes from one of Carson’s heroes, the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, who essentially starved herself to death during World War II. Carson writes, “Simone Weil was . . . a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God. ‘The self,’ she says in one of her notebooks, ‘is only a shadow projected by sin and error which blocks God’s light, and which I take for a Being.’ Weil had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called ‘decreation.’ . . . ‘To undo the creature in us’ is one of the ways she describes its aim.”
That passage might make you think that Anne Carson’s path through her work has been essentially a spiritual journey, but that category, too, fails to fit. It does nothing to explain her work’s rigorous intellectual engagement. And it doesn’t help us understand the moving personal voice of the poem “Lines,” which appears earlier in Decreation. “Lines” begins:
| While talking to my mother I neaten things. Spines of books by the phone.
in a china dish. Fragments of eraser that dot the desk. She speaks
of death. I begin tilting all the paperclips in the other direction.
the window snow is falling straight down in lines. To my mother,
of my life, I describe what I had for brunch. The lines are falling
This combination of elements, and a dozen more I haven’t mentioned, makes reading Anne Carson one of the most invigorating intellectual, aesthetic, and possibly spiritual experiences contemporary writing offers.
Anne Carson reads from Decreation at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, November 10.
[Review published November 2005]