Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)
by Courtney Queeney
Anne Carson’s genius and weakness reside in her work’s incredible range of form and conception. Decreation contains (among others) lyrics, essays, a screenplay, and an opera. The proliferation of forms is central to the project, and the risks she takes make her poems startle and delight. Even the least realized piece in Decreation is more original—and necessary—than the best poems put out by many of her contemporaries.
The volume is propelled by Carson’s flood subjects, knowledge and desire, and reaches after the elusive. “Sleepchains” begins by enacting a rupture:
Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
This syntax of loss erases the speaking subject completely in “Beckett’s Theory of Comedy,” which ends,
No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Going up the path, no sign of you.
“Gnosticisms” contains more of the short and gorgeous, including an efficient and comical summary of an affair:
I said! you said! oh the body,
no listen, unpinning itself, slam of car door,
snow. Far, far, far, far.
But the lyric is just one kind of Carson poem. “Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin” lists clauses of (unfinished) conditional sentences such as “If Miroslav warned us that experimental animals should not be too intelligent.” In “Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices,” the best parts read right out of Godot, with the voices avoiding the twin pitfalls of didacticism and sentimentality by virtue of their hilaritas.
My gun gives me the right.
I veto your gun.
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.
Carson’s at her best when she pits knowledge against emotion within form that intensifies content, but occasionally, the poems bog down in concept. Consider Scene 1 of “H&A: A Screenplay”:
Abelard: I made Heloise stand up.
Heloise sits down.
I made Heloise sit down.
Heloise stands up.
And so on. The dialogue, too, is one-dimensional: “Why do you fight? / To fight. / If it’s a reward you want— / No.” A screenplay, a stark verbal scaffolding, that can be made compelling in the third dimension, here falls flat on the page.
More suited to Carson’s intellect and interests are essays, which form discursive counterpoints to the terse, fractured lyrics. “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” is the collection’s centerpiece, plumbing issues of gender, history and the self. “Decreation” is Weil’s term for her desire to “undo the creature in us.” Carson realizes this desire as a paradox, in that, “I cannot go towards God…without bringing myself along.” She sees the paradox as further complicated by each woman’s role as a writer, because “To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.”
The risks these women took threatened the established political, religious and patriarchal orders of their respective times; Anne Carson’s attraction to poetic risks—though occasionally not completely successful—makes her similarly dangerous to the comfortable contemporary poetry scene.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2005 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005
“One of the most interesting gatherings of material that any poet has published within living memory. . . . She is quite unlike any other poet writing today.” –The Economist“Exhilarating . . . Carson takes risks, subverts literary conventions, and plays havoc with our expectations. She is a wonder: an unconventional poet who has a huge following among today’s readers of poetry and whose work has been honored with our most prestigious literary awards . . . When it comes to content, most poetry is boring compared to Carson’s . . . She writes as if every poet, writer, religious thinker, and philosopher who has ever lived is still our contemporary . . . Carson is immensely learned. [Her] prose, with its clarity, compactness, and memorable epigrams, reminds me of Emerson . . . To work with fragments of ancient lyric poems, as Carson does, is to [be] an archaeologist of the invisible whose tools are her learning and her imagination . . . She is interested in her characters in a way that most poets are not. Her language is the language of fiction and the manner in which the stories are told resembles magical realism with its wild imaginings and its carnival atmosphere. As for her subject matter, she writes perceptively and amusingly about men and women in love, their jealousies, their misunderstandings, and the solitude which they are not able to overcome . . . The essays in Decreation are full of marvelous insights . . . What the poet and the authentic thinker share, according to Heidegger, is their ability to wonder at how things exist and to live with that wonder. Carson reminds us that poeticizing in this broader philosophical sense and in the narrow sense of the poetic have always been related. The play of philosophical ideas makes [all] her books worth reading . . . Enthralling, masterful, engaging, stunning, inspired, impressive, profoundly moving, poignant, probing.”–The New York Review of Books“Cool, resolute, smart, and lovely . . . Carson has emerged in the last two decades as a kind of prophet of the unknowable. Decreation may be her loneliest book–a theological treatise and dramatization of how to escape one’s self . . . Carson attempts [this task] with great tenderness, framing the undoing as a work of love that compels one to forsake oneself in order to be something more–truer, more luminous, and also more transient. Carson moves from form to form–poetry, essay, screenplay–and from body to body . . . In the shape traced by Carson’s rapid flight patterns one can almost discern a transcendent emptiness, uninhabitable to more stationary souls.”–The Village Voice