Fifteen years ago---August 9, 1995--- I published the following review in the daily edition of the Chicago Tribune. It had been trimmed for length and was over-looked by Carson’s publishers, and probably by the public at large. I am reprinting it for two reasons: Anne Carson is publishing through New Directions a new work equal to the power of her first, this month, entitled NOX and as a little reminder of what was lost when Larry Kart was dismissed as book editor of the Chicago Tribune, some time after this review was published. He was replace by a female friend of either the wife or the mistress of the man who ran the Tribune, a woman whose sole qualification was that she “was interested in books.” Kart was one of the great editors who while covering the trivial books of the day allowed me and certainly others to write in addition to this review one of the very first reviews of Sebald’s The Emigrants. Kart’s taste could be summed up in his enthusiasm for the work of Anthony Powell, Jack Kerouac and Douglas Woolf and in that selection you can detect the value of such an editor.
Anne Carson is a classicist formerly teaching at Princeton, now at McGill, who some years ago published “Bittersweet,” a short magisterial study of the concept of the bittersweet in Greek and Roman love poetry. From her study of the classical languages Carson now has taken up the challenge to write in a way that can be favorably compared to those works that have endured for more than 2,000 years.
There are five parts to “Plainwater,” and the first, “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” is composed of purported fragments by a Classical Greek poet, complete with scholarly commentary and imaginary interviews. One is reminded of the imaginary schools of French poetry that Samuel Beckett lectured on in Dublin in his youth: the unwary were easily taken in.
Part Two, “Short Talks,” consists of snatches of prose with titles such as “On Defloration,” “On the Youth at Night,” “On Waterproofing” (about Kafka and his sister Ottla) and “On Reading,” which begins, “Some children hate trips but love to read. Funny how often these find themselves passengers in the same automobile…”
The third part, “Canicula di Anna,” looks like poetry but reads like well written prose. It is concerned with an artist Pietri Vannucci (c. 1445-1523), called Perugino, “a contemporary of Michelangelo and teacher if Raphael,” who “is not a happy man” because of a woman named Anna.
“The Life of Towns,” the fourth part, probably owes some of it playfulness to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and seems a little forced. In any chase it leaves one unprepared for the grandeur of “The Anthropology of Water,” which opens, “Water is something you cannot hold. Like men. I have tried. Father, brother, lover, true friends, hungry ghosts, and God, one by one all took themselves out of my hands.”
The language is startling in its clarity: “Morning is cutting open its blue eyes.” “The moon makes a traveler hungry for something bitter in the world, what is it? I will vanish; others will come here, what is that? An old question.” “What is it that men want? They talk of pleasure. They go wild, then limp, then fall asleep. Is there something I’m not getting?”
The tale--- of an older woman and her young Oriental lover on a journey through Indiana to the West Coast--- is told in a diary-like form and is remarkable in its inventiveness as in Ray Charles’ remark heard by the woman on the radio: “When I do song, I like to make it stink in my own way.”
Taking what might be regarded as a rather ordinary situation, Carson proceeds to give us a text whose meaning seems to increase each time one reads it. For example: “Men are always in pain, aren’t they in some sense. The mischief of desire is vital to them. How women avoid this suffering is a question I have, without conclusion but not without interest, long entertained.
Read Anne Carson now, before the crowd rushes in.
The crowd did discover Carson and she has been very productive with many books that were always necessary and essential books to be read as they appeared. She was a MacArthur fellow but sadly she has recently become poet in residence at NYU. Such a fate should befall no one. How she could forgo the teaching of the classics for such a trivial appointment is beyond me. To give up a socially useful position in order to become a freak on display in the monster’s mouth is simply sad. But didn’t Renoir say, Everyone has their reasons… so even sideshow freaks… and that is how NYU thinks of such people…
A wonderful by-product of Carson’s fame is that New Directions has ventured NOX… a long fold out scroll-like work of writing and assemblage--- packaged in an elegant box--- which is concerned with the disappearance and death of the poet’s brother, twined with a commentary on Catullus’ poem 101 which begin, ”Multas per gentes et multa per aequora uectus. (“A journey across many seas and through many nations” in the translation by Peter Green whose commentary includes” “For (M.B.) Skinner its position in the connection suggests closure “involving the failure of art to bridge the chasm between life and death, the illusory nature of Callimachean poet immortality.”
Of course, the brother was present in her first book as I quoted from Plainwater… the very best writers do not grow as if they are some sort of plant but rather their work seems to radiate out from a stone dropped into a pool of water… which I am sure is some sort of worn cliché.
I would add: to be alive is to be necessarily in mourning.
And for the writer today mourning is both for what he or she has lost and also now for probability that their own work will not be published given the calamity which has befallen the so-called publishing industry.