The Spaces Between: Anne Carson’s “Red Doc>”

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Anne Carson’s latest book, Red Doc>, might not be for everyone: it mostly flows down the middle of the page in a heterodox column of text; it confuses syntax in confused situations; it doesn’t always finish its sentences. But confusion can also move deeply (as in this extract). In the second and third lines, memories pile up and correct themselves, in shock, without commas: the boy, now man, first knows then knew. Time has passed, his lover has changed, but the memories of throwing “your soul through every door” seem to surprise him in their intensity, and the break-up is still sudden: it is only afterwards that he/they realize there was no longer any place for touching. It was over, like the unfinished sentence, “Take my.” This is surely closer to how we as humans really feel: the difficulty of expressing past emotion lies in unfinished, not complete sentences.

Red Doc> continues Carson’s reworking of the Geryon myth started in Autobiography of Red (I haven’t read this—perhaps a cold review of a sequel is inadvisable), resituating the red winged herdsman-monster from Greek myth as a modern gay man, G. In the book, G’s ex-lover, Sad, returns traumatized from war; they meet again; they head north with a friend, Ida; G visits his mother as she is dying. In quests or road narratives, a brief summary like this is overly simplistic but accurate; a brief summary like this is unavoidable; a brief summary like this is impossible.

The book itself is just as unclassifiable (it has been nominated for both poetry and novel prizes). It is written in narrative prose, but the position of the words on the page and in relationship to each other is important as in poetry (more on form later), and one section of the book has this say about the difference between the two:

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Depending on how you look at the book, it mixes myth, epic, Greek dramatic chorus, fantasy, picaresque (I am sceptical about this last one). Right now, I’d describe it as a blend of pastoral, mediaeval romance and video game. Tomorrow, I might describe it as something else, but lets stick with those three for the moment: it has the unreal geography of the video game; it has the linear non-causality of romance (I’ve been recently reading some Chrétien de Troyes, which might influence this); and on the most superficial level, G has a herd of muskoxen (perhaps making this more of a bucolic)—Leo Marx said “No shepherd, no pastoral”, as that argument’s most reductive, the reverse should apply and a shepherd (or cowherd) make pastoral.

On a deeper level too, Red Doc> incorporates aspects of pastoral that comment on modern society, much like Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics do, although probably without the overt political function (I don’t know enough about Carson’s politics to rally comment). One of the most urgent concerns is the trauma of soldiers returning from war. “Their orders were to mow the children” (the reader completes the sentence with “down”) and the psychological effects are dealt with by a guy who “shows up with a padded envelope of drugs every night”. The army has changed both Sad and 4NO right down to their names, and 4NO has become a prophet, who sees the future five seconds ahead of time. “Too much memory is the problem” and the only solution seems to be not mentioning the past, allowing it to fester.

These repressed memories are reflected in the fragmentariness of the narrative itself, where parts of the plot (or perhaps story, using E. M. Forster’s definition, given their non-causality) occur in the gaps between the individual poems of the collection: suddenly G and Sad are in a car travelling north, suddenly 4NO’s backstory is introduced (the reader foreknows 4NO), suddenly there is a volcanic eruption, suddenly G’s mother is dying in a hospital bed. As well as recreating the gaps in memory itself, these lacunae also echo Carson’s source text, Stesichorus’ Geryoneis, which is only preserved in fragments itself (Carson is a Classics professor).

In the same way, the landscape of the poem ranges from pasture to ice cave to volcano, with an imaginativeness and disconnectedness that is difficult to see realistically: “Night is a slit all day is white. Panels of torn planet loom and line up one behind the other to the far edge of what eyes can see.” Even sound has its own extracorporeal presence at times, like a supernatural being: “A wild cracky sound is up first in birds overhead then comes down and the deer has it four times like a rock sneezing.”

The varying forms of the poem are equally disjointed: there are unattributed dialogues, separated only by slashes, and the strange lyric Wife of Brain sections (perhaps best thought of as the equivalent to a Greek chorus). However, the majority of the narrative is told through strips of downward text that look like newspaper cuttings. In the context of the newspaper, this “form” presupposes and projects an objective completeness and causality, but in Carson’s hands, that causality is stripped out: the lacunae mean that this type of cause and effect is probably impossible. Perhaps Carson is questioning the trustworthiness of a partisan media; or perhaps it is just a side-effect that comes from a typographic form that came about by accident (as she explains on this BBC Radio 4 programme).

Another effect of this “form” is how it influences reading itself: I often found I was reading at prose speed (i.e. faster than I read poetry). At the same time, though, the regularity of the columns means that I became aware of small modulations in the spacing between the words: sometimes this is unavoidable in a justified text, but in the following section the white space replicates the silence between G, Sad and Ida. The space between the words becomes the pace between the words:

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Anne CarsonRed Doc>, Knopf (US, 2013) / Cape Poetry (UK, 2013)

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