On not fully understanding Anne Carson

I received an absolute treasure of a book in the mail this past week: Anne Carson’s new translation of Antigone (called Antigonick). The hardcover book is hand-lettered by Carson, and many of the pages of text are preceded by sheer vellum pages with gorgeous and beguiling illustrations by Bianca Stone. It is a beautiful, beautiful book. (There’s a good preview of it here.)

And I do not fully understand it. I don’t really understand many of the illustrations; I don’t always understand the changes Carson has made to the text. The effect is no less captivating.

This feeling is not isolated to Antigonick; I often feel a sense of disorientation from Carson’s work. Looking through some notes on Autobiography of Red (which I simply loved), I realize the same feeling occurred there: I was utterly puzzled by certain elements and choices. (Especially the final “interview” with Stesichoros–I would love to know how people read that.)

But I relish this feeling of confusion. Carson’s work is so deliberate and intoxicating, that each choice she makes feels like a stone to be worked over in the palm of the hand–slowly, slowly. Not many writers make me feel this way. More often, readerly confusion is indicative of sloppiness on the writer’s part, or else of ego and purposeful obfuscation. The confusion I feel reading Carson draws me in, rather than pushing me away.

So, Antigonick. Why that red spool of thread unwinding over a page that lists “Kreon’s nouns” (“Adjudicate Legislate Scandalize Capitalize”)? Why the domestic images of stove, kettle, rug when Kreon sentences Antigone to death? Why Kreon’s arrival by powerboat? Why, for that matter, Nick? I’ll confess, I don’t know. But I will keep turning those questions over and over in my mind, as I do with so many of her works.

Luckily, I now have a great excuse to spend a lot more time thinking about Carson’s writing, since my paper proposal for MLA13 was accepted. I’m looking forward to giving her work the serious attention it deserves.

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My MLA abstract on photography and mourning

Feedback welcome on this one… I’m excited by the idea but not wild about how I articulated it here. I could use a title, too.

Photography and Mourning in the Poetry of Anne Carson and Jacques Roubaud

The attempt to render the unsayable in language is the unending craft of writers, and never is it more challenging than in cases of mourning, when such expression is both necessary to the healing process and painfully evocative of past suffering. Including photographs in elegiac texts is a common means of giving voice to the impossible gap between experience and language. As Barthes notes in La chambre claire (1980), photographs provide an immediacy and an authenticity that written text cannot match, while also suggesting a simultaneity of past and future that always bears the mark of death.

Moving beyond the inclusion of photographs as straightforward memorials or reflections on the passage of time, poets Jacques Roubaud and Anne Carson incorporate photographs into their work in ways that accentuate the profound disconnect caused by loss. In the visually stunning Nox (2010), Carson includes photographs of her late brother among myriad other original and borrowed scraps, creating a physical space that holds both her thoughts and her brother’s. The photographs are a part of her mourning process, which she conceptualizes as translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole.

Roubaud also makes use of photographs and diary entries in Quelque chose noir (1986), a haunting elegy to his late wife, Alix Cléo–and yet in this case, the fragments are notable not for what they show, but for their absence. Roubaud relies on the photographs as a framework for his text–even the title refers to a series of Alix Cléo’s black-and-white photographs–and yet the photographs are excluded, becoming another element of the unsayable.

I will explore ways in which Carson and Roubaud look to photographs as key elements of the mourning process, not as memorials in themselves, but as passageways to understanding and expressing the unsayable.

Crafting the unsayable: Anne Carson’s Nox

One of my reading habits that changed most significantly after grad school is that I tend to read books sequentially now, rather than starting half a dozen at the same time. I like this new rhythm; it feels luxurious, and reminds me of the pure pleasure of being a reader.

Recently, contrary to my post-grad school habits, I found myself reading two books at once: Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The two books are not at all alike, but reading them concurrently reminded me of the serendipity of finding that one work opens up new and surprising connections in another. In this case, the connection is craft and constraint.

In Reading Machines, Ramsay explores “potential literature” as a way of understanding the  complex relationship between writing, reading, and criticism. Ramsay argues that the process of creating a text in the manner of Oulipo is a process that is at once creative and critical, and in which the reader is frequently complicit. Further, Ramsay notes that, contrary to the Surrealists’ focus on inspiration, Oulipians “emphasize the original sense of poesis as ‘making’ or ‘building'” (27). The more challenging the constraint, the more keenly aware the reader becomes of how carefully each word and line must be crafted. (Having recently read Doug Nufer’s Never Again, in which no word is used twice, I wholeheartedly agree with this.)

So, with craftsmanship and limitation and the interrelated roles of writer and reader on my mind, I come to Nox, a book more spellbinding and beautiful and unusual than anything I have read in a long time. Carson certainly takes on multiple roles in creating this piece–not only writer and reader, but also translator, curator, and visual artist.

Not only is the book complex in terms of its written form, incorporating original writing as well as translation and borrowed letters, but it’s also visually complex, with a format unlike anything I have seen, and which I’ll describe in a moment. Written as a sort of elegy for her brother, with whom she had a distant and complicated relationship, Nox is a stunning example of a writer representing the unsayable through disruptions in a written text. (This notion was at the heart of my dissertation, and I so wish that I could have explored Nox alongside Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, Jabès’s Livre des questions, and the other works that came to mean so much to me–Carson’s work would have enriched the conversation in a beautiful way. Perhaps another project for another time.)

Returning to my reading of Nox, though. There is so much to talk about. First, and most immediately noticeable, is the construction: the book is a sheaf of continuous accordion-folded pages, unbound at the spine; the single pleated page is contained (loose) inside a hard-edged box that opens like a book. The reader can carefully turn the folded pages like a codex, or she can stretch them out from end to end, like a scroll.

Next, the language: this is why I love Carson to begin with. She is a poet, and her language makes that clear, even in prose; each word is crafted and placed with such intention. She makes me catch my breath. I loved Carson’s earlier book, Autobiography of Red, for the same reason; it is innovative and surprising and hauntingly beautiful. (For a great interview in which she discusses both Autobiography of Red and Nox, try this.)

Then, the fragments: the pages look like small collages; each one features a small scrap that appears to have been hurriedly glued or stapled onto the page. The pages are flat and smooth (being reproductions of the original constructions), but the illusion of texture led me to run my fingertips over the page countless times. Carson creates a physical space that holds her own thoughts and her brother’s, as well as elements that are hard to place or that don’t seem to make sense.

Finally, the added complexity of translation: the work starts with a poem by Catallus (#101), presented in Latin in smudgy ink. I merely glanced at it, as I don’t know Latin. But Carson makes the reader think so deeply about that poem. On alternate pages, she presents a single dictionary entry for a word in the poem. (Even the dictionary entries, I suspect, are her own; the sample sentences are too rich to be genuine reference material.) Page by page, I tried to construct the meaning of the poem for myself, and as a result, I read those lines of barely-understood Latin dozens of times. I couldn’t come to a translation, but I came to a rough understanding of the poem’s skeleton. By the time Carson included an English translation (her own), I yearned for it.

The element of translation is perhaps the most interesting to me. Carson is a translator, and she describes her mourning process in terms of translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole. It is, she says, an unending process. She describes the process, as well as her choice of the particular Catallus poem, in a section labeled 7.1:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

This is a book to re-read and to savor.

Circling back to the connection with Ramsay’s thoughts on Oulipo, Carson’s choice of form in Nox functions as a similar kind of constraint. As with the Oulipians, there is no room for anything to be out of place. Carson reads and writes and translates and interprets and designs, and she encourages the reader to engage in similarly blended acts, resulting in a rich and intense experience that I won’t soon forget.

Crafting the unsayable: Anne Carson’s Nox

One of my reading habits that changed most significantly after grad school is that I tend to read books sequentially now, rather than starting half a dozen at the same time. I like this new rhythm; it feels luxurious, and reminds me of the pure pleasure of being a reader.

Recently, contrary to my post-grad school habits, I found myself reading two books at once: Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The two books are not at all alike, but reading them concurrently reminded me of the serendipity of finding that one work opens up new and surprising connections in another. In this case, the connection is craft and constraint.

In Reading Machines, Ramsay explores “potential literature” as a way of understanding the  complex relationship between writing, reading, and criticism. Ramsay argues that the process of creating a text in the manner of Oulipo is a process that is at once creative and critical, and in which the reader is frequently complicit. Further, Ramsay notes that, contrary to the Surrealists’ focus on inspiration, Oulipians “emphasize the original sense of poesis as ‘making’ or ‘building'” (27). The more challenging the constraint, the more keenly aware the reader becomes of how carefully each word and line must be crafted. (Having recently read Doug Nufer’s Never Again, in which no word is used twice, I wholeheartedly agree with this.)

So, with craftsmanship and limitation and the interrelated roles of writer and reader on my mind, I come to Nox, a book more spellbinding and beautiful and unusual than anything I have read in a long time. Carson certainly takes on multiple roles in creating this piece–not only writer and reader, but also translator, curator, and visual artist.

Not only is the book complex in terms of its written form, incorporating original writing as well as translation and borrowed letters, but it’s also visually complex, with a format unlike anything I have seen, and which I’ll describe in a moment. Written as a sort of elegy for her brother, with whom she had a distant and complicated relationship, Nox is a stunning example of a writer representing the unsayable through disruptions in a written text. (This notion was at the heart of my dissertation, and I so wish that I could have explored Nox alongside Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, Jabès’s Livre des questions, and the other works that came to mean so much to me–Carson’s work would have enriched the conversation in a beautiful way. Perhaps another project for another time.)

Returning to my reading of Nox, though. There is so much to talk about. First, and most immediately noticeable, is the construction: the book is a sheaf of continuous accordion-folded pages, unbound at the spine; the single pleated page is contained (loose) inside a hard-edged box that opens like a book. The reader can carefully turn the folded pages like a codex, or she can stretch them out from end to end, like a scroll.

Next, the language: this is why I love Carson to begin with. She is a poet, and her language makes that clear, even in prose; each word is crafted and placed with such intention. She makes me catch my breath. I loved Carson’s earlier book, Autobiography of Red, for the same reason; it is innovative and surprising and hauntingly beautiful. (For a great interview in which she discusses both Autobiography of Red and Nox, try this.)

Then, the fragments: the pages look like small collages; each one features a small scrap that appears to have been hurriedly glued or stapled onto the page. The pages are flat and smooth (being reproductions of the original constructions), but the illusion of texture led me to run my fingertips over the page countless times. Carson creates a physical space that holds her own thoughts and her brother’s, as well as elements that are hard to place or that don’t seem to make sense.

Finally, the added complexity of translation: the work starts with a poem by Catallus (#101), presented in Latin in smudgy ink. I merely glanced at it, as I don’t know Latin. But Carson makes the reader think so deeply about that poem. On alternate pages, she presents a single dictionary entry for a word in the poem. (Even the dictionary entries, I suspect, are her own; the sample sentences are too rich to be genuine reference material.) Page by page, I tried to construct the meaning of the poem for myself, and as a result, I read those lines of barely-understood Latin dozens of times. I couldn’t come to a translation, but I came to a rough understanding of the poem’s skeleton. By the time Carson included an English translation (her own), I yearned for it.

The element of translation is perhaps the most interesting to me. Carson is a translator, and she describes her mourning process in terms of translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole. It is, she says, an unending process. She describes the process, as well as her choice of the particular Catallus poem, in a section labeled 7.1:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

This is a book to re-read and to savor.

Circling back to the connection with Ramsay’s thoughts on Oulipo, Carson’s choice of form in Nox functions as a similar kind of constraint. As with the Oulipians, there is no room for anything to be out of place. Carson reads and writes and translates and interprets and designs, and she encourages the reader to engage in similarly blended acts, resulting in a rich and intense experience that I won’t soon forget.

Alice Munro, Runaway

After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction.

Familial and romantic relationships are central in Runaway, and in a couple of instances Munro spins the development out beyond the length of a single story.  In “Chance” for instance, we read a beautiful and hopeful story of a couple coming together; the characters reappear in the next story, “Soon,” where we read a much more complicated continuation of the same family. “Chance” ends with Juliet and Eric in each others’ arms. (Well, not quite; the couple comes together with this breathtaking paragraph–

She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay. (85)

–which Munro gently sets down by adding a bit of context, a bit of explanation, and the faintest sketch of the couple’s life together. The actual end of the story is not an image of Juliet and Eric together, but the perhaps more intriguing mention of the “submerged rivalry” of Juliet and Christa, Eric’s former lover.)

“Soon” takes place many years later, and complicates the emotions of the first story with the inevitable growth and change as characters spend their lives together.  As I started “Soon,” it came as a surprise to see Juliet re-emerge; Munro’s exquisite skills as a short story writer mean that each piece conveys a sense of perfect wholeness on its own, making the continuation unexpected, but the added nuance of the connected stories multiplies the effect of each. Excellent short stories always create a tension for me: I want so much to see the writer continue developing the characters into a full-blown novel, and yet I know that the very thing I love so much depends on the succinct form of the story.

I came across this review by Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times in 2004, and was amused to find that he gives free reign to the gushing admiration that I have been trying somewhat to temper:

“The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!”

(Franzen’s review is excellent, by the way, and worth reading in its entirety.)

I’m selfishly glad that there are still so many of Munro’s stories ahead of me to read. I suspect I’ll be returning often.

Alice Munro, Runaway

After loving Alice Munro’s recent New Yorker piece (“Dear Life”), I felt that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had more of her work in my hands. I chose Runaway more or less at random from among her collections, and wow. I am blown away by Munro’s incredible skill with characters. She creates an incredible emotional climate with each story, drawing the reader in to share each protagonist’s hope, fear, or betrayal. I simply love the intimacy of her stories and the subtle ways that she teases out the complexities of human interaction.

Familial and romantic relationships are central in Runaway, and in a couple of instances Munro spins the development out beyond the length of a single story.  In “Chance” for instance, we read a beautiful and hopeful story of a couple coming together; the characters reappear in the next story, “Soon,” where we read a much more complicated continuation of the same family. “Chance” ends with Juliet and Eric in each others’ arms. (Well, not quite; the couple comes together with this breathtaking paragraph–

She can tell by his voice that he is claiming her. She stands up, quite numb, and sees that he is older, heavier, more impetuous than she has remembered. He advances on her and she feels herself ransacked from top to bottom, flooded with relief, assaulted by happiness. How astonishing this is. How close to dismay. (85)

–which Munro gently sets down by adding a bit of context, a bit of explanation, and the faintest sketch of the couple’s life together. The actual end of the story is not an image of Juliet and Eric together, but the perhaps more intriguing mention of the “submerged rivalry” of Juliet and Christa, Eric’s former lover.)

“Soon” takes place many years later, and complicates the emotions of the first story with the inevitable growth and change as characters spend their lives together.  As I started “Soon,” it came as a surprise to see Juliet re-emerge; Munro’s exquisite skills as a short story writer mean that each piece conveys a sense of perfect wholeness on its own, making the continuation unexpected, but the added nuance of the connected stories multiplies the effect of each. Excellent short stories always create a tension for me: I want so much to see the writer continue developing the characters into a full-blown novel, and yet I know that the very thing I love so much depends on the succinct form of the story.

I came across this review by Jonathan Franzen from the New York Times in 2004, and was amused to find that he gives free reign to the gushing admiration that I have been trying somewhat to temper:

“The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself.
Which leaves me with the simple instruction that I began with: Read Munro! Read Munro!”

(Franzen’s review is excellent, by the way, and worth reading in its entirety.)

I’m selfishly glad that there are still so many of Munro’s stories ahead of me to read. I suspect I’ll be returning often.

“Dear Life” by Alice Munro

What I had been looking for in a novel, I found in a short personal reflection instead. I hadn’t seen Munro’s name in the table of contents of the September 19th New Yorker; I was flipping the page to skip over Shouts & Murmurs (which I almost never like), and her first paragraph snuck up on me and made my breath catch a little in my chest.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me. Behind me, as I walked home from primary school, and then from high school, was the real town with its activity and its sidewalks and its streetlights for after dark. Marking the end of town were two bridges over the Maitland River: one narrow iron bridge, where cars sometimes got into trouble over which one should pull off and wait for the other, and a wooden walkway, which occasionally had a plank missing, so that you could look right down into the bright, hurrying water. I liked that, but somebody always came and replaced the plank eventually.

The scene is straightforward, as is the language, but the pace willfully departs from the sharp clip of much contemporary writing. Munro makes the reader breathe a little slower and savor the childhood scene, pausing over the gap in the bridge that opened onto the water, mourning a little the loss of small wonders.

I have only read a little of Munro’s work before, but what I have read, I loved. I was halfway through Too Much Happiness when I forgot it on a plane; I bought a Kindle version so that I could keep reading right away. (I really hope someone picked up the book and enjoyed it.) What struck me in those stories, as in this piece, was the depth of the cruelty and the luminous beauty that Munro draws out. The feeling, for me, is not unlike looking at a perfectly exposed black and white photograph, with pockets of deep black and pure white calling attention to the full range of greys that fill the frame. The cruelty of the priest pronouncing satisfaction instead of a eulogy at the prostitute’s funeral; the absurdity of Mrs. Netterfield attacking the delivery boy with an axe over forgotten butter; the pain of watching a parent’s health deteriorate so completely surpassing the less-felt suffering of poverty. Munro narrates each of these moments with such specificity and care that the emotion of each resonates deeply with the reader, despite the unfamiliarity of the setting. I felt like I read the piece more with my breath than with my brain, which was a really wonderful feeling.

I’ve now added Runaway to my to-read list, too. If anyone reads this post and wants to read the book along with me, let me know–I’d love to eventually turn this blog into a little more of a dialogue so that I can hear how other people have read what I’m reading.