I went back to my bookshelves to see what else I’d purchased in a moment of aspirational fervor and came upon Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Carson is a professor of Classics, poet, translator, and essayist, and I knew I’d found the next hard book to try.
In her first sentence, Carson writes of the poet Stesichoros and signals, with understated wit, the scope of what she knows: “He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” Stesichoros, she tells us, wrote an epic poem about the monster Geryon, whom Herakles bloodily dispatched:
Geryon was a monster everything about him was red
Put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red
How stiff the red landscape where his cattle scraped against
Their hobbles in the red wind
Burrowed himself down in the red dawn jelly of Geryon’s
Reviews when Autobiography of Red appeared were thick with analysis and debate about whether the book was poetry or prose. I lack the tools to judge, but the poignant tale she tells drew me in.
By the end of the first chapter, surely anyone will want to take this small red monster by the hand. He stands, “in the bushes outside Kindergarten,”
. . . .Small, red, and upright, he waited,
gripping his new bookbag tight
in one hand and clutching a lucky penny inside his coat pocket with the other,
while the first snows of winter
floated down on his eyelashes and covered the branches around him and silenced
all trace of the world.
Geryon’s first effort at autobiography is a sculpture, as he doesn’t yet know how to write. He glues “a cigarette to a tomato,” his mother nearby to offer praise. “She put her hand on top of his small luminous skull as she studied the tomato/And bending she kissed him once on each eye.”
The closeness of son to mother doesn’t last, for Geryon reaches adolescence and meets Herakles: “They were two superior eels/at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.” Geryon puts his camera in his pocket, and he’s gone.
In the company of Herakles, Geryon discovers sex and paints graffiti: “Up on the overpass/the night was wide open/and blowing headlights like a sea.” He reads philosophy; Herakles sends him away; he is despondent; he goes to Argentina: “Shoals of brilliant young men parted and closed around him./Heaps of romance spilled their bright vapor/onto the pavement from behind plate glass.” He runs into Herakles and his new consort in Buenos Aires; he takes photographs in Peru.
Carson wears her erudition lightly. With the ease of breath, she moves her story from a fruit bowl to the composition of volcanic rock to a stack of bologna sandwiches to Emily Dickinson as Geryon makes his way from child to adult. And I discover again what I learn each time I try: I may not always be successful in my attempts to read hard books (O, Finnegan, forgive me for forsaking you), but the effort is always worthwhile.
Click here to see Autobiography of Red.
Hear Anne Carson read "Reticent Sonnet":