Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anne Carson's Red Monster

Now and then, as a vestige of my egghead education, I’m compelled to attempt a hard book.  So when I was shown The Power of the Center:  A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, I thought, why not?  At page 44, I set it down by Finnegans Wake, vowing, MacArthur-like, to return to each.

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":



  1. Sue!
    Thanks for unpacking Carson's Autobiography of Red.. . using wonderful examples to illustrate her powerful imagination ...-E

  2. E: Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. Carson does, indeed, have an astounding imagination. It has been a pleasure to be in her company for a time while writing this piece. So, what say, shall I follow your lead and tackle "Economy of the Unlost" next?

  3. Autobiography of Red is an amazing book, & I'm glad you swept away your fear of its being difficult.

    Here's a sneak peek at her next release, entitled Nox. You might have to scroll down, but I think you'll like what you see!

  4. Or maybe swept away my sloth . . . thank you so much for sending on the info on Nox--she is endlessly inventive, isn't she? I am marking my calendar to get Nox when it comes out!

    In the meantime, I have just got back from the bookstore armed with Decreation, Eros the bittersweet, and Plainwater, and am on a hunt for Economy of the Unlost. Good thing I've got vacation coming up . . . we shall see how far I get with all of these.

  5. I'll try again:
    Your "egghead education" indeed! Your article is eminently readable and makes me want to tackle these books as well. I believe that you do have the tools to judge and I look forward to more of the same. The clip of Anne Carson's
    reading is lovely - "naming may be slightly shaming" - thanks for that!

  6. I was challenged by your blog and a familiar wave of nausea passed through me that gave me, as you say, pause. I was surprised at how I felt so I re read your piece on Ann Carson's Red Monster several times to find out where the trigger is. I still didn't get her or the reason why one feels the need or requirement to read a book that manipulates words to the point of confusion. I get that every day making a living reading the tax code.

    Ann Carson is an unknown to me so I did what the other one percent of the population does and Googled her. I found an article that indicated she was schooled, published and has a "cult" following. Briefly my angst subsided as I breathed a sigh of relief that I did not have to give up my 3rd row center Bon Jovi tickets in exchange for the Ann Carson library.

    Back to the trigger... I am still pondering that but rather than giving in to the fear of not being able to comprehend a difficult book I have decided to pick an Ann Carson piece and interpret it using Bon Jovi lyrics.

  7. Carol-Ann: Welcome back, and thank you for the feast of comments on the accumulated posts!

    And to Anonymous: I believe Anne Carson would approve of a Bon Jovi interpretation. And, after that, perhaps a Bon Jovi interpretation of the tax code would be in order (just kidding)!

    On the street where you live girls talk about their social lives/They’re made of lipstick, plastic and paint, a touch of sable in their eyes/All your life you’ve asked when’s your daddy gonna talk to you/You were living in another world tryin’ to get your message through . . .

    Rock on!

  8. I love that interpretive dance. And the sonnet.

    If Venice is the city of Shakespeare, where is the city of Wallace Stevens? The Beatles came from Liverpool. But what is their actual city?

    And who is the poet of New York, or London? Or Poughkeepsie? Not where the poet lived or the city they wrote about, but the city that is them. (Shakespeare was never in Venice except in his imagination.)

    Poughkeepsie:qualities and associations: - Henry Hudson; exploration and discovery; an ancient name from a lost culture; a tidal river of traffic and trade; bridges and birds; up to the mountains, down to the city and the sea; an industrial past, a rural region of natural beauty, art, farmland and red barns; city of schools, IBM, Route 9, FDR and the CIA. A little down on its luck but with a spirit of revival.

    Which poet (or rock star/ group) holds those elements in balance?

    - Josie

  9. Josie's perspective lends food for thought.

    Jon Bon Jovi qualities and association: name: John Francis Bongiovi, musical exploration and discovery leading to other forms of artistic expression, family name with roots from an ancient culture; a natural, youthful quality and appearance, a tributary of joy, dance and laughter.


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