But it is the close interconnections in the book (after another section of relatively autonomous poems) that pose major fascinations for the reader as she makes connections of times and places, bringing together in harmony ideas and persons that are widely separated.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
by Anne Carson
2006. ISBN 1-4000-7890-3, $14.95, 245 pages
If one reads Eros the Bittersweet first, one has to wonder what the poetry is like. This latest book of the poetry of Anne Carson is an excellent introduction although it is not only poetry. It also contains some short plays and prose essays. Some of these are interconnected, but not all.
Carson is a teacher as well as a writer, and she dedicates this book to her students. She derives her title from a term used by Simone Weil to describe the mystical state of the dissociation of the self from the self. She reaches out to connect Weil with Sappho and the thirteenth century mystic Marguerite Porete. The Sappho connection rests on her best known poem and is slightly tenuous, resting as it does on the lines “greener than grass I am and dead” and “But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty . . . ” (Both lines come from the source for this poem, quotation by Longinus. Carson gives the impression that Longinus made a habit of stopping – or having lacunae in his text – just when he was getting interesting.)
Not all the poems or short plays relate to the title. The opening section relates to Carson’s mother as the latter suffers from illness and the disadvantages of aging. As one would expect from a classical scholar, she writes finely sifted and balanced lines. The sense of meaning is present but it is a semi-private language for all its surface objectivity:
SUNDAYMy washed rags flap on a serious grey sunset.
Suppertime, a colder wind.
Leaves huddle a bit.
Kitchen lights come on.
Little spongy mysteries of evening begin to knick open.
Time to call mother.
Let it ring.
Eight – she
lifts the receiver, waits.
Down the hollow distances are they fieldmice that scamper so drily.
But it is the close interconnections in the book (after another section of relatively autonomous poems) that pose major fascinations for the reader as she makes connections of times and places, bringing together in harmony ideas and persons that are widely separated. Marguerite Porete wrote in the vernacular a description of her mystical experiences. Had she written in Latin her life might have been spared. As it was, she proved intractable. One could expect from the tenor of her writings that she was not impressed with such worldly matters as saving her life. The authorities burned her at the stake. Simone Weil, searching along the same lines as Porete, hastened her death by austerities, perhaps more accurately by an indifference to life. In prose, poetry and plays Carson looks into the aspects of sanctity and of mysticism. Part analysis and part celebration, her insights possess the authority of a clear and capacious mind.
Some of the plays have a wry wit. The subject of “An Opera in Three Parts” is the betrayal of Hephaistos by his wife Aphrodite with Ares. Homer tells the story with something of a grin and that of Carson as a more contemporary teller is even broader.
She also incorporates Beckett and Antonioni in the poetic world of this book. Her essay on Sleep is one that incorporates some very sharp observations about Homer, Odysseus, and Telemachus. In short this is a marvelous collection that should find a welcome from every serious reader.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places