anne carson

"something else, with it, in the sky"

This is Christine Schutt again, this time from the beginning of a story called “The Summer after Barbara Claffey,” from the collection Nightwork:

Here is the house at night, lit up tall and tallowy. And in the morning, here is Mother, first one up by hours and already in a swimsuit and weeding muddy beds on her hands and knees. She has mud on her back and in her hair, and streaks have dried behind an ear where Mother says she has been scratching. Her arms are scored with bleedy cuts, nails mud-dull and broken, and there are mean-looking bites on her back, white swellings where she must not feel or will not yet give in to touching, brave as Mother says she is to get hold of what she wants. I have seen shaggy weed ends spooled around my mother’s hand rope-tight. “But look,” she says, and wags off dirt from balled-up roots the size of shrunken heads.

How arresting: lit up tall and tallowy. 

(Gary Lutz talks about composing at the level of sentence. How he will enlarge his text to fill the screen as he works so he can stay at that level of focus with each sentence, each fragment. I think of him here, too.)

Consider the sound relationships Schutt sets up in this short paragraph. The l sounds prominent throughout, as above and then later: cuts are bleedy, nails are mud-dull. There are swellings she must not feel or will not give in to touching. And then in the last line, roots are balled-up (and likened rather grimly to shrunken heads.)

And the m sounds: morning, Mother, swimsuit, muddy beds; the word mud repeated, the word Mother repeated, bites are mean-looking.

She also uses certain sounds in close proximity, to great effect. In the first half of the paragraph, the long e: weeding, knees, bleedy. And in the second, the “ag” sound in shaggy and wags, and also the “sh” in shaggy and shrunken.

After reading Florida and the first half of Nightwork (the first story, “You Drive,” is so troubling and haunting and dark and perfect, I am almost incapable of speaking of it), I return to Anne Carson. Her reading of ancient Greek poet Simonides of Keos alongside the poet Paul Celan, called Economy of the Unlost, arrives in the mail and like my son, drawn from one activity to another by the promise of a new treat, I must attend to it.

I spend most of my reading time on Carson’s “Note on Method,” a two-page introduction that comes even before the Prologue. “There is too much self in my writing,” she says by way of beginning.

Carson, as she she often does, rewards my attentions with a paragraph so resonant, so relevant to an idea that I have been trying to hold in my own mind, that I feel a kind of physical relief in reading it:

Attention is a task we share, you and I. To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once. They keep each other from settling. Moving and not settling, they are side by side in a conversation and yet no conversation takes place. Face to face, yet they do not know one another, did not live in the same era, never spoke the same language. With and against, aligned and adverse, each is placed like a surface on which the other may come into focus. Sometimes you can see a celestial object better by looking at something else, with it, in the sky.

such collisions

I dream, as I often do, of water. Great, wide pools of it – brown and blue and green. There is a tightness in my chest when I awaken. I have held my breath too long.

It is still early, still blue black night, and across the way, through the neighbor’s window, I see a man sitting on his bed. His short gray hair is clipped close to his head. I cannot tell whether he is alone, but I wonder what he is doing, why he is awake now, what made him sit upright in the unforgiving fluorescent light of his room in such small hours.

I am anxious. I am preparing for a trip and I feel unready. All around me, people I know are grieving. So many things we have lost. So much we know will pass through our hands, even as we clench them.

I spend a few days at the beach and I take Anne Carson with me. In writing on the “phenomenology of female pollution in antiquity,” she begins:

As members of a human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another – whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.”

It is an essay about boundaries. And about how the view of women in antiquity is as transgressors of these. Also:

Women as wet (Hippokrates: “The female flourishes more in an environment of water…. The male flourishes more in an environment of fire.”)

Women as formless content, without boundaries (Plato: “receptacle,” “reservoir” which is “shapeless, viewless, all-receiving,” and which “takes its form and activation from whatever shapes enter it.”)

Women as shapeshifter, monstrous (Carson: “Mythical women frequently violate masculinity by enveloping male form in a fatal formlessness, as Euripides Klytemnestra encloses Agamemnon in a ‘garment that has no boundaries,’ as Sophokles’ Deianira covers Herakles in a ‘vapor of death’ that eats the form of his flesh….”)

In the evenings, I text my friends, and this is a form of collective grieving. I avoided B. today, one will tell me. B., a man who is not her husband but who at the grocery store, asks her of her days, and they talk there, as the carts roll past them. He is young, attentive, focused; things now that her husband is not. He asked me about…. He remembered this story I told him… When he sees me, he brightens.

Anne Carson again on the representation of women in antiquity:

Emotion is wet. Emotion is a liquid “that pours into people and dissolves them.”

and also:

Of all the emotions, by far the most devastating are those of erotic desire, for love combines a liquescent effect with fiery heat.

It’s like he sees me, she says, like he sees that I am there, in front of him.

And another friend, in describing a recent argument with her husband: “I stood there, shouting, do you see me? Do you see me? I am standing right here. Look at me.”

I find some photographs from several years ago and I try to organize them. Here, a trip to Orlando one early spring. It was still cool and the chill in the air took us by surprise. Here we are on the Cape in late summer. And here, our son was so small as he clung to the carousel pole on his molded, unblinking horse.

I remember being so happy. Or am I now imposing a sheen of happiness, at this distance?

I am not unhappy. Emotions come in waves. Although now, in mid-life, it seems a steadier tally of losses – from the mundane to the divine – that can be difficult, at times, to absorb.

At dinner, an old friend catalogues her losses of the last few years. Her mother, her father, her brother. Her best friend’s divorce. An old love who returned to her life after decades, only to leave again.

She says: I can’t get out from under this tidal wave of grief.

In the mornings at the shore, I walk. Overcast hours, gray skies. Light rain. In the distance, by the lip of the ocean, I see the silhouette of a man lifting a child to his shoulders. This simple act. How it buoys me. I am embarrassingly sentimental. “Maudlin,” my mother might have said. (“It takes one to know one,” I would have said back.)

Anne Carson, ibid:

Wantons

This condition of dry stability is never attained by the female physique, which presumably remains cold and wet all its life and so more subject than the male to liquefying assaults upon body and mind, especially those of emotion. That the female is softer than the male and much more easily moved to tears, pity, jealousy, despondency, fear, rash impulses and sexual desire is a communis opinio of ancient literature, voiced by such widely differing temperaments as Aristotle, Empedokles and Semonides of Amorgos. Throughout these sources, greatest attention is given to the emotions of love. Women are assumed to be markedly more open to erotic desire than men and sexually insatiable once aroused. A long tradition concerning female lechery derives from this assumption, of which a few examples may be mentioned. Aeschylus warns against the “blazing eye” of a woman who has once “tasted man” and deprecates female license as “ready to dare anything” for love. Sophokles observes that even women who have sworn to avoid the pain of childbirth cannot resist sexual desire. The lust of women is a frequent joke in Aristophanes. Alkiphron characterizes female sexual voracity as a “Charybdis,” warning another man that his hetaira will swallow him whole. Both Hippokrates and Plato promote the theory of the “wandering womb,” an explanation of feminine hysteria which is posited upon women’s uncontrollable longing for sex. Aristotle takes female depravity for granted as a consequence of feminine weakness and a reason for marrying girls off not later than the age of eighteen. In the Greek historians, whenever mention is made of a society or state of affairs managed by women, it is assumed that such situations would feature total female promiscuity. For example, Philo of Byblos, accounting for traditions of matrilinear descent in antiquity, explains: “They traced their descent on the mother’s side because women at that time had intercourse casually with any man they ran into.” Philo takes it for granted that, unrestrained by an alternate system, women would incline to complete wantonness.

n.b.: “any man they ran into”

Beware, men: such collisions! 

babbling into the void

This morning, I woke thinking about Jesus, which is not something that I ever do. I was raised Catholic, Catholic schools for twelve years, but Catholicism is not something that I practice in my adult life for reasons which are ultimately uninteresting. But I woke, thinking of Jesus as scripture has him, in the garden of Gethsemane on the day he is to be put to death praying, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”

I blame Anne Carson.

I read the Paris Review interview from 2004 where she discusses her Catholicism. She has been talking about writing as a way to flee the self, to get outside of oneself.

Will Aitken asks, “Is Catholicism a way out of self for you?” and she says:

No, quite the reverse. I don’t think I am ever so resigned to myself as when I’m in church trying to understand why I’m in church. Sitting there thinking about my mother and all the times we sat together in church. The only good memory I have of it is leaning up against her fake fur coat during Mass. I remember the smell of that coat, how comforting that was on a cold winter day. But, no, it’s not a way out of self at all, it’s a way back into some self that I’m not sure is a good version, but which seems to be embedded or necessary.

“Do you think of yourself as being particularly devout?”

No, I think of myself as being particularly baffled on the one hand, by the whole question of God and the relation of humans to God, but also, possibly because of lots of empty spaces in my life, open to exploring what that might mean. I have open spaces where I put that question and just see what happens.

The day was a dispiriting one. A day in which the pettiness and meanness and sadness of self and others seemed on continual parade. I sat in meeting rooms and then at my desk. I returned phone calls. I held my head in my hands.

At the end of it, I met up with a friend and at an overpriced bar and we sat in deep club chairs in the shadow of a taxidermied moose head. Over wine, we listed our grievances for each other and found reasons to laugh. I drove home while the sky was still light.

“Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?”

No. But that’s not bad. I think in the last few years since I’ve been working on this opera and reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with the emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. So, sad fact, but get used to it, because nothing else is going to happen.

There are things I have to do today that I would rather not do. I am anxious. I feel unprepared. It seems as though this time of year takes on a breathy urgency as the end of the school year rushes up and various deadlines loom.

I fear I am not making progress in my life. I fear I am not moving in the right directions. Or at least: not quickly enough.

I am standing at the edge of a cliff throwing scraps of paper against the wind. I am – Anne Carson, again – “babbling into the void.”

“When you talk about your dad, I don’t ever get that clear a picture of him. When you write about your mom, she’s palpable, she’s in the room. Why is that?”

I don’t know. I think that has more to say about her than me. I certainly did love her and have a connection, but we didn’t really get it right all the years we knew each other. It wasn’t what I would call a successful interaction. In psycho-therapeutical terms. But she’s certainly real to me in a way that nobody else in my life has been. And maybe that’s all that love is, actually…

“Realness?”

Yes.

In the morning, we argue.

Not so much argue really, rather: I go silent, leave the room, spend the morning close to tears. He sends an apology. I botch the response, holding on, as I am, to a desire to wound as I feel I have been wounded.

Why let go of some bitter thing, after all? Why try to let it go when instead you can harbor it, let it grow wild inside you?

I am trying to return to a better version of myself, but there are times, it seems, when the distance is too great.

By evening, I have not improved much.

I sleep fitfully. Wake while it is still dark, strange thoughts of Jesus in his garden, strange thoughts of Anne Carson, missing her dead mother.

“I miss her like an old sock,” she says. “One sock, you always need the other sock.”

Before I get up, I press myself against him. I hear his breathing change. I inhale the warm, familiar scent of him.

For years, I too sat in church with my mother. Anne Carson describes “a kind of thinking that takes place there that doesn’t take place anywhere else,” and I remember this, too. A kind of space and time where nothing happens and there are no expectations except a quiet collective attention inward. How the mind wanders as if through an empty house, doors and windows hanging open. Occasional song.

To return to the version of myself sitting straight-backed in the wooden pew or kneeling head bowed, whispering prayers: what might I find?

Anne Carson says:

Nothing changes, I don’t become wise about this, I don’t become ethically better or more interesting. I’m just the same person, I’m that person with this space open and I do think that for me, in this life, that’s as far as I’m going to get with spirituality.

now, sing

Three short pieces in conversation with Anne Carson’s “Short Talks,” from Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995):

On my father

In the dim light of his apartment, the moan of wind tunneling through back streets, he prepares his meal on the kitchen table. Eats there, returns to his room. The television on the floor muted, the black and white glow of it. He sits in a wooden chair. A cardboard box of photographs on his lap. Now my father is weeping.

Tonight there is no moonlight. Tonight he lets his sadness settle in on the room, a fine layer of dust on blanket and bed, on wooden chair and end table. On television, on parquet floors and on him, bowed gray head and pale flesh now graying in unforgiving light.

On screen, an endless parade of men and women rushing in and out of frame, the action of their made-up lives rising and falling, rising and falling in rhythms that we can anticipate, longing and grief in measured doses, titrated slowly to rates we can absorb.

On our debt to the memory of the dead

What is it that we owe to the memory of the dead? What measure fealty? What homage?

We return to the burial site bearing gaudy gifts. The peonies their blossoms so heavy and full they droop on slender stems. Their brightness offends. It is June and my legs are bare. When I kneel down before the stone, pebbles lodge into my flesh. I brush them off. I kiss the air. A bird sings from a branch nearby and then stops.

My father’s voice no longer comes to me in dreams. The years mock us in how little we remember. A limp, one leg shorter than the other. Hunched shoulders from decades of slow decline. This body, these dessicated bones. What if now from deep in the earth, they could sing?

On longing

There was a party in his parents’ home. His brother played piano and we gathered around. It was winter. The evening lit by candelight. His white-haired father placed his long slender fingers on my hand. I have always been baffled by fathers.

Bring your hand to your heart, hold it there. Bring your hand to your chin. Hold your hands up and take his face in your hands. Now sing.