book recs

Anne Carson’s Red Doc> – An Artwork on the Edge of Sense

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

Where you headed /
bit further along the road /
why

you running / oh I often do
/ are you

meeting someone / yes
/ who / a stranger / how
will

you recognize each other /
in a strange way / strange

to both of you / that

would have been a
problem / it’s no longer a
problem / no

(p. 119)

 

To call Anne Carson’s work, in general, very difficult would probably be an understatement. I mean, it’s not inaccessible nor is it written in cryptograms (though, for a very interesting interpretation of conceptual, cryptographic poetry, check this out), but it’s definitely the kind of work that, if you found yourself on an overseas flight—or stuck on a very long journey—and all you had was Red Doc>, you might be a little upset. But you shouldn’t be.

Red Doc> is a kind of follow-up to Carson’s 1998 title Autobiography of Red, a myth-in-novel-in-verse (thing) retelling Herakles’ tenth labor, to kill Geryon, from a different perspective, instead exploring Geryon’s coming of age, coming to terms with his homosexual love for his pal Herakles, and his artistry as a photographer. What may be most vital to understanding about Autobiography of Red, for my purposes anyway, is that it makes sense. It’s clearly more committed to behaving like a novel-in-verse, a transmission of plot with moments of elevation. It’s coming of age, at times moving, and well reviewed by The New York Times Book Review. Red Doc>, on the other hand, is not. In fact, why don’t you take a minute to peruse other reviews of this book. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Whether you chose to or not, what you’ll find is that, largely, no one knows what to do with it. Daisy Fried of The New York Times praises Carson, recommends you read it, and goes on to call it a failed novel but that it “succeeds at linguistic confrontation” (whatever that means) while The Guardian goes a bit further, kind of paraphrasing the plot (because yes, there is a kind of plot) before ruminating over the title itself. Both agree that the heart of the work (because both reviewers believe poetry has such a thing) lies in Geryon (here G)’s final conversations with his mother at the end.

For the time being, though, I’d like to avoid talking about the ending, the place where we see a somewhat traditional rumination on time, mortality, mothers and sons, etc. because there are approximately 150 pages that deal with all sorts of other, in my mind more vital (and certainly more useful), thoughts, ideas, and tropes. Buckle up; this will be as silly as it is pretentious.

Let me get the kind-of plot out of the way. The book opens on G, middle-aged, having trouble coping with age, the loss of his looks, his friends, while still (sort of) tending a herd of musk oxen. He meets back up with Herakles, here Sad But Great (Sad for short) who’s deeply troubled with post-war PTSD, and they go on a kind of picaresque road-trip with the artist Ida to a glacial lake (which features a glacial rift leading toward a cavern filled with “ice bats” who live in—I kid you not—Batcatraz), and then to an autoshop / clinic, presumably for people with mental health issues. There are volcanic eruptions and riots and eventually G returns to his mother.

The plot, though, comes across as kind of meaningless. And maybe it is. Even Carson, talking through one of the characters in the book (I tried hard to find it; I really did), claims that plot is a house and poetry is the man on fire running through it. So why have it at all? Why waste time jerking us around, forcing us to re-orient ourselves again and again in different, less and less comprehensible situations, obscuring real understanding of G or Sad of Ida or 4NO, each characters who—whether haunted by the past or the rapidly coming future (4NO is a prophet of five seconds into the future)—are unable to access the present moment. Why not just write a book of poems thematically structured so that we may comfortably interrogate the man on fire?

I think that, for two reasons, the answer lies in the poem/section I provided in the epigraph. First (and probably most obvious) is that this book isn’t an interrogation of a single character; it works as dialectic (a conversation between at least two parties). Many of the poems are structured as conversations, and, section to section, character to character, what we are left with is this. Try as we might, there is no patterned similarity or concern linking these various players. They’re just, fundamentally, different. But wait Austin, I’m sure you’re thinking (because I’m thinking it too), what about the fact that none of the mains can access the present moment? That each is driven, in some way or another, by some subconscious concern, be it the past or the future? Isn’t that a pattern?

Yes. Yes it is. Sort of. However, to simply link these characters together—one obsessed with his aging body, his sexuality, his herd, another whose mind is ravaged by way, another who’s only access to the present is only seeing five seconds into the future—under such an abstract pattern is incredibly reductive. It seems that, were we being asked to drop the specifics of each concern, to generalize and lump together each character to fit our idea of coherence, what’s lost is profoundly strange and profoundly real. Yes, I do think that the pattern of similarity is important—it is, after all, what makes us culturally (maybe even ontologically) recognizable to one another, empathizable with one another—but I think that, with the jumps in plot considered against the organization of the book (which poems/sections come after each other), we’ll see a kind of freedom, an intentional strangeness that’s pointing toward itself.

Which brings me to the second reason I chose the epigraph that I did: the lines “how will you recognize each other / in a strange way.” What we’re being pointed toward, even with the goddamned > in the book’s title, is not simply Anne Carson’s I’m a super badass hijinks. Instead, it’s a statement of strange recognition, a new kind of identification that occurs beyond what we, as a culture of people, are conscious of. I’d bet dollars to donuts (because I love donuts) that the majority of you look at the title and think that looks like a file I’d save on my computer, and it is! That’s the whole story of how Carson titled the book. But beyond that, it’s a piece of information that communicates similarity and similar understandings to us despite the fact that, linguistically/grammatically/philosophically, it is meaningless and just plain strange. The surrealist picaresque plot of the book, then, the organization, the characters’ relationships with one another, the fact that this is sort of a novel, doesn’t exist to create what most of us would classically think of as coherence. After all, we all know what a novel does: It uses plot to move a theme toward resolution with characters either furthering or impeding that progress. And a poem: It’s a pattern of language that makes the incoherent cohere. Here, we have those things, but also we don’t. As much as there seems to be a plot, seems to be patterns coalescing toward an identifiable meaning, there isn’t. What we come to instead is a profound strangeness and a profound identification alike (with characters and poems and forms and genres), an experience of the unheimlich, the uncanny, a thing both twisted and recognizable, home and not. We see the human, the mythic, the literary, the poetic, the cultural, and, at the same time, we see none of it, just strangeness, some unidentifiable piece of work existing completely on its own and in a vacuum.

When I made the statement in the title that Red Doc> exists on the edge of sense, I meant that sincerely and even as a kind of celebration. This is not a conceptual poetry that can’t be read, but, at the same time, it certainly isn’t the kind of poetry or novel that you’re likely used to reading. It’s an artwork of the mind and its reality, of the dissimilarity that each of us knows to be true about ourselves and, ultimately, what it means to connect with another, to be alongside them in life, on a journey, in time when this is the case. To never escape our shit while moving forward through time. To be with another and to know nothing of them, to see their cruelty and damage and violence and insanity and their capacity to care, to feel, to empathize and identify. To “be / suspended in the lives of/ others and still not.” This is a book about being.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: Telegraph

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Read This or Kill Yourself: The Invention of Influence by Peter Cole

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Austin Duck

In Read This or Kill Yourself we get tough with you about your bookshelf and what had damn well better be on it.

“Who wants to read Kabbalist poetry?” asked no one, ever. In fact, when this book was recommended to me (I’m a sucker for New Directions Press and a friend said it was pretty good), I didn’t have any sense of what a Jewish poetry might even look like, much less a Kabbalistic Jewish poetry. Yet here we are, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Really, truly, this book (parts of it anyway) are knock-your-face-off-shit-your-pants good. And I don’t say that often. A drunk and very sad guy I know recently sent me a tweet-manifesto decreeing, “contemporary poetry has stagnated.” Obviously, this is stupid. Fields don’t stagnate.

What this guy was actually talking about (though he was likely far too drunk to realize it) is that his own particular expectation of poetry — his idea of poems — wasn’t being met. And that’s fine; I get that. In fact, on a particularly good day (today isn’t one), I might go so far as to make the claim that if you don’t find that, largely, current poetry (i.e. a body of poetry that hasn’t been eroded to its core by time, if you will) is unsatisfying, (though not stagnant), then you’re fucking stupid, but I won’t because I don’t feel well, and I’m tired of defending myself against the anyone-can-write-poetry crowd who believe that phone books, framed in just the right way, are art. What I will say is this: there’s a reason that, Charles Wright (in some poem I spent half an hour looking for but couldn’t find) writes “make your song/your favorite”; that with something so diverse, so culturally and intellectually and ideologically differentiated within itself as poetry is, idiosyncratic preferences are going to express themselves, whether or not you’re too lazy or drunk to realize it.

I say all this to impress upon you two separate things:

1) that this book speaks to me, my sensibilities and concerns as a poet and a human being, it is the ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside [me] (Kafka) that I’ve been looking for for about six months and, more importantly,

2) my little aside gets at the core of the book’s intellectual project: that (in the Kabbalist idiom) angels, which become synonymous with epiphanies and artworks throughout the text, are the product of influence… but not in a bad way. Rather, the angel/epiphany/artwork is the result of what’s learned, inherited, through blood and culture and socialization, internalized by you, and changed so that, when you see it/speak it/write it in the outside world, it is both you and not, an unknown knowledge you’ve received and re-articulated as your self. It is both you and not you, and, in being so, it changes you.

Now, I know that last paragraph reads like heady grad-school crap. I know it. So, let me try to make a metaphor (though Cole’s are much more arresting): Imagine moving to a new, profoundly regional part of the country (say, Alabama) and moving into your grandmother’s old house. By living there, interacting there, you’ll be inherently changed, you’ll adapt and adjust without even realizing it, but you’ll still retain who you were prior to the move. Some day, you look in the mirror and think: Fuck, I’m not who I used to be at all. That’s the sort of commonplace, everyone-has-experienced-this-thing dulling of Cole’s project. Now, take that experience of moving and internalizing and realizing, and amplify it to mystico-spiritual, super-introspective heights. Are you starting to get the picture?

At the center of this book (literally, section II of III), the titular (title poem) “The Invention of Influence: An Agon” rests, a behemoth of a poem completely obsessed with (and in many parts, comprised of the writing of) the tragic Victor Tausk, a suicide and disciple of Freud who was the first to use the language “The Influencing Machine” to consider a schizophrenic’s perception of his/her own mental capacity. The “influencing machine” Cole-as-Tausk writes “makes them see pictures. It produces/thoughts and feelings, and also removes them,/by means of mysterious forces./It brings about changes within the body—/ sensation and even emission,/ a palpable kind of impregnation,/ as one becomes host.” With this idea, Cole weaves a thread through mental illness, the Kabbalist Jewish experience (which he takes very seriously), and Tausk’s suicide (resulting, it seems, from his inability to stop doing the work Freud was doing, to remove the influence of his teacher and to do his own work, to see that he has his own, individuated vision of psychoanalysis (as opposed to regurgitation of another master’s thoughts)). And what’s amazing, what truly sets all this apart, is, formally, just how well he does it.

I’m sure the non-poetry crowd is, at this point, thinking I don’t give a fuck. Stop talking or I’ll stop reading. They’re thinking please don’t talk about how nearly the entire book is written, classically in couplets or quatrains and then juxtaposed, fragmented, against each other, or how most poems are rhymed (some not quite so silently as I’d like, though maybe that’s the point), how the poem “On Coupling” argues that couplets are used to join unlike things (remember the vision of the angel as simultaneously the self and the internalized influence??) and that rhyme creates the effect of simultaneously going backward (into what we’ve internalized) and forward (into the exterior world in the present moment and beyond), that quatrains, two rhymes set in four lines, are as “Ezekiel’s/four-faced cherubs facing at once/every direction.”

So I won’t. I won’t talk about it. Instead, I’ll suggest that you give a long, hard thought to why Cole might write in such a kind of modern/postmodern, jagged classicism, or in a verse-form itself so dedicated to joining two things at once, so appropriate for moving backwards (in rhyme) and forwards (because we can’t read the same two goddamn lines forever) when talking about influence and artwork and angels.

This book walks a fine line between the pointedly post-modern—pastiche, fracture and juxtaposition, and ambiguity—and the pointedly classical—rhymed, measured, searching for “wisdom” and “truth” and all that shit no one believes exists anymore—, and it’s gorgeous. Really.

What I’ll leave you with is a great, difficult, short poem from the book. If you don’t read the book, kill yourself. If you don’t read this poem, kill yourself twice.

The Reluctant Kabbalist’s Sonnet

It is known that “desire” is, numerologically, … “the essence of speech.”

Avraham Abulafia, “The Treasures of the Hidden Eden.”

It’s hard to explain What was inside came
through what had been between, although it seems
that what had been within remained the same
Is that so hard to explain It took some time
which was, in passing, made distinctly strange
As though the world without had been rearranged,
forcing us to change: what was beyond
suddenly lying within, and what had lain
deep inside—now… apparently gone
Words are seeds, like tastes on another’s tongue
Which doesn’t explain—how what’s inside comes
through what is always in between, that seam
of being For what’s within, within remains,
as though it had slipped across the lips of a dream

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

Image source: New Directions