• On the Irreconcilable Temptations of Anne Carson

    Karen Solie Considers One of Canada's Great Writers,
    Just in Time for Nobel Season

    In 70 feet of water, at the bottom of Lake Diefenbaker in southwest Saskatchewan, lie fragments of a sacred stone. Mistaseni (“Big Rock” in Cree) marked an ancient gathering place for seven Cree Nations, a valley flooded in 1967 on the completion of the Gardiner and Qu’Appelle River Dams. Government officials overseeing the dam project refused to move the 400-ton stone, or even to leave it be. They had it blown up with dynamite before burying it under a man-made lake named after Canada’s 13th Prime Minister.

    In the summer of 2001, home for a visit from university, I took Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours and The Beauty of the Husband on a family fishing trip to Lake Diefenbaker. The former went over the side of the 14-foot aluminum Starcraft. Likely I’d been asked to ready the net. Though I hung the book over the line back at camp, it remains annotated with the lake’s algal profile.

    I didn’t know then that Mistaseni lay under the boat in pieces eight feet tall and thirty across. But now in my memory the water is infused with the cruelty of my culture’s crude exercise of power. Infused more potently, though, with the failure of the effort. The government did not anticipate that the story of Mistaseni’s origins and significance would be recharged by the effort to suppress it. Carson writes in Economy of the Unlost that “For the Greeks, memory is rooted in utterance,” in the cognates “I remember,” “I mention,” “I name.” Alongside memory’s quantitative reconstructions is its “light shed on darkening things . . . the difference between oblivion and fame, between dead body and living name.”

    Similarly glossed with that trip’s mold and mosquitoes is my copy of Richard Hugo’s Selected Poems. In Hugo, I’d found my way into the poetry of how and where I’d grown up. How to signify the irreconcilables of that place as a way to live with them. I read in Triggering Town that “Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.” My obsessions, my vocabulary, my meanings. I’d been unused to this kind of talk.

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    By that summer, having left graduate school—or it having left me—as is entirely reasonable and expected, my linguistic geography had altered. Everywhere, things were returning with a difference, haunted by the Derridean trace, stages for the shadowy theater of psychoanalytic theory, prised open by feminist interventions. In my amateurish readings into ancient Greek philosophy I searched for footings and found more uncertainty. Wilderness and instability in the fundamentals. Initially, I resisted. It felt too familiar—the incommensurate more commensurate with reality as I knew it—and so was not to be trusted. But in time the dialectical image, for example, presented a way in to thinking about poetry as much as did highway motels and Emily Dickinson. Little zaps of electricity arced between them though the contact points were often unclear. Alongside Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” and “The Milltown Union Bar” had risen Carson’s “Life of Towns” sequence, from Plainwater. Punctuation detonating in the entries like the firecrackers in the drug-deal scene in Boogie Nights:

    When my idol left it broke.
    My back it broke my legs it.
    Broke clouds in the sky broke.
    Sounds I was.
    Hearing still hear.

    Off-putting, darkly funny, full of menace, these “towns” became, to paraphrase Hugo, my home towns too.

    Can one make a hometown of uncertainty? Can one, to use Hugo’s verb,  “own” it in the sense of dwelling there without trying to tidy it up? Yes and no.

    In an essay in Decreation, Carson praises sleep for its “glimpse of something incognito.” The final words, she writes, are both important. “What is incognito hides from us because it has something worth hiding, or so we judge.” Its etymological roots in deem and doom, “judgment” indicates both logic and a leap of faith. There are risks. “I wanted one law to cover all of living,” says the speaker of “Just for the Thrill.” Instead, she says, “I found fear.” In “The Glass Essay,” Law is the lover who abandons the speaker. “Not enough spin on it, / he said.” It would be hard to know what to do with that. But the fear doesn’t really lie in what isn’t there, isn’t enough. It lies in not knowing what to do next.

    Writing, like play, is an exercise of the imagination, and as such an exercise of desire that, Carson writes, teaches us “something about edges.”

    “Pragmatism” derives from the Greek “pragma”—“that which has been done”—from whence comes “practice,” and “practical.” Carson’s experiments, even the more esoteric ones, can have a shoulder-to-the-wheel pragmatism about them, methods applied to difficulty. In her poetic speakers these methods meet resistance from aspects of the psyche, from the body, circumstances, language itself, and we feel it—the work as work. At the same time we are, as is the speaker of The Beauty of the Husband, “deep in the pleasure” of it. When we read Carson, we do the thinking. It’s why, as Guy Davenport wrote in 1987 of Eros the Bittersweet, her books leave us “brighter and smarter.”

    In a 2004 interview with The Paris Review, Carson speaks of how links are made between elements thrown into proximity by the accidents of “bumping into the world.” “I happen to have Simonides and Paul Celan on my desk together,” she says. “What I do with it depends on all the thoughts I’ve had in my life up to that point and who I am at that point. It could be Simonides and celery.” Maybe Richard Rorty is my celery. But he also seems one way into thinking about the pragmatic quality of a philosophy of parataxis, in where he and Carson coincide as well as in their divergences.

    I don’t read in her Rorty’s disdain for the “general temptation to think of the world, or the human self, as possessing an intrinsic nature, an essence.” Nor do I discern a belief in any such essence discoverable or not. Her interest is in the third side, in the temptation and its paradoxes, in our hearkening to dream-glimpses and the “metaphysical silence [that] happens inside words.” Possibly even this would for Rorty stray too sincerely into the unprofitable quadrant of the unknown, the irritating company of the metaphysical. Or possibly what he calls the “numinous haze that surrounds the ‘creative artist’” would exempt her from the either/or, the “bad questions” pitched at the philosopher.

    “Writing,” Rorty observes, is “an unfortunate necessity” when what we desire is “to substitute epiphany for a text.” Epiphanies, with their roots in the divine, are experiences of wholeness without loose ends or remainders. Something like how, in Men in the Off Hours, “Audubon understands light as an absence of darkness / truth as an absence of unknowing.” As a classicist, Carson writes, she “was trained to strive to exactness and to believe that rigorous knowledge of the world without any residue is possible for us. This residue, which does not exist—just to think of it refreshes me.” From the beginning she has written of language as unable to convey “exactly what we mean . . . The two symbola never perfectly match. Eros is in between.”

    “Why should the truth not be impossible? Why should the impossible not be true?”

    The paradox of Carson’s invigorating residue—that it both does and does not exist—is obvious. But where Rorty’s pragmatism considers metaphysical paradoxes pretty much a waste of time—he recommends “that we in fact say little about these topics, and see how we get on”—Carson’s involves the ability to be refreshed by paradox. This is useful, as paradox is everywhere. Both, though, are very much about getting on with things. For Rorty, this means leaving behind the old vocabularies, arguments about the nature of truth, of God, of humanity, toward a practical ethics of community and solidarity. “The proper analogy,” he writes, “is with the invention of new tools to take the place of old tools.” Carson’s way forward is in the company of irreconcilable temptations, all the ways our desires are incommensurate to our beliefs. In her work arguments and vocabularies old and new interact in a mode of speculation. “Speculation being,” as she writes in “Merry Christmas From Hegel,” “the effort to grasp reality in its interactive entirety. The function of a sentence like ‘Reason is Spirit’ was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay Reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation.”

    Not only do abstract quantities so mingle in her work. Not only arguments and their authors through eras of (mostly Western, but not exclusively) philosophy and poetry. Genres of literature, music, performance, visual art walk through each other’s walls on the page, in the book as object, as they do as we experience them in the world. Registers and idioms mingle, as they do in thought. We read in “Kant’s Question About Monica Vitti” that “through the very failure of its representation, Thing in Itself might be / inscribed within phenomena,” and in “Just for the Thrill” that “One thing I learned from my father is to stay out of sight while machinery is being fixed.” The individual is both the container for and an element in the mingling of the abstract with the particular, present with the past. The residue of uncertainty that refreshes is simultaneously “the fear inside language.” “Why hold onto all that?” says the speaker’s mother in “The Glass Essay.” To which the speaker replies “Where can I put it down?” In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Carson speaks of the teacher at Port Hope High School in Ontario who taught her Greek during lunch hour as smelling “of celery all the time.”

    “The lesson she has to teach us,” writes Davenport, “is one of aesthetic geometry.” To things placed side-by-side is added the vertex of the perceiver. Eros, as Carson writes, is of “necessarily triangular design, and it embodies a reach for the unknown.” As “unlikely places of confrontation” triangulations also describe a mobile power. Always, someone’s eyes are not being met. Rorty does not share Carson’s attraction to metaphysics, but both are interested in power, in how language conditions thought. And also in language as the material for speculation and play that exposes and resists conditions applied to thought. Triangulation resists the one-to-one correspondence of fixed power. It could mark out a field of play.

    Jacques Derrida is a philosopher to whom Rorty and Carson return, whose experiments in proximity, shadow, simultaneity, and paradox engage with the contingency of language and refuse the power move of the last word. Philosophy, Rorty points out, “is a kind of writing” which for Derrida “leads to more writing.” In writing, as in play, rules are revised, improvised, tossed out when they become restrictive, boring, or no longer apply. “Sometimes I feel I spend my whole life rewriting the same page,” Carson says. A number of different emotions in this sentence.

    We know from childhood that play can be serious. And it requires the freedom to play. Writing, like play, is an exercise of the imagination, and as such an exercise of desire that, Carson writes, teaches us “something about edges.” As does her work, which peers over precipices into error with error’s breath also on the back of its neck. Her brinkmanship addresses the point at which language’s tools are no longer adequate to the job—to death, heartbreak, betrayal, physical and mental trauma, absence, untranslatability—yet remain “an unfortunate necessity.” In the work’s desire to analyze what it knows defies analysis, to use its logic on the illogical, is felt the life force of curiosity. Curiosity and its procedures do not allow contingency to harden into a last word, and so are not much appreciated by systems that prefer power remain stable. As Ilhan Inan has noted, curiosity “can only take place in the absence of certainty.”

    “Unintelligibility,” Simone Weil says, “why should it not be the truth”? The golden triangle performs a ratio that is an irrational number, both impossible and necessary. “Why should the truth not be impossible?” asks Carson. “Why should the impossible not be true?” Art, writes Davenport, as “an act of attention . . . which is to be transferred, after being made into an intelligible shape, to other minds” is its own impossible and necessary “miracle, a metaphysical unlikelihood.”

    The analysis foregrounded in Carson’s poems and essays operates according to the expandable rules of play. It is writing that leads to more writing, thinking that leads to more thinking. “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” in Float, ends with six translations of a poem by Ibykos written in the 6th century BC. They are accomplished through triangulations of the original poem, the translator’s method, and words from, in turn, Donne’s “Woman’s Constancy,” Brecht’s FBI file, Beckett’s Endgame, Gustav Janouch’s Conversations with Kafka, stops and signs from the London Undergound, and a microwave owner’s manual. It is, as she says, a little exercise in freedom. Though freedom lives also in the play of analysis applied to extreme experience, there is fear in it too, and the likelihood of error. In “Essay on what I think about most” she values Aristotle’s use of “imitation” for

    the ease with which it accepts
    that what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,
    the willful creation of error,
    the deliberate break and complication of mistakes
    out of which may arise

    Carson’s parataxis reminds me of all the times I’ve picked up Float and had its 22 chapbooks fly out of their perspex sleeve all over the floor. It’s a philosophically relevant design, and slightly perverse. “Reading can be freefall” says the prefatory note. Gathering them up again in the gap in intention the act creates, in yet another order necessitated by accident, is a little lonely. But in the new way of reading the same material, also free.

    Karen Solie
    Karen Solie
    Karen Solie was born in Moose Jaw and grew up in southwest Saskatchewan, Canada. She is the author of poetry collections including Short Haul Engine, Pigeon, and The Living Option. Her work has won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, the Pat Lowther Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Latner Poetry Prize, and the Canada Council for the Arts Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award. Solie has taught in writing programs and at universities across Canada and in the United Kingdom. An associate director for the Banff Centre's Writing Studio program, she lives in Toronto.

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