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Book Review: “Plainwater” by Anne Carson

in Ark Review/Book reviews by

Yesterday someone came into the shop and picked up the book where I had left it open. She liked: the persona confused over a drowned dog. She disliked: the sentence “Air cracks apart like a green fruit.”(124) This is to her too self-satisfied, and asked was this a poem at all, this diary entry of a “young, strong, stingy person of no particular gender”? (123) Self-satisfied surprised me, perhaps because I was thinking of it in relation to the rest of this book, in which the self is such a small indefinite thing in comparison to what it is projected towards. In Anne Carson’s work the self is eaten up by its own movement through time, place, and language. I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many of her readers are in their 20s, overcome by a decade of constructing a person they no longer know.

In terms of its form, the question seems a fair one. The cover of Plainwater announces the book as a collection of essays and poetry, and for the most part it is presented in the shape of prose. The passage in question is from the beginning of “The Anthropology of Water”. Its main sections are two series of diary extracts named “An Essay on the Road to Compostela” and “An Essay on The Difference Between Women and Men”: the documented journeys, along the top of Spain  and through the heart of America into Canada, seem to pun on an older meaning of the word “essay”— a trial or attempt— and what is a pilgrimage if not a form of trial? “Well, a pilgrim is like a No play. Each one has the same structure, a question mark.”(148) There’s form for you.

There is an expansive, empathetic adventurousness to Anne Carson’s work, which has taken the form of translations from ancient Greek, verse novels, performance pieces, lectures, opera, and yes, perhaps her favourite word, essays. Plainwater serves as good introduction to this part of her character, beginning with loose translations from the Greek elegiac poet Mimnermos through to short lectures on everything from Ovid to Kafka, the long poem “Canicula di Anna”, the Calvino-esque “The Life of Towns” and the diaries of “The Anthropology of Water”. It can sometimes feel like a sort of literary cubism, an attempt to see a subject from as many angles as possible. The common thread in this diversity is a preoccupation with desire, or what she describes in Mimnermos as “a kind of hunger for the motions of the self”. (13) Desire has this plasticity to it, like her other preoccupation here, water, it moulds itself to the form of whatever contains it:

You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough. (29)

There is a sense of loss in this voraciousness, coupled with its energy. The interview, another favourite form of hers, gains energy from the way the interviewees retreat from the process or mould it into something else. We saw this recently enacted in the concert hall of Louisiana Art Museum, where Carson, in the character of the sky itself, interrogates Godot, first name Rusty. Among other things, Carson is always funny. There is another interview with Stesichorus (630 – 555 BC), from whom Carson takes the character of Geryon in Autobiography of Red, who wants to talk about how the First Word War interrupted his studies in sight. The harshest interview in this book is with Mimnermos, who terminates the interview with devastating simplicity:

I: I wanted to know you

M: I wanted far more (26)

This exchange brutally questions the purpose of the preceding translations. The term itself—translation—is a slippery one: in some fragments Carson builds upon the original, transposes location and time, introduces new voices that comment or veer off on their own memories. Reading these side by side with more literal translations shows how at times an entire fragment is used simply as a title for Carson’s own poem. This is not to say that Carson plays fast and loose: sandwiched between the translations and the interview is a short essay as boldly poetic as either of the others, in which are described, among other things, the aorist tense as used by Mimnermos (“Like acrobats of the psychic misdemeanour we call history, warriors qua warriors live hovering above the moment when action will stop.” 16), and the sound-play in the adjectives argaleon (hard) and harpaleon (gentle). In Carson poetry and scholarship are inextricable, and both are at their most interesting when they display their own distortion of the original text.

Anne Carson

Mimnermos, Kafka and Ottla, Sokrates, Sylvia Plath, Perugino, Dostoyevskiy, the Brontes, Ray Charles on the radio. What is Carson searching for in these? Not necessarily commonality, or understanding, but a language for desire in those who have suffered or whose slight forms bred something vaster still. Characters bleed into one another, so that in “Canicula di Anna” the persona, a painter who is attending a conference of phenomenologists in Perugia (“They take things back to the sophists / then climb the stone stairs / for a heavy lunch.”, 53), becomes embroiled with the life of Pietro Vanucci, “a contemporary of Michelangelo / and teacher of Raphael” (49), and together these pursue the figure of Anna (Carson chasing herself?). I am conscious that all this listing and description is likely to distort what it is trying to celebrate, the attempt to get through the cracks of facts and historical figures in order to see what might be found on the other side.

I didn’t say any of this in the shop, I am not a pushy salesperson. To recommend Anne Carson is pleonastic, you just need the name, it will come back to you soon enough. Plainwater acts as a microcosmic model of Carson’s work as a whole, it works by aggregation, so that a diary entry begins to act like a sonnet within a sequence. Or perhaps like a hugely extended line within a huge hidden sonnet. Hard to see at that first glance.

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