Between Words

Anne Carson’s new book-without-a-spine, and the spiritual experience of centrelessness.

“Sometimes I feel I spend my whole life rewriting the same page,” writes Anne Carson, in her new poetry collection, Float. “It is a page with ‘Essay on Translation’ at the top and … by the end there is not much left but a few flakes of language roaming near the margins.” Like the quick-witted but vulnerable kid who will joke at her own expense before you point out her flaws, Carson seems to want to tell us, before we point it out, that she knows that even she has habits.

Carson, credited with having radically advanced the practice of contemporary poetry in English, earned a worldwide readership with genre-defying work described as “unclassifiable.” You would think her almost incapable of producing anything one could call formulaic. But it has been 25 years since Glass, Irony and God, and more than 15 since Daphne Merkin called The Beauty of the Husband “thrillingly new.” Float is as erudite, and beautiful, as the books that propelled Carson into the literary stratosphere, but the bold choices that set her apart—essays bringing Greek epic poetry and mythology into conversation with 20th-century art, poems that use modernist avant-garde formal play to exploit the resonances of Sapphic and other Greek poetic fragments, or flauntingly anachronistic personifications of Classical gods driving Buicks or complaining to their therapists, for example—show up again in this collection as reliable, signature moves. Still way out there compared to most lyric poetry, but out there in a way we are now familiar with, Float is classic Anne Carson.

When New Directions published Nox, an epitaph to Carson’s dead brother, as one long sheet, folded concertina-style, in a box-shaped cover that opened up like a little memory chest, that book’s physical form was a powerful material rendering of Carson’s “piecing together” of her grief. It was such a successful translation of poetic theme into aesthetic object that when I see Carson playing with book form again, it is the first thing I am interested in. Float is a “collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various” stacked inside a stiff, clear, plastic sleeve. We are told: “Reading can be freefall.” I notice the carefully curated colours of the booklets: mainly navy, but also ice-blue, a pale blue-green and seafoam green. A Pantone poem, ranging from sea to sky. Is it hydrosphere or atmosphere? What composed randomness are we floating in?

The weightier essays provide clues to Car­son’s theme, which is, basically, the spiritual experience of apprehending the realm, perhaps the Real, somewhere between chaos and language. “There is something maddeningly attractive about the untranslatable,” Carson writes in “Variations on The Right to Remain Silent.” Joan of Arc’s interrogators went after it when they pressed Joan to explain the voices in her head. Frances Bacon honours it when he goes after “the scream more than the horror” in the silent medium of paint. Some say Holderlin’s madness was evidenced by his obsessive, overly literal pursuit of the untranslatable in Sophocles. Translation, for Carson, moves through, and gives us a degree of access to, that space between chaos and naming that is untranslatability, a space some might call godly. Carson, compelled to evoke what untranslatability is, reaches for it by translating a lyric poem by Ibykos, “over and over again, using the wrong words.”

In “Cassandra Float Can,” Carson considers the endless folds of temporality embodied in prophecy. She explains that it was when approaching the untranslatability of Cassandra’s scream in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, uttered in syllables of Greek gibberish, that she first noticed the sensation of “veils flying up … offside my vision.” To query the place where the as-yet-untranslated dwells, she uses the word “float”: How can it float and how can it? asks Carson, channelling Gertrude Stein. She compares etymology to an incision into a word, similar to the “anarchitecture” of artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who cut elliptical holes into buildings (or to John Cage’s composition of silences), remarking: “etymologies make cuts that show being as it floats inside things and how it floats and how can it.”

In “Contempts,” the obsession of male gods, protagonists and movie producers with women who will not allow themselves to be known parallels Carson’s own fascination with all that eludes language. For Carson, it is a kind of triumph of Being itself when form and boundlessness, presence and complete withheldness, present themselves simultaneously, as “a block,” for aesthetic appreciation. Brigitte Bardot’s performance in a Jean-Luc Godard film is such a triumph, Carson declares. “I cannot analyze this,” she writes, and one hears it as the highest note of praise.

In the most personal chapbook, “Uncle Falling,” Carson-as-lecturer-accompanied-by-chorus narrates one portrait of her great-uncle Harry, who lived alone, near a lake, in northern Ontario, and another of her father, with whom she “never had a conversation … in [her] life.” The drama is a meditation on how rarely in others we glimpse “‘that reservoir of ease and indeterminacy that is in us and is our soul,’” on “falling” into dementia (as both uncle and father did at the end of their lives), and on the tenuousness of sense:

what a terrifically perilous activity it is, this activity of linking together all the threads of human sin that go into making what we call sense, what we call reasoning, an argument, a conversation. How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.

“Carson has always been a writer in the Romantic tradition of the sublime,” James Pollock wrote in a review of Decreation. In that book, says Pollock, Carson’s main object was the “displacement of the reader’s self,” a moment of disappearance when the teller “get[s] herself out of the way in order to arrive at God.” In Float, Carson’s fascination is less the displacement of self from the centre of a work and more the displacement of centres of work entirely. This time, instead of disappearing a stable teller, Carson disappears the stable spine of the book. Carson was trained “to strive for exactness and to believe that rigorous knowledge of the world without any residue is possible for us.” She was trained to think in terms of what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called “the classical book,” with its “pivotal spine and surrounding leaves,” where “binary logic is the spiritual reality.” Carson removes the spine from her book not (simply) as Marxist intellectual praxis but to evoke the spiritual reality of the centrelessness that knowledge-as-language cannot enter. Another way Carson gets to this reality, we learn in “Merry Xmas from Hegel,” is to go and stand outside in the snow with a bunch of trees.

Many of Float’s shorter poems left little impression on me. Sometimes the conceit of indeterminacy felt like a cop-out, a way to frame a booklet stack that simply brings Carson’s odds and ends together. Carson’s translations of Émile Nelligan, surprisingly faithful and conventional, yet studded with a couple of sparks of unicorn light, however, are a flash of dark Canadiana that redeems the relentlessly random vibe that sometimes overpowers the less substantial texts of this collection.

Carson’s best works have a raw quality, not because their pages radiate around a spine but because in them her postmodern architectures of reason are blown through with fleshly emotion: sexual longing and power in Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband, grief in Nox. To talk about this book, I look for a centre; there is no main body to root for. I grasp at an organizing principle; without a spine to enforce a nice linear reading experience, my sense of order floats. (“Reading can be freefall.”) What’s first? What’s last? The world trains me to want things carved in stone. Float’s “binding” is clear plastic: in place of a cover by which to judge, Carson offers only transparency. I look to the title, and am thrown a “float.” Now I know: I am at sea, between languages, between words. No matter how I clutch at a word, it will move with me. If I try to find stable ground in the word’s meaning, a hole will appear in it, more sea inside. The sea itself is untranslatable; Carson once calls it a thinkable “residue” that “doesn’t exist.” I find it somewhat cold. Carson calls it refreshing. In Float, Anne Carson uses her formidable, familiar powers to immerse us in its waves.