Anne Carson, Float (Jonathan Cape 2016)
Since I’ve read Float, the 2016 Australian Poetry Anthology has arrived in my letterbox. The opening of Julie Chevalier’s delightful ‘waiting with dignity’ on page 31 seemed tailor-made as an introduction to this blog post:
into one hostage story anne carson crams
a python named robert, zombie slaves,
chinese tourists in greece, putin,
extract of puffer fish, the urge to piss,
the british museum, how boring torture can be
& lapsang oolong falling off the counter.
what an exciting life anne carson must lead
I haven’t read the story the poem refers to yet (Sister Google found it for me here), but having read the 22 chapbooks in Float I’m not surprised that Anne Carson can cover such varied terrain in a short story.
Float is a clear plastic box that opens to the left. When you pick it up with your right hand, 22 saddle-stitched books plus a couple of loose pages cascade to the floor. As you scrabble them up, you wonder if they need to be in any particular order (mostly they don’t). Later you may discover that you missed one or two booklets and a sheet that bears the title page and the slogan: ‘Reading can be freefall.’ Boom tish!
It may sound like a gimmick. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, neater and kinder, to print the 22 pieces conventionally, between one set of covers? Maybe, but this presentation is peculiarly appropriate to Anne Carson’s multi-faceted work. She is a poet, a classicist, a translator, and a script-writer. The chapbooks include essays, performance pieces, the text of lectures, original poems, poems translated from French, and so on. One of the shortest booklets, a single spread titled ‘Performance Notes’, explains the occasions for which a number of others were written: a lecture accompanied by dance and music; various pieces composed for Laurie Anderson, including a poem for Lou Reed’s 70th birthday and another for a quiet occasion after his death; words to accompany or be incorporated into a range of artworks.
Because of the presentation as separate chapbooks, the reader comes fresh to each piece, or small subset of pieces, as a separate work. There’s no temptation to look for an over-arching narrative or other clear coherence. They are all produced by the same mind, but it’s a mind that can focus sharply and interestingly in a striking range of modes and on a vast range of subjects.
Your mileage will almost certainly vary, but the books that most appealed to me are ‘Contempts’, ‘Pronoun Envy’, ‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’, and ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’, though I did also like ‘How to Like “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” by Gertrude Stein’, a plausible reading of a poem that at first blush looks pretty much like gibberish, and ‘The Designate Mourner by Wally Shawn’, a poem about going to the last night of a play by a friend.
I suspect I enjoyed ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’ because it made me feel smart. It consists of a series of short, numbered paragraphs – the first three are:
9.4. __They put stones in the eye sockets. Upper-class people put precious stones
16.2__Prior to the movement and following the movement, stillness.
8.0. __Not sleeping made the Cycladic people gradually more and more brittle. Their legs broke off.
You don’t really need to be a genius to figure out that you should find 1.0 and read in numerical order rather than in order of appearance all the way to, as it happens 16.3.3, but I was very pleased with myself that I did figure it out, and discover that a weird, dreamlike story emerges, all the more dreamlike for the work one has to do to find each step of the way.
‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ is more serious, a prose poem in which struggling to understand some of Hegel’s thinking offers some relief from the ‘icy horror’ of bereavement by way of a moment standing in snow in a fir wood.
‘Pronoun Envy’ is a poem that looks back in playful anger to November 1971 when a Harvard Linguistics Professor disparaged feminist objections to the pronoun ‘he’ being used to refer to both genders:
_______ ____________As if all the creatures in the world were either zippers or olives, except way back in the Indus Valley in 5000 BC we decided to call them zippers and non-zippers. By 1971 the non-zippers were getting restless.
‘Contempts’, subtitled ‘A Study of Profit and Nonprofit in Homer, Moravia and Godard’, is one of the larger booklets, a witty and instructive essay that runs to a little more than eight pages. It starts with an incident in 2007 when an unknown man punched an artist and called him a sell-out, and goes on to consider the difficulty of identifying the dividing line for an artist between selling out and making a living, by way of a fascinating discussion of the Odyssey, Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (Contempt) and Jean Luc Godard’s movie Le mépris (also Contempt in English), which was based on Moravia’s novel. I learned an awful lot about the Odyssey from these pages, especially Odysseus’ manipulation of the aristocratic gift economy as the motive for his prolonged travels (who knew?), but the real kick was in the discussion of Brigitte Bardot in the Godard movie (young readers may need to be told that Brigitte Bardot was famous as a sex symbol way back, long before she was famous as an animal liberation spokesperson). Here’s an excerpt:
There are, I think, three places in the movie where Bardot puts on a bathrobe. In each case as a single action she shrugs it on, flings the belt around her waist, draws it tight with both hands and leaves the scene. It’s stupendous. She wraps herself and goes. She wins. Every time she does this, she wins the movie. Are you an innately unbounded thing? the movie asks Bardot and instead of answering she wraps herself in boundlessness and exits.
If you want to know what that has to do with Homer, I encourage you to seek out the essay, or indeed the whole collection. I am now determined to seek out Le mépris and watch it again.