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The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson

Jeff Brown for The New York Times

Anne Carson, the author of "Red Doc >" and Autobiography of Red.
By SAM ANDERSON Published: March 14, 2013 54 Comments

Anne Carson was uncomfortable with the idea of a traditional profile: a journalist following her around for a few days, like a private detective, noting her outfits and mannerisms, shadowing her on errands, making lists of furniture and wall decorations and pets, quizzing her students, standing behind her holding his breath while she tried to write in her journal. Carson is a private person. She prefers to be alone. (When her husband is traveling, Carson will call and tell him, I miss you, but Im having a great time.) Her book jackets have no author photo. Her back-flap biography Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living is so minimalist that it sounds like a parody of a back-flap biography. Carson told me that, years ago, she had a bad experience with the private-detective model of journalism and would prefer never to do it again. It took her publisher a couple of weeks to wear her down to the point that she would agree, even in a limited way, to participate in a profile. Carson later described those weeks as akin to water torture. Enlarge This Image

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Anne Carson, at lectern, and Robert Currie, center, at a 2008 performance of "String Talks" at N.Y.U.

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In the end, she agreed to exchange some e-mails. This felt like a significant victory. Carson is usually referred to as a poet, but just about no one finds that label satisfying: her fans (for whom she does something more than poetry), her critics (for whom she does something less than poetry) or herself. She often labels her work in conspicuously nonpoetic terms. Her book The Beauty of the Husband is subtitled A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos. Her book

Decreation is subtitled Poetry, Essays, Opera. Carson gives the impression on the page, at readings of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate. For two decades her work has moved phrase by phrase, line by line, project by improbable project in directions that a human brain would never naturally move. The approach has won her awards (MacArthur, Guggenheim, Lannan) and accolades and an electric reputation in the literary world. In her day job, Carson, who is 62, is a professor of erratic subjects (ancient Greek, attention, artistic collaboration) at various universities around North America, where she appears for a semester at a time as as she often puts it a visiting [whatever]. (Even when she says this out loud, she makes the bracket sign with her hands.) This, I think, is the best catchall description of Carson. Wherever she goes, whatever she does, she is always a visiting [whatever]. As an e-mail correspondent, Carson was prompt and friendly but slightly unorthodox. She wrote almost entirely in lowercase letters. Her punctuation was irregular. Some questions she answered with several hundred words, others with only one or two (no pets). Others she ignored altogether. Her subject lines contained only punctuation marks: an angle bracket, a comma, parentheses. She always referred to me as SA and signed herself ac. As with her published writing, some of her e-mails were so strange and interesting that reading them made me shake my head in excitement and confusion and wonder. Here, just to give the flavor, are some excerpts from the e-mails of Anne Carson. On writing: were talking about the struggle to drag a thought over from the mush of the unconscious into some kind of grammar, syntax, human sense; every attempt means starting over with language. starting over with accuracy. i mean, every thought starts over, so every expression of a thought has to do the same. every accuracy has to be invented. . . . i feel i am blundering in concepts too fine for me. On ice bats: I made up ice bats, there is no such thing. On teaching: when i began to be published, people got the idea that i should teach writing, which i have no idea how to do and dont really believe in. so now and then i find myself engaged by a writing program (as at nyu, stanford) and have to bend my wits to deflect the official purpose. On contradiction: i realize all this sounds both chaotic and dishonest and probably that is the case. contradiction is the test of reality, as Simone Weil says. On insects: i admire the parsimony of ladybugs. (Admittedly, I baited her into this one with a description of my daughters plastic ladybug biodome, in which the whole colony survives for weeks at a time on two water-soaked raisins. But still, that was Carsons response.) I was e-mailing with Carson on the occasion of the publication of her new book, Red Doc > (that angle-bracket is, yes, a part of the title: Red Doc > was the default name Carsons word-

processing program gave to the file, and she stuck with it). Red Doc >, too, is arguably not poetry. Most of the text runs like a racing stripe down the center of the page, with a couple of inches of empty space on either side. This form was also a result of an accident with the computer. Carson hit a wrong button, and it made the margins go crazy. She found this instantly liberating. The sentences, with one click, went from prosaic to strange, and finally Carson understood after years of frustration how her book was actually supposed to work. Red Doc > is the sequel sort of to Carsons most popular book, Autobiography of Red, which was published in 1998. In the intervening 15 years, Red has become known as one of the crossover classics of contemporary poetry: poetry that can seduce even people who dont like poetry. It boasts one of the more impressive roster of blurbs you are ever likely to see: full-on gushing from Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Susan Sontag. The book is subtitled A Novel in Verse, but as usual with Carson neither novel nor verse quite seems to apply. It begins as if it were a critical study of the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros, with special emphasis on a few surviving fragments he wrote about a minor character from Greek mythology, Geryon, a winged red monster who lives on a red island herding red cattle. Geryon is most famous as a footnote in the life of Herakles, whose 10th labor was to sail to that island and steal those cattle in the process of which, almost as an afterthought, he killed Geryon by shooting him in the head with an arrow. Autobiography of Red purports to be Geryons autobiography. Carson transposes Geryons story, however, into the modern world, so that he is suddenly not just a monster but a moody, artsy, gay teenage boy navigating the difficulties of sex and love and identity. His chief tormentor is Herakles, a charismatic neer-do-well who ends up breaking Geryons heart. The book is strange and sweet and funny, and the remoteness of the ancient myth crossed with the familiarity of the modern setting (hockey practice, buses, baby sitters) creates a particularly Carsonian effect: the paradox of distant closeness. Red Doc > is both close to and distant from its predecessor. The cast of characters has changed almost entirely. Geryon is referred to only as G. (The book is obsessed with initials and acronyms, which G at one point calls name rations.) Geryon has returned to his pre-Herakles state as a herdsman, lovingly tending a group of musk oxen. This idyllic life is interrupted, however, when he meets a woman named Ida, who introduces herself by knocking him unconscious with a two-by-four. The two of them, along with a traumatized war veteran called SBG (Sad But Great), embark on a picaresque road trip. There is a dreamlike journey into the heart of a glacier, where Geryon meets a flock of ice bats: They are blueblack. They are absolutely silent. They are the size of toasters. There is a sweet lyrical passage in which Carson takes us inside the mind of Geryons favorite musk ox, Io, as she wakes up one morning. There is a combination auto-repair shop/psychiatric hospital. There is an erupting volcano. Throughout the book we hear from a kind of Greek chorus called, mysteriously, Wife of Brain which pops in to comment elliptically on the action. Red Doc > is more difficult than Autobiography of Red; its style is fragmentary, its pace herky-jerky, its rhythms of information trickier to pick up. When I asked Carson if she felt any pressure to follow up her most popular book with a similar book, she answered firmly: no. Red

Doc> seems a different book and im a different person and everyone who read the A of Red has moved on by now. The new book was also, for Carson, much more difficult to write. She wrote Autobiography of Red in less than a year, happily. it made sense to me all the way through as a work, as an offering, she wrote in an e-mail. Red Doc >, by contrast, was a mess, obstacle course, uphill grapple in the dark, almost totally disoriented and discontented experiment every minute of the thousand or so years it took to work out. It actually took somewhere between 9 and 11 years, off and on. In the beginning, Red Doc > was set in a hut just off Manhattans West Side Highway. For a while it was a play. Carson says it was terrible for years: boring, conventional, sentimental. She gave it to her husband a couple of times, and he strongly disliked it. Finally she decided to start from scratch and write the book, in pencil, in a red notebook someone gave her. When the notebook was full, the book was done. She did some revision, gave it to Knopf, then changed her mind and took it back, then worked on it some more, then gave it back to Knopf. The dedication page of Red Doc > reads simply: To the randomizer. The term suggests, in light of Carsons work, all kinds of tantalizing possibilities: an ancient deity or a private muse or some kind of supercomputer deep in an undersea cave, powered by whale song and squid tears and sea-filtered traces of honey-wheat Grecian sunlight. But the randomizer, it turns out, is just a regular man. Oh, Carson told me when I asked her about it. Thats him. She pointed to her husband, Robert Currie, who was sitting in the chair next to her, wearing jeans and tennis shoes, with his long gray hair pulled back off his face. Our e-mail correspondence had gone reasonably well, so Carson agreed to meet me in person on a brief trip to New York. We met at a gallery in Chelsea, where we watched a video of a naked Icelandic man playing his guitar in a bathtub. Then we headed to a nearby restaurant for coffee and tea. This is where I brought up the randomizer. Are you wearing your shirt? Carson asked Currie. (She always refers to him as Currie.) Currie stood up and unbuttoned his long-sleeved flannel to expose a black T-shirt. Its front, sure enough, said Randomizer. On the back was a reproduction of one of Carsons volcano paintings. (Carson is obsessed with volcanoes.) Thats one of my better volcanoes, I think, she said. I asked them where the randomizer nickname came from. Its more than a nickname, Carson said. I would say its a functional epithet. (Carson, as a classical scholar, likes to be precise about such things.) Currie is the randomizer, it transpires, because he does many things for many people. He loves to collaborate with everyone, everywhere, on everything. Once a year, he and Carson teach a course together at N.Y.U. called Egocircus, which is about the art of collaboration. Currie has helped

Carson design her last two books: Nox, an accordion-style book in a box, and Antigonick, an unorthodox translation, with handwritten text, of Sophocless Antigone. Sometimes he and Carson even use a random integer generator to reorder her work. It saves you a lot of worry, Carson says about randomness. You know, all that thinking. In the 15 years since the publication of Autobiography of Red, Currie has been perhaps the biggest change in Carsons life and work. If she was already leaning hard toward a rejection of official categories and genres (which she was), Currie gave her a sturdy shove into the interdisciplinary abyss. I was bored with my work, pretty generally, Carson told me. And he said, Well, lets put dancers in it. So we did. Together, they turned a sonnet cycle into a grand spectacle featuring modern dancers, live and projected on a screen, arranged around Carson reading. Theyre now planning to blow up that spectacle into something even larger: a choral work featuring dueling choirs, with somewhere between 200 and 10,000 voices. (Carson says that their collaborator, a former member of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, wants to use 10,000 Estonian singers which, she said, is the whole population of Estonia.) As Currie became increasingly visible in Carsons career, people at readings and performances eventually started asking what exactly he did. There was no good answer, so the two of them invented a term: he was the randomizer. Thats when Carson had the shirt made. In person, Carson and Currie seem amusingly, but fascinatingly, mismatched, a bit like the disparate elements in Carsons work. Currie is short and bouncy and relentlessly social; he always seems to be talking and laughing. He likes to use the word swell. Carson is tall, still, shy, cautious, measured. In person, she can be surprisingly casual; she laughs easily and seems willing to chat about anything. In public, she tends to watch, eyebrows raised, from a distance. When a room of several hundred people laughs, she will smile very slightly. Currie says he draws energy from other people, whereas being around other people tends to drain the energy out of Carson. This, he said, is because everybody wants something from her, whereas no one has any idea who he is. Currie walks slowly; Carson walks fast. Currie eats tiny amounts. Carson (according to Currie) eats multiple heaping plates. Currie sits courtside at every Detroit Pistons game he can get to. Carson has been only once or twice and found it much too loud. (We sat right next to where the girls with blue underwear are, she recalled. We could see all the action.) They dont even agree on how they met. In Curries version, he was working the book table at one of Carsons readings in Ann Arbor when, during the reception while everyone else was enjoying the feast (it featured a shrimp volcano) Carson brought him a plate of food. I have no memory of this, Carson said. In her version, Currie was suddenly just hanging around. There you were, and then you were there more. Now he is there all the time. Every time I saw Carson in New York, they were together, chatting, challenging each others claims, nudging each other affectionately.

The day after our meeting, Carson led a performance of Antigonick in a small theater at N.Y.U. More than 700 people R.S.V.P.d for 300 available seats. The crowd overflowed not only the theater but also the lobby, where the performance would be broadcast on screens via Skype. The security guard was alarmed. People kept using the phrase rock concert. For the performance, Carson was wearing what she called her Oscar Wilde suit: slim plaid pants, a long dark coat with white stitching on the lapels and a bright red necktie featuring a picture of Geryon. N.Y.U. originally asked Carson to conduct a public conversation about Antigonick with Judith Butler, the superstar academic gender theorist. Carson said there was nothing in the world she would enjoy less. (This was not so much a reflection on Butler as on conversing in public.) Carson suggested this performance instead, with Butler cast in the part of Kreon the tyrant. It was, by all accounts, a grand success. Butler, as Kreon, was hilarious: small in stature, gigantic in influence. As the voice of the chorus, Carson was characteristically otherworldly. She stood very still and upright, eyebrows perpetually slightly raised. She did not, by contrast, seem to enjoy the mandatory postperformance Q. and A. The stage was full of academics. There were roughly 34,000 questions about Hegel, most of which Butler fielded. Carson, in the brief moments she couldnt avoid speaking, kept bouncing questions back to the audience. Her most memorable contribution was the delivery, out of nowhere, of a terrible joke. Where do otters come from? she asked, and then without pause or inflection delivered the punch line: otter space. The crowd roared with laughter. Carson smiled slightly. Where does Anne Carson come from? There are several ways to answer this. The first is Canada. She was born and grew up there, the daughter of a banker. Because of the nature of the Canadian financial system, in which bankers are circulated like coins, the family was forced to move more or less constantly. Carsons steadiest companions were her books. The second answer to the question is Michigan, where Carson lives now. She moved to Ann Arbor, years ago, to teach at the university. Although she no longer teaches there, she has remained, because shes in love with her house: a 1957 Frank Lloyd Wright-ish building with, she says, windows that make her feel as if shes simultaneously inside and outside. Currie, who grew up in Michigan, doesnt love living there he wants to be in New York but Carson cant bring herself to leave. The third answer to the question of Anne Carsons origin is ancient Greece. She discovered the Greek language in high school and took to it immediately. Since then she has spent a large percentage of her mental life inhabiting that distant world: learning to think in its rhythms, tracing its influences on English. Over the last 30 years, she has taught scores of college courses in Greek, an experience she describes with rare positivity as a total joy. When I asked Carson what appealed to her so much as a teenager about Greek, she answered, It just seemed to me the best language. I asked her to elaborate. Its just intrinsic, she said. Just a different experience. I asked her to describe the nature of that experience. Its just like what it is, she said. If it were like something else, you could do the other thing. Its just like itself. I

really cant analogize. This launched us into a five-minute circular conversation that felt like an allegory of the futility of all human language. Thats as far as we can go with that, she said. Carson did admit, in the end, that part of her desire to learn Greek came from her childhood desire to be Oscar Wilde classically educated, elegantly dressed, publicly witty. I asked her when she stopped wanting this. I didnt, she said. Who could stop? Its unachieved, as yet. The most animated moments in my discussions with Carson came when she spoke about boredom, which she cant stand. (I will do anything to avoid boredom, she once wrote. It is the task of a lifetime.) When she writes, she has a constant drive to feel as if shes doing something new with every sentence. When she lectures, regardless of the subject, she wants to uproot people. Im really trying to make peoples minds move, you know, which is not something theyre naturally inclined to do, she told me. We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But its really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And its that that Im more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. Its more like: Given whatever material were going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way weve never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think its a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do. You know, throw in a bit of Hegel. Who knows what that means? But to actually take a piece of Hegel and move it around in a way that shows you something about Hegel is a satisfying challenge. There is hardly a pause before she added, in her usual deadpan, So maybe I didnt make any clear point there, but I was impassioned. You were, Currie said, laughing. Ive never seen you so heated. Toward the end of Red Doc >, the story leaps into tragic territory: the death of Geryons mother. They are some of the saddest pages Ive ever read. And the reason he cannot bear her dying is not the loss of her (which is the future) but that dying puts the two of them (now) into this nakedness together that is unforgivable. They do not forgive it. He turns away. This roaring air in his arms. She is released. When I told Carson how devastating this was, she seemed surprised. She said she couldnt quite tell. I somehow wrote that book without having any relation to it, she said. In the days that followed, I thought about this statement and realized I had no idea what it meant. Carson was back in Michigan by then, so I sent her one last e-mail, asking her to explain. This, in its entirety, was her response:

SA 1 a particle is a thing in itself. a wave is a disturbance in something else. waves themselves are probably not disturbed. 2 there are some big particles inside Red Doc> of information (ice), of grief (mother), of caprice (musk ox mind) but by the time i wrote them down i had moved out to the condition of wave. 3 maybe im just saying that im a tough old bugger. 4 remember Monica Vitti saying, I cant watch the sea for a long time or whats happening on land doesnt interest me anymore ac Sam Anderson is the magazines critic at large. His last feature article was about the Oklahoma City Thunder. Editor: Lauren Kern
A version of this article appeared in print on March 17, 2013, on page MM20 of the Sunday Magazine.

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