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Geraldine McKenzie reviews

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1998


NNE CARSON is an acclaimed Canadian poet whose work has also been published in the U.K. and America. Her most recent collection of poetry, Glass and God (Cape Poetry 1998), is both polished and passionate, with a range of reference spanning personal crisis, the life of the Brontes, Greek and Biblical myth and modern urban life. At her best, Carson uses language with wit and clarity, displaying an openness and inclusiveness grounded in a gracefully worn erudition.

Her new work Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse, revisits themes and tropes from the earlier collections and has been described by Michael Ondaatje as "a wonderful mongrel work, a strange and ambitious bridge between classical texts and contemporary autobiographical poetry". Carson writes over the Greek myth of Geryon and Herakles with special reference to Stesichorus' account, which only survives in fragments. This is not her first investigation of myth. In "TV Men" (Glass and God), Carson plays with Hector and the Trojan War in an inventive and resonant treatment of mythic material interwoven with the shooting of a TV show in Death Valley -

...Looking out over the parapet
to the arc-lit battlefield where men
with string

were measuring the distance from Hector's darkening nipple
to the camera's eye.
However, the rewrite of the Geryon myth, while it begins promisingly enough, declines into a dull narrative with few of the excitements poetry should offer. "The history of a text is like a long caress" but Carson's treatment tends to reduce its mythic qualities in favour of a narrative focusing on "the human custom of wrong love" which, for all its forays into time, passion and identity, fails to rise above the all too familiar tale of love gone wrong. Geryon is depicted as an idealistic and sensitive youth infatuated with the experienced and charismatic Herakles, who discards him after a short intense affair.


Carson used similiar material in Glass but to greater effect. "The Glass Essay" interlaces the experiences of the persona, who is recovering from a failed love affair, with the life and writings of Emily Bronte. A series of images, Nudes #1- #13, are invoked as a way of expressing experience, dreamt figures in surreal landscapes -

Nude #3. Woman with a single great thorn implanted in her
She grips it in both hands

endeavouring to wrench it out.
This device recurs in Autobiography of Red where Geryon's captioned photographs form his autobiography in which he "set down all inside things/ particularly his own heroism/ and early death much to the despair of the community". As a child, Geryon frequently feels alienated by language and is shown expressing himself by sculpture and then, as an adolescent who has "recently relinquished speech", by photography. In the aftermath of the failed relationship with Herakles he takes the following -
...The photograph is titled" If He Sleep He Shall Do Well."
It shows a fly floating in a pail of water -
drowned but with a strange agitation of light around the wings.
The Geryon of Greek myth is variously described as winged, six-handed, with three heads and trunks. Carson has kept the wings but discarded the three headed aspect, making it plain that Geryon is a monster whilst investigating concepts of monstrosity and difference. In the original accounts he is also the strongest man alive and red, of course, like the land he inhabits and the cattle which Herakles has come to take, without demand or payment, on the orders of the king. It's in the course of stealing them that Geryon is killed and the myth clearly offers a paradigm of invasion and colonisation, as well as the possibilities of connection between landscape and identity, none of which figure in the Autobiography. Robert Graves points out further resonances in his analysis of Herakles' victory as the replacement of one alphabet by another.

This is picked up in Carson's text in Geryon's use of images as a means of expression whereas Herakles is identified with song and sound. He is critical of Geryon's approach to photography - " a photograph is just a bunch of light hitting a plate" - but for Geryon a photograph is a means of comprehending time, "a way of playing with perceptual relationships" and of expressing the verbally inexpressible.

The opening section, Red meat, focuses on the significance of the adjective - "They are the latches of being." - and, as the title suggests, the text is an exploration of particularity. Carson notes "there are several different ways to be" and allies herself with Stesichorus in a concern for "inner" things as opposed to the heroic vision of Homer (references to blindness and seeing are frequent). The difficulty is that, in individualising Geryon, Carson often lapses into a sentimental version of myth.


Geryon,  Athenian Acropolis, ca. 550 BCE


Athenian Acropolis
ca. 550 BCE


This process begins with the fragments which preface the main section. These are short poems sited in the world of Greek myth. The two-headed guard-dog belonging to Geryon's herdsman becomes a "little red dog" who is Geryon's pet. Geryon himself is no longer the strongest man alive but a monster who is also a little boy - "Are there many little boys who think they are a/ Monster? But in my case I am right said Geryon". Pathos is a rare commodity in Greek myth but this is the aspect Carson foregrounds - "It was murder And torn to see the cattle lay/ All these darlings said Geryon And now me".

A similiar poignancy pervades the autobiography or romance, as it is termed. This is located in a contemporary frame which only acquires a specific geographical location towards the end when the narrative takes Geryon to Argentina and Peru. The fragments of myth that underwrite the main text  give a sense of fatality to the account of Geryon's childhood, his shyness and sensitivity, his sense of difference, his extreme attachment to his mother, his awkwardness with words and his autobiography of images, his fixation with the "inner" - "he thought about the difference/ between outside and inside./ Inside is mine". "All your designs are about captivity" says Herakles, and this theme is further developed in the constant references to volcanos which the narrative links with Herakles (an association present in the Greek material) and with Geryon's sense of himself "the skin of the soul/ is a miracle of mutual pressures./ Millions of kg. of force pounding up from earth's core on the inside to meet/ the cold air of the world and stop".

A literal volcano in Peru will also be the site of Geryon's attaining a resolution, epiphany seems too strong a word though one senses the text straining for just such an effect - "And now time is rushing towards them/ where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces,/ night at their back."


Geryon depicted on a vase, Harvard 1972.42, Attic black figure amphora, c. 550-530 B.C.

Harvard 1972.42, Attic black figure amphora, c. 550-530 B.C. Side A: Geryon. Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of Harvard University Art Museums.


And this is the real problem with the text. Carson begins by quoting Gertrude Stein - "I like the feeling of words doing/ as they want to do and as they have to do." but all too often the words in Autobiography of Red merely do what they have always done, falling into an orthodox syntax, using conventional tropes, making statements and descriptions rather than enacting, and all in the context of a standard narrative progression from pain and disillusionment to self-knowledge and acceptance. Carson even employs the tactic of introducing a minor character simply to have a conversation with the protagonist about thematic matters, an unconvincing use of narrative and repeated three times. One is tempted to say this is not even good prose, let alone good poetry. Yet Carson can be witty and inventive, cf. Appendix C, where she investigates Helen's blinding of Stesichorus in a series of propositions that juxtapose the Trojan material with a modern police state -

If we stay to see how Helen reacts either we will find ourselves pleasantly surprised by her dialectical abilities or we will be taken downtown by the police for questioning.
She is also capable of a terse lyricism - "Steps off a scraped March sky and sinks/ Up into the blind Atlantic morning" . These framing sections are the strongest, a multilayered and exploratory poetry enacting a sense of possibility. Unfortunately, they create expectations the over-long romance fails to satisfy.


Works used:
Carson, Anne - Glass and God, Jonathan Cape 1998
Graves, Robert - The Greek Myths Vol. 2, Penguin Books 1955
Kirk, G.S. - The Nature of Greek Myths, Penguin 1974

You can read a poem by Geraldine McKenzie in this issue of Jacket,
and two poems in Jacket # 9.

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