Red Doc> by Anne Carson
There’s an Anne Carson story winding through Anne Carson’s life. The poet’s older brother—a misfit boy, misunderstood—flees the law, leaving his teenage sister alone with their parents. Years pass and the sister grows up haunted by her ghost sibling, she pursuing avenues of scholarship while he hoboes across Europe with an assumed name and an occasional spouse. At home the family waits and waits, longing for contact, but for decades the brother rarely phones or writes. First the father then the mother pass away, the brother unaware. When the brother dies overseas, he leaves behind little record of his existence.
Throughout this time, Carson studied classical languages and Greek Literature, sifting relics and translating words from far away, learning to tell entire stories with nothing more to go on than a painting on an urn or a few fragments of text.
Carson’s brother was still alive in 1998 when she published her breakthrough novel-in-verse, the earthy and wondrous Autobiography Of Red. Sharp-eyed and fiercely compassionate, the book traces the maturation and young manhood of a misunderstood, misfit boy: Geryon, named for the winged red monster with a human face Heracles slays during his Tenth Labor. In Carson’s modern recreation, Geryon grows up as a red-hued, bookish outcast, but his striking wings and pigmentation remain largely unremarked upon by mother, brother, lover: On a continuum of belief, the appendages may be read as metaphorical expressions of Geryon’s ‘other-ness’ or as literal tools for flight or as something in the mythic in-between.
In Autobiography Of Red, Geryon does indeed encounter his Herakles—a magnetic, Neal Cassady-type hustler who has the power to slay him again and again. With profound wit and arresting sorrow, Red Doc> continues the story of this inextricable pair—hero and monster, vanquisher and vanquished, lover and loved. In this version, Geryon lives an isolated existence as “G” and libertine-turned-soldier Herakles has just served a tour of duty in the Middle-East, coming back a shell-shocked shell of his former self:
the smell of diesel or rain in May you ever see
their orders were to mow the children ”
With nowhere else to go Herakles returns to G, the once-valiant warrior rechristened “Sad But Great.”
—Anne Carson, Plainwater (1995).
In the original Greek myth, Heracles shoots the monster Geryon through the forehead with a venomous arrow. Then he kills Geryon’s dog. In Autobiography Of Red, Herakles pierces Geryon in a more devastating organ.
“To seduce also means ‘to destroy’ in Greek,” Roberto Calasso writes in The Marriage Of Cadmus And Harmony, a work focused on repetitions in myth and the manner in which mythic characters transcend chronology, geography, even identity. Contradicting such historical boundaries is, in fact, a mark of the mythic.
Red Doc> serves as neither a proper sequel to Autobiography Of Red nor as a historically consistent continuation. The established characters provide immediate name recognition and backstory, but though aligned, the books don’t always line up. Just as one need not read The Iliad to understand The Odyssey, it isn’t necessary to cycle back and first read Autobiography Of Red (though—purely as a lifestyle decision—reading the book would be a very good idea).
“It is easier to tell a story of how people wound one another than of what binds them together,” Carson wrote in Plainwater, a book of essays and poems she published several years before telling the story of a winged boy torn apart by his lover’s wanderlust. What binds two individuals? How does one man living a separate life across the ocean continue to exert a hold upon those left at home? How does a man G barely recognizes remain so intertwined with his very existence?
Like the earlier exploits of Geryon and Herakles, Carson launches G and Sad But Great on a twisted picaresque, indulging her exquisite eye for natural detail and allowing her characters to define themselves as people do: By interacting with change in their environment.
G and Sad But Great night-drive north through “wind-battered towns,” explore the deep chills and faults of a massive glacier, detour at an idiosyncratic psychiatric hospital, and pick up assorted strays no less damaged and strange than they.
Not only have their names changed but the bond between G and Sad But Great is no longer actively sexual:
“One night under the overpass
they’d got the sex whiff
again. Made a few
fumbles. Not enough
juice for the squeeze as
Sad so neatly put it.”
What holds these two together? Quite simply, narrative: the story of what came before and of branches yet to come. Names and dynamics may change, but what endures is the story of a lost, misunderstood boy and the one with the power to destroy him.
poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose
is a house poetry a man in flames running
quite fast through it”
—Anne Carson, Red Doc>
Carson’s poetry doesn’t race like a man with his head or any other part of his anatomy on fire. Instead, she frames precise, photographic images and constructs lines and breaks in order to decelerate rather than expedite. She composed Autobiography Of Red primarily of alternating lines, long then short, allowing a narrative rhythm of thought/response and action/consequence:
“Even when they were lovers
he had never known what Herakles was thinking. Once in a while he would say,
Penny for your thoughts!
and it always turned out to be some odd thing like a bumper sticker or a dish
he’d eaten in a Chinese restaurant years ago.”
Perhaps because she no longer needs to establish her doctoral bona-fides, or perhaps because distancing devices don’t help when telling the story of what binds people together, Carson in Red Doc> dispenses with the Hellenic chicanery and academic slapstick she used to bookend Autobiography Of Red. Instead, Red Doc> dives in directly, progressing in three primary forms: rapid-fire conversation with changes in speaker demarcated by forward slashes; short, centered free verse that functions as a chorus; and then the bulk of the text rendered in elegant, columnar form, each line typically containing no more than five or six syllables:
“Sullen sky pads
soak out whitely. Day and
night alike. Temperature
dropping. Car skidding on
its chains. They pass
cliffs with white shocks of
waterfall down them and
swallows soaring in and
out of holes in the rock ”
Though non-linear and brushed with the magical, the absurd and the surreal, Red Doc> always remains grounded in basic patterns of narrative. If for a brief moment readers find themselves lost, they need only flip a page back or forward. The firm comfort of story will be waiting.
Sometimes the remarkable presents itself in an unexpected form. A boy with wings. A novel in verse. Hybrid texts like Red Doc> need to establish their own internal logic—ask of it, doubt it, test it. If that logic proves sound, those works have the capacity to teach readers as they read, producing a synergy that intensifies and multiplies the effects of exploration and escape.
Carson pushed formal ingenuity to an extreme with the strange and amazing Nox, an elegy to her lost brother stitched from scraps of correspondence, old family photographs and exhaustive linguistic deconstructions. The entire text of Nox comes in an accordion foldout, the unbroken pages contained in a lovely lidded box, to be fetishized as an object or to catch dust on a shelf, finished and done with either way.
In Red Doc>, the verse form frees Carson to seamlessly shift from G’s discontent to Sad But Great’s crippling PTSD without becoming soaked in melancholy or overkill. Exploring the ways inhumanity can be countered by the bizarre, Carson offers repeated allusions to eccentric, Stalin-era surrealist Daniil Kharms, who died of exposure in the psych ward of a Leningrad prison. The sturdy columns of text bolster Red Doc> as Carson swings through a variety of techniques that refract the madness of war, from the systemic absurdism of Catch-22 to the post-modern flights of Gravity’s Rainbow to the dead-bang temporal concussions of The Things They Carried.
As the text teaches the reader to inhabit it, form lets Carson cut to the quick:
“what do you do / talk /
does that help him / one
test for this question /
what test / did he cap
himself yesterday /
no / did he cap himself
today / no / so talk helps”
—Anne Carson, The Paris Review, Fall 2004, “The Art Of Poetry No. 88.”
Throughout her writing Carson returns again and again to old photographs and distant mountain ranges, to laborious steps of long journeys and images of terminal infirmity. Snapshots, horizons and the way of all flesh, linked with poetry, learning and no small amount of humor. This last point bears repeating: Carson is funny—Lorrie Moore funny, Grace Paley funny—and Red Doc> courses with a wit shot through with intelligence and humility.
Brilliant individuality comes alive in Carson’s connections and juxtapositions, but she sees bumping into the world as neither a random nor a solitary process. People are largely bound by common points of return: Births and celebrations, death and taxes. In Nox, Carson elaborates on a German phrase, das Unumgängliche, which she defines as “that which cannot be got round. That which cannot be avoided or seen to the back of.”
Old friends new friends sex drugs shrinks natural disasters—no one thing can bring G and Sad But Great to the backside of the traumas they’ve endured. Instead, once they cover enough territory, the journey inevitably leads back where it began—to a dying parent with a “voice thin enough to see through”:
“now the little mother
in the bed is gazing hard at
him. How are you really?
she says. Bad he says.
Do you have help? she
says. Some he says. Get
better help she says ”
Narrative doesn’t have the dimension to overtake loss, but it can provide an angle on aftermaths, on forming new branches, making new connections. Narrative opens a way toward reconciliation with that which does not fit and that which cannot be understood.
“It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it,” Carson wrote in Nox, in between returns to the story of a misunderstood, misfit boy and one with the power to reanimate him.
Nathan Huffstutter lives and writes in San Diego. His work has recently appeared in The Literary Review, The Classical, and The Iowa Review Online.