- Estranged Pain: Anne Carson’s Red Doc>
“You Burn Me”
Among the Anne Carson books on my shelf are a few that are mementos of a bad romance. They had belonged to the lover who’d introduced me to Carson’s work and still bear her marks: a passionate dedication, carefully scripted annotations, studious underlining. Such entanglements between poetry and life, between the eros of bodies and the eros of words, are elemental to Anne Carson’s work, and for her, such entanglements always limn a void—lack pangful with longing, grief, lost lives surviving in tatters and hearsay.
Like her contemporary and best point of comparison, Charles Bernstein (born, as was she, in 1950), Carson has made her subject loss. Yet although Carson and Bernstein share this subject, as well as an experimental aesthetic, a pop sensibility, a Socratic persona, and a complicated relationship with the academy, the two poets differ markedly in how their work makes connections around that loss, both socially and poetically. Bernstein is unabashedly political and polemical, while Carson explores the quotidian sorrows of familial and romantic relationships; Bernstein follows Louis Zukofsky [End Page 202] in pushing lyric toward pure sound, while Carson returns lyric to its roots in narratives of desire.
Carson’s subject is loss, but her topos is love. All of her best and most important works are love stories: the elegiac Nox; the tragic romances of “The Glass Essay,” The Beauty of the Husband, and Autobiography of Red; and the more scholarly intrigues of Eros the Bittersweet. Her most recent book, Red Doc>, is also a tale of love and loss, although this time Carson does something different: a new energy inhabits her work, capricious and stochastic. In order to appreciate the difference this makes, we must return to Carson’s earliest story of pain and desire.
“As Long as You Want”
When Eros the Bittersweet was published in 1986, Carson was a professor of classics at Princeton, having arrived there in 1980 from the University of Calgary. At Calgary she published two academic articles under her married name, Giacomelli, one on Sappho and one on the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.1 These are dense, rigorous examples of classical philology, much like the dissertation she wrote at the University of Toronto, Odi et Amo Ergo Sum, which (in the words of her abstract)
breathlessly claims to disclose what the ancient Greeks mean by eros. It asks how they come to sacralize this conception as the redoubtable boy with the melting eyes, Eros. That divinity, Eros, largely the creation of the lyric poets of the archaic age, provides a locus for the Greeks’ first meditations upon the entity which we call the self. That experience, eros, has a particular character within the meditations of these poets. Sappho labels it: glukupikros [bittersweet]. No one who has been in love disputes her. What does she mean?(n. pag.)2 [End Page 203]
Even the encumbrances of the genre are unable to squelch Carson’s flashes of eccentric brilliance or her insatiable intellectual promiscuity. Witness, for instance, her lengthy and provocative appendix exploring neurophysiological links between literacy and self-consciousness (301–50). And as in all of Carson’s best writing, there is throughout a sense that the stakes are deeply personal.
The book that dissertation became, Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay, is not a conventional scholarly work, though it was published by an academic press and reviewed in classical studies journals. In thirty-four short chapters, Carson plays out the dialectics of erotic desire through literary-critical considerations of Sappho’s lyrics, the Greek novel, and Plato’s Phaedrus. She holds that desire’s constitutive lack brings into relief the boundaries or edges between things or persons, and that desire’s action is an imaginative projection of similitude across these boundaries—which in the end only heightens the sense of difference and lack. Hence where she begins, with Sappho’s glukupikros:
Eros once again limb-loosener whirls mesweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.3
Carson is not concerned only with bodily eros, however. She...