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Verglas: Narrative Technique in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”
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Anne carson publishedGlass, Irony, and God in 1995, and although the collection was not showered with prizes like some of her later books its opening poem, “The Glass Essay,” has come to define Carson’s narrative technique. The place of “The Glass Essay” in the Canadian canon seems secure, having been republished in such standard anthologies as Gary Geddes’s 15 Canadian Poets X 3 (2001) and Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology (2001). The poem’s international reputation is also growing, having been singled out for praise by the American classicist Guy Davenport in his introduction to Glass, Irony, and God (ix), as well as opening an Anglo-American collection of women’s writing, Wild Workshop (1997). The “Hero” section of the “The Glass Essay” has even made its way into the 2006 version of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (2864–67). Yet “Carson’s genre-averse approach to writing” creates a good deal of confusion for critics because it “mixes poetry with essay, literary criticism, and other forms of prose, and her style is at once quirky, inventive, and erudite” (Kuiper). Many critics worry that her writing “fails as poetry, simply because it shows either crashing inability or an unbecoming contempt for the medium” (2), as Richard Potts says of Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband (2001). Several Canadian critics share Potts’s objections (Solway, Heer) and compound them by wondering how to situate Carson’s poetry within the context of Canadian literature when her writing features few explicitly Canadian settings, characters, or homages to Canadian artists. I addressed some of these concerns in From Cohen to Carson: The Poet’s Novel in Canada (2008) by demonstrating how Carson’s Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998) might be situated within a Canadian tradition of poet-novelists, whereas American critics have countered accusations of “chopped prose” in Carson’s writing by positioning it as the exemplary case of a hybrid and increasingly prominent genre, the “lyric essay” (D’Agata and Tall; see also Carson, “Woman” 32). In this article, I will explicate Carson’s narrative technique in her signature poem by demonstrating how Carson employs the logic of the lyric essay to produce an extended, bilingual pun on the multiple senses of the English “glass” (transparent material, magnifying lens, mirror) and the French glace (ice, mirror).1 Furthermore, I will measure Carson’s achievement of combining the paratactic qualities of the modernist lyric (in which the poem leaps from one topic to another without transitional matter) with the hypotactic logic of the essay (in which the essay develops an argument using classical techniques of rhetorical persuasion) by reading “The Glass Essay” through a distinctly Canadian compound term, verglas, which can be translated literally from the French as “glass-ice” and is akin to the English terms “silver thaw” and “black ice.”

However, it is easier to begin the analysis of Carson’s bilingual puns by demonstrating how the other half of Carson’s title plays on the differing senses of the English essay and the French essai. Critics frequently observe that Carson’s poems use the term in the French sense: “An essay, etymologically, is an ‘attempt,’ a ‘test’ or ‘trial’ ” (Stanton 36). John D’Agata pursues this line of thinking in an interview with Carson, and he attempts to situate her essays between the autobiographical explorations of Montaigne and the public concerns of Cicero (Carson, “Talk” 20). Although many critics align Carson’s writing with the “open-ended” musings of Montaigne (Carson, “Gifts” 17), in the D’Agata interview Carson prefers to think of herself as an heir to Cicero, who maintains an urbane interest in rhetorical form, hypotaxis (hence her frequent use of a scholarly introduction to frame her narrative poems), and what Carson calls, in nearly every interview, “the facts.” Yet Carson’s work clearly moves between these two poles, counterbalancing raw confessional verse with academic enquiry into cases analogous to the speaker’s emotional state, which gives the speaker a better perspective on his or her own condition. Indeed, Carson entrenches her connection to Cicero by telling D’Agata, “when I’m writing, usually I mush around...

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