Cuts, Breaks, Rips: On Disruptive Poetics

Anne Carson, Float

Jonathan Cape, 226pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781910702574

reviewed by Ralf Webb

Anne Carson begins her ‘novel in verse’ Autobiography of Red (1998) with an essay on the ancient poet of the Greek west, Stesichorus. She remarks that Stesichorus’ poem the Geryoneis – which tells of the mythical monster Geryon’s elimination by the hero Herakles, a narrative that Carson contemporises and subverts in Autobiography – today only remains as sparse textual fragments. These fragments, Carson writes, ‘read as if Stesichorus had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box... The fragment numbers tell you roughly how the pieces fell out. You can of course keep shaking the box’. Carson concludes this essay, and so immediately introduces Autobiography, with this imperative: ‘Here. Shake’, almost suggesting the reader rip the text into fragments and rearrange them nonlinearly. Carson developed this idea of textual innovation with Nox (2009), a facsimile of a scrapbook created to commemorate the loss of her brother. As an object, Nox is one sheet of paper, pleated like an accordion, folded into a box: to read the text, one has to ‘unravel’ it. With her latest collection Float, Carson has married the object-innovation of Nox with that earlier imperative to ‘shake’: Float is a collection of 22 print pamphlets, unbound, contained in a clear perspex box, ‘whose order is unfixed’ – the cover copy declares – and ‘whose topics are various’. The pamphlets are nonlinear, fragmented. The reader is told that ‘Reading can be freefall’.

Float’s pamphlets constitute essays, lectures, transcriptions of performance pieces, and poetry (translated and original). The text is scattered with references to characters from ancient Greek myth, philosophers, writers, and artists: from Cassandra, Helen, and Zeus to Husserl, Hegel, and Proust. The inclusion of such a medley of references is by now a familiar aspect of Carson’s work. While some critics have claimed that these references constitute a type of dry intellectual erudition – most aggressively Adam Kirsch, who was so agitated by Carson’s ‘learning’, that he wrote that it exudes ‘sterility’ ultimately ‘injurious to poetry’ – others have provided a more fruitful, less allergic, analysis of this technique. In a recent essay on Carson’s poetry and postmodernism, Michael S. Roth noted that Carson’s ‘own capacity to connect disparate figures . . . across cultures and centuries opens these figures up to new possibilities of understanding.’ Certainly, such new possibilities are borne out in Float.

In the short poems of ‘Zeusbits’, for example, Carson casts the mythical Greek character in a series of contemporary sketches which range from the absurd (‘Zeus Sends to 2 Million Households an Envelope [White] Containing Another Envelope [Red] Containing a List of 9 Photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe . . .’) to the deeply affecting, as in ‘Zeus Visits the Death Camp’. In the case of the latter, Carson depicts Zeus – king of the gods of Mount Olympus – in deference to a mortal tour guide’s knowledge of the death camp’s traumatic history. Elsewhere, in the pamphlet ‘Variations On The Right To Remain Silent’ – an essay which investigates translation and cliché – Carson concludes with an ‘exercise in untranslating’, which she refers to as ‘a catastrophizing of translating’. This exercise consists of taking a fragment of poetry by Ibykos – an ancient Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BC – and retranslating it several times using ‘the wrong words’. Words are taken from Donne’s ‘Woman’s Constancy’, Beckett’s End Game, Brecht’s FBI file and from the owner’s manual of Carson’s ‘new Emerson 1000w microwave oven’. This act of catastrophizing – the blending of famous canonical work and writers with bizarre and quotidian text – defaces canonical hierarchies. And, simultaneously, it interrogates the perceived authority held by the translator by transforming the act of translating into something motley, farcical, and peculiarly democratic.

Carson’s displacing/replacing of disparate figures is closely related to her interest, as she writes in the pamphlet-lecture ‘Cassandra Float Can’, in ‘Cracks, cuts, breaks, gashes, splittings, slicings, / rips, tears, conical intersects, disruptions’. Carson is interested in ‘people who cut through things’, and such people are consistently foregrounded throughout Float. ‘Cassandra Float Can’ begins with a description of Cassandra, a character in ancient Greek myth with the gift of prophesy: ‘Who is Cassandra? For a dime she will tell you / that the swimming pool is full of blood. Like spacetime, she is nonlinear, nonnarrative’. Later in the same pamphlet, Carson turns to the ‘anarchitecture’ of Gordon Matta-Clark, a New York artist who ‘liked to cut things, usually big things’ – houses, office blocks, piers. Matta-Clark ‘spoke of “liberating” the compressed force of a building simply by making a hole.’ In ‘Variations On The Right to Remain Silent’ Carson discusses Joan of Arc, and the guidance she received ‘from a source she called “voices”’. During Joan of Arc’s trial, Carson writes that ‘the judges . . . insisted on knowing the story of the voices. They wanted her to name, embody, and describe them in a way they could understand . . . in a conventional narrative that could be subject to conventional disproof . . . [but] for her, the voices had no story.’ Similarly, in the prose-poem pamphlet ‘Merry Christmas From Hegel’ – a first-person vignette about a speaker on Christmas day ‘wretchedly lonely with all [their] family dead’ – Carson writes that Hegel claimed ‘conventional grammar, with its clumsy dichotomy of subject and verb, was in conflict with what he called “speculation”. . . The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit” was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay Reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation.’ All of these figures cut, break, and disrupt forms that are conventional and authoritative: monolithic physical structures, narrative, the very laws of language.

If there is a manifesto behind Carson’s interest in foregrounding and creating such disruptions, it might be found in the following line from Derrida, taken from Positions (1972), which she quotes in the introduction to her collection of translated Sappho fragments, If Not, Winter (2003): ‘Breaks are always, and fatally, reinscribed in an old cloth that must continually, interminably, be undone’. For Derrida and deconstruction, the ‘old cloth’ is the text as it operates to produce meaning through and beneath the authority of logocentric discourse. The ‘breakages’ are revelations of elements within the text that run counter to its intended sense and apparent structural unity. They thus demonstrate the text’s instability of meaning, and so trouble the authority under which the text operates. Carson’s poetic project in Float, and her body of work more generally, is not strictly deconstructionist – such a rigid ascription might inaccurately reduce her poetry to a critical gesture, and detract from or disregard its many instances of deeply affecting lyricism. Nevertheless, Derrida’s quote can be applied as metaphor to her acts of poetic disruption. Textual convention – an ‘old cloth’ – possesses or seeks to assert a type of authority (which is often repressive, as when Joan of Arc’s judges sought to force her adherence to conventional narrative and so delegitimise her testimony). By continually inscribing breakages into that convention through formal and thematic innovation, the text can be liberated from such authority, and new sites of meaning and possibilities of understanding created. As Carson writes of Matta-Clark’s cuts, he made them ‘Not so much to create beauty as to get information’. In Float, Carson’s own formal innovations, her displacement and reconnection of disparate figures across centuries and cultures, and her foregrounding of those figures who ‘cut through things’ all work in tandem to emphasise the rejection of narrative linearity, cohesive wholes, and, ultimately, textual convention.

Generally speaking, contemporary poetry criticism and publishing in the UK operates under a largely conservative rubric, privileging the convention of the bound, cohesive book. But this rubric often stands ready to claim that unconventional poetry is not ‘poetry’ at all – or, as with Kirsch’s ‘sterility’ charge, damaging to ‘poetry’ – particularly when written by poets from historically marginalised groups (Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, for instance, was roundly praised by critics, but frequently disenfranchised from the category of ‘poetry’). As a disruption of this rubric, Carson’s Float is an immensely valuable, progressive and culturally significant work.

Ralf Webb co-edits the Swimmers pamphlet and event series and is poetry editor at Ambit.