Avoid Having a Self: On Anne Carson’s “Wrong Norma”

By Rowland BagnallFebruary 7, 2024

Avoid Having a Self: On Anne Carson’s “Wrong Norma”

Wrong Norma by Anne Carson

IN 2002, ANNE CARSON published If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, a version of the ancient poet’s writings translated from papyrus scraps on which the original texts (or what is left of them) have survived. Carson’s translations are marked by her use of square brackets, indicating missing language, emphasizing the poems’ many absences and interruptions. The brackets are an invitation to fill in the silence, to speculate on what is missing, offering a sense that Sappho’s writing—at least as we have access to it—is as much about what isn’t there as what, astonishingly, is. “I love that space. It’s the reason I like to deal with fragments,” says Carson to Will Aitken for The Paris Review in 2004, “Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you.”

Marking her first collection of new material since 2016, Wrong Norma reveals Carson’s continued interest in these spaces, gaps in the record. “Eddy,” one of several dislocated narratives following a woman with an interest in forensic science (another practice dealing in fragments, scraps, and missing pieces), includes a brief story in which Virginia Woolf gets bitten by her neighbors’ dog. Woolf “rallied the locals who rallied the local magistrate,” relays the woman, “who said destroy the dog.” “So how’d it turn out?” asks Eddy. I don’t know, she replies, “VW cuts the anecdote off right there.” In response, “Eddy makes a hmmm sound, goes back to work. / But the dog! The dog! She wants to say,” a crack in the narrative, forever unresolved.

“Throughout her fiction Virginia Woolf likes to finger the border between nothing and something,” writes Carson in Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005), a border she herself seems consciously to occupy. Wrong Norma all but ends with “Todtnauberg,” a sequence of collaged texts and images, hand-drawn by Carson, meditating on a meeting between the philosopher Martin Heidegger and Holocaust-surviving Jewish poet Paul Celan. The sequence begins with an ink sketch of a rocky outcrop, studded with trees, resembling the landscape of a Japanese woodblock print. Above is a textbox, “The Story So Far”:

Heidegger was a committed Nazi from 1933 until who knows when. He avoided speaking publicly about this. In 1966 Celan gave a reading at Freiburg University. Heidegger sat in the front row. Next day Celan visited Heidegger at his mountain hut on Todtnauberg and wrote an inscription in the guestbook. What else passed between them is unknown. After returning from the mountain Celan wrote a poem called “Todtnauberg” about the day. In 1970 he killed himself.

What follows is an eerie, almost childlike retelling of the episode, a sparse series of sketches and cutouts engulfed in white space. Carson’s drawings are gestural (stick lines, crayon scrawls), accompanied by minimal ribbons of text, leaving most things unsaid, “the suggestion of a thought,” with room for details, counterthoughts, imaginings, alternative interpretations.


Those familiar with Carson’s work will recognize Wrong Norma’s sprawling variety, “a collection of writings about different things,” notes Carson on the rear cover, “like Joseph Conrad, Guantánamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my Dad, Saturday night.” As with her previous collection, Float (2016), a gathering of 22 chapbooks cradled in a Perspex box, “whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various” (so “[r]eading can be freefall,” Carson adds), the contents of Wrong Norma represent the diverse strains of Carson’s writing. Where the chapbooks of Float, encouraged by their freefall nature and material properties (some thicker than others, printed in different shades of blue, but obviously 22 parts of a whole), discovered unlikely connections and associations across different projects, the 25 texts presented here are more difficult to string together. “The pieces are not linked,” affirms Carson, “That’s why I’ve called them ‘wrong.’”

Nevertheless, Wrong Norma rings true with Carson’s trademark collisions and signature style. “The Visitors” sees her thread together H.D.’s psychoanalytic work with Sigmund Freud and the development of Roget’s Thesaurus (1805) with the films of Éric Rohmer, jostling for space within an anecdote about the unexpected arrival of a group of unnamed Icelanders, turning up out of the blue: “Did I invite them? I don’t think so.” “Dear Krito” presents an epistolary prose poem in the voice of Socrates, written from his death row cell. Elsewhere, Carson’s titles are enough to indicate their braided subjects, as in her “Short Talk on Homer and John Ashbery,” a moving elegy to the late poet, or “Fate, Federal Court, Moon,” a meditation on the semantics of “fate” and a powerful indictment of judicial bias in North America.

As usual, Carson’s thematic range is matched by her ambitious, if occasionally eccentric, formal experimentation; Wrong Norma includes texts that (superficially, at least) behave like classical translations, lectures, essays, prose poems, scraps for stage, passages of literary criticism, short stories, narratives, and what seem like reflections from Carson’s own life (although “taking Carson at her word is a complex business,” notes Elizabeth Sarah Coles in her 2023 study, Anne Carson: The Glass Essayist). Throughout her career, critics have struggled to categorize Carson’s writing. Her famous Short Talks sequence, which first appeared in 1992, was extracted by Susan Sontag for The Best American Essays that year and later repurposed by Ben Marcus for The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004). While she is best known (and most marketed) as a poet, it is notable that Wrong Norma’s opening gambit, “1 = 1,” first found a home in The New Yorker as a work of fiction.

Carson’s rejection of conventional writing categories has earned her some critics. “How many genres can you mix before your inventiveness waters itself down?” asks Michael Lista. “Is there a limit to pretending there is no limit?” Carson seems both bored and confused to still be answering questions about her use of form. “Sometimes I feel I spend my whole life rewriting the same page,” she writes in Float. “It is a page with ‘Essay on Translation’ written at the top and then quite a few paragraphs of good strong prose.” She admits to Peter Streckfus: “I’m not sure I’m going to find the form I want. I don’t believe it exists.” Rather than spend time deliberating, Carson instead seems happy to expose our need to pin her writing down in the first place. It is as though she prompts these questions deliberately—What genre does this text fall into? What is its form? What type or kind of book is this?—in order to respond with several questions of her own: What does it matter? Why do you care? A page devoted to Carson’s bibliography on Wikipedia bypasses this discussion too, dividing her work into three no-nonsense categories: Writings, Translations, and Contributions. In the words of Coles, “More than asking what a form is in Carson, we might do better to ask where it comes from, how it responds to a given set of ‘facts,’ how and whom it addresses, what or where are its destinies.”


“I am interested in people who cut through things,” reads a passage from Float, “Cracks, cuts, breaks, gashes, splittings, slicings, rips, tears, conical intersects, disruptions, etymologies.” With its many pairings and connections, Carson’s work acts like a cross-section, showing the complex interconnectedness of different geological strata, slicing through layers of fragile earth, revealing buried roots and fossils, graves and tar pits, time capsules, treasure. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the poet-classicist, there is an archaeological quality to Carson’s writing, admiring whatever comes up from the ground, like the “many gold bracelets and […] painted toys, / and silver cups” that surface in her Sappho fragments.

If the texts in Wrong Norma lack apparent thematic or formal cohesion, they share in Carson’s highly associative style, a process of sifting through experience, history, fragments, thoughts, digging through their endless layers, unearthing relatedness, connecting one thing with the next. “In a good story, Aristotle tells us, everything that happens is pushed by something else,” reads an introductory note to Short Talks, a gentle pushing aside of phenomena that shapes the studied waywardness of Carson’s writing. (“Was there anything in the world,” wonders Ralph Fawcett in Jean Stafford’s 1947 novel The Mountain Lion, “that did not make you think of something else?”) What emerges from Wrong Norma is the mesmerizing working of a mind in process, of Anne Carson, a kosmos, to borrow the infinite self-stylings of Walt Whitman. More acutely, Wrong Norma accesses a set of questions about selfhood, how it changes and develops, how it responds to and affects the world in which it finds itself.

Carson has often seemed reluctant to assert herself (her “Self”) too prominently. “I don’t know how autobiographical I am,” she says to John D’Agata in an early interview, “That’s a big space, the ‘I.’” Indeed, her recent publications have run a strikingly minimal biographical note—“Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living”—as though she were insisting on a gap or absence in her own life, open to interpretations. Wrong Norma goes a step further, featuring no note at all, although (as with her tomb-like 2009 publication, Nox, an elegy for her older brother) her spectral presence is apparent in facsimile reproductions of handwritten scraps and annotations, dividing each text. “Carson gives the impression—on the page, at readings—of someone from another world,” writes Sam Anderson for The New York Times, “either extraterrestrial or ancient, for whom our modern earthly categories are too artificial and simplistic to contain anything like the real truth she is determined to communicate.”

With Wrong Norma, Carson seems almost interested to do away with the Self entirely, inhabiting a number of unlikely personas, from Joseph Conrad and the ancient Greek general Alkibiades to the time-defying sky itself (see “Lecture on the History of Skywriting”). Opening the collection, “1 = 1” reflects upon the weightlessness of swimming. “You have no personhood there,” suggests Carson’s speaker: “The irrational bowels, luck at cards, love of your mother, well-crafted similes, all are lost in the slide from depth to depth, pure, impure, compassionless.” This lack of “personhood” provides a clue, perhaps, to the “Norma” of this publication’s title. While she alludes to the Hollywood actress Norma Desmond in the book’s final paragraph, it’s hard not to be drawn to Carson’s recent Norma Jeane Baker of Troy (2019), a theatrical production responding to Euripides’s Helen, which considers an alternative history for Helen of Troy: Euripides imagines that the true Helen was spirited to Egypt during the events of the Trojan War, the gods instead sending a phantom replica (an eidolon) to Troy, the “Wrong” Helen, played, in Carson’s text, by Marilyn Monroe, the eidolon of Norma Jeane Baker.

If these doublings sound confusing, this may well be the point, revealing Carson’s interest in the shakiness of “true” identity. Asked by Aitken about her use of different forms, Carson’s answer is telling: “I would say it’s more like a way to avoid having a self by moving from one definition of it to another. To avoid being captured in one persona by doing a lot of different things.” At one point in Wrong Norma, as if by way of explanation, Carson quotes from Jean-Paul Sartre: “I am always making myself up as I go along.”


At best, in Carson’s writing, the Self seems something beyond our control, molded and shaped by the world it encounters, endlessly responding to objects and people, artworks and animals, thoughts and ideas. Speaking to D’Agata, Carson expresses skepticism towards writing overly concerned with “self-circling,” what she terms “[a] form of therapy […] a way of writing without having to have any facts.” “[I]n order to just concentrate on yourself,” she continues, “you really have to do a lot of ignoring of the world.” As Rachel Cusk’s narrator puts it in her novel Transit (2016), “For a long time, […] I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there.” “Passengers,” begins the final paragraph of “1 = 1”: “To pass. To pass muster. To pass over. To be passed over. To pass the buck. To pass the butter. To pass out. To pass to one’s reward.”

The reward of Carson’s selflessness, I think, is a suggestion that the real world—what’s truly there—may ultimately show itself. Speaking to Deborah Treisman in a recent edition of The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, Teju Cole suggests that Carson’s “1 = 1” amounts to an imperative. “There’s something in the world that says ‘Pay Attention,’” he states, “and your role is to show up and pay attention.” In Decreation, Carson describes the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil as “a person who wanted to get herself out of the way so as to arrive at God.” As Weil puts it herself, later quoted by Carson: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there.”

Anne Carson is our great writer of speculation, a word whose etymologies include not only “close observation” and “rapt attention” but also “to pursue truth by conjecture or thinking.” “I write to find out what I think about something,” she suggests to Aitken, an idea she touches on in Short Talks, also: “Surely the world is full of simple truths that can be obtained by asking clear questions and noting the answers.” In this, Wrong Norma proves Carson, again, to be a writer who sees things in ways others don’t, or maybe can’t. As Charles Darwin writes in a letter of 1857, “I am a firm believer, that without speculation there is no good & original observation,” a belief Anne Carson renders true.

LARB Contributor

Rowland Bagnall is a writer and poet based in Oxford, United Kingdom. His debut collection, A Few Interiors, was published by Carcanet Press in 2019; his second book is due in 2024. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared widely: a selection can be found at rowlandbagnall.com.


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