Talk and Not Talk: Anne Carson’s Dialogue of Grief

Such realms of silence and suffering are where Anne Carson consistently resides.

By Gary HawkinsDecember 8, 2014

Talk and Not Talk: Anne Carson’s Dialogue of Grief

READING ANNE CARSON makes you want to hold your people close — immersing in the presence of a lover, staving off the mortality of a mother, or grieving over the loss of a brother. This may seem a surprising immediate response to a poet known to be “inscrutable,” as The New York Times recently termed Carson, or known by her famously dispassionate one-line biography: “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living.” Our reading of her ambitious and challenging work can easily follow those cues to favor its intellectual apparatus. Still, the complexities of some of Carson’s latest forms play with our presumptions of how far our head may take us if we attempt to follow only its direct lines of inquiry.

The parallel texts in Nay Rather (Sylph Editions, The Cahiers Series, 2013) include, on the verso, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” an essay on silence “in the practice and study of translation”; and, on the recto, “By Chance the Cycladic People,” a poem about Cycladic culture created with randomized lines. These topics and structures leave us searching for intentionalities that may mostly reflect our desire to make connections, particularly our tendency to link figure and ground into event and then knit events into narrative. Carson recognizes this as a legitimate habit, “since humans are creatures who crave story,” and she further claims that as a classicist “I was trained to strive for exactness and to believe that rigorous knowledge of the world without any residue is possible for us.” Still, she’ll admit: “This residue, which does not exist — just to think of it refreshes me.” What as a classicist she can’t allow — that residual unknown — her work as a poet belies. Carson, like Joan of Arc and the painter Francis Bacon, both of whom she considers in Nay Rather, holds her genius in her ability to create refreshing “catastrophe,” deforming and reforming her subjects and structures to refuse the easy story (the cliché “we resort to […] because it’s easier than trying to make up something new”). She affords us entries into pasts and presents that prove her generosity, even when she leads us into devastation.

In the first half of The Albertine Workout (New Directions Poetry Pamphlets, 2014), Carson’s enumerations on Proust and his narrator’s captive beloved, Albertine, mimic an exhaustive mode. Then the accompanying randomly numbered appendices explore not only slavery and capture but also nuns and kimonos, metaphor and metonymy (Carson even admits at one point, “Sorry this appendix got away from me.”), until we confirm that Carson’s concerns lie at the limits of knowing. For Carson, these limits are most present where we are closest to one another. As much as the narrator’s “intense and assiduous questioning” aims to possess Albertine by knowing her, in tracing this endeavor, Carson proposes: “Knowledge of other people is unendurable.” We can’t hold to it. It may be for the narrator that “the truth about Albertine is that close,” despite all of her bluffing, but to learn everything of and about her would collapse his desire for her. Perhaps “le bluff” is the common intercourse of our relationships, too, whether due to our intentional deflections or our necessarily limited language. Then the ambivalent reading Carson gives Proust will be our own truth. Here, propelled by desire, “love reaches into past and future and fantasy”; and yet “its suffering consists in positing to those realms all that the bluff conceals.” Such realms of silence and suffering are where Anne Carson consistently resides.

These are the subjects of her most recent full-length book, Red Doc> (Knopf, 2013). Here, Carson has returned to the story of Herakles (the strongman/demigod who is barely slowed by the seemingly impossible Twelve Labors he is assigned) and Geryon (the red, winged shepherd whom Herakles defeats as one of the Labors in order to steal his oxen), a story Carson first retold in Autobiography of Red (Knopf, 1998), casting Geryon as a red, winged adolescent and Herakles as his bad-boy friend and boyfriend. While here Carson confirms what we know from Joseph Campbell, that the ancient heroic outlines still have contemporary staying power, throughout her work she inhabits the close interiors of human connection and loss, spaces of talk and silence that were never the concern of the tragic poets but are, in her hands, great solace to us.

With their clear references to the myth and their book-length scope, we might be inclined to approach these books as contemporary heroic tales, and so we’d take the broad perspective of an ancient Greek audience in the day-lit amphitheater of Dionysus, apprehending the outlines of a tragedy like Euripides’ Herakles from afar. Carson, who has herself translated Euripides in Grief Lessons (New York Review of Books, 2006), and also translated numerous other Greek plays, reminds us that from this perspective “you can read the plot of a play off the sequence of postures assumed by its characters.” A play becomes a series of “tableaus,” each telegraphing a specific pose, from prostrate supplication to upright championship to flattened death. Each of these Geryon-Herakles books holds us with an agile and inventive plot that moves its characters through a progression of revealing tableaus. We could follow Geryon as young antihero under the sway of Herakles through a coming-of-age trajectory in Autobiography of Red: a flattened exchange between a mother and an adolescent “monster” at the kitchen table; that red boy on an nighttime adventure with his new tough boyfriend, standing high and triumphant on an overpass above “blowing headlights like the sea”; much later, his sliding off of Herakles’ bed and slinking out the exit alone into “the debris of the hotel garden” where he is laid flat by a punch from Herakles’ jealous new boyfriend; and, finally, Geryon taking flight into a volcano with his camera. Or, in Red Doc>, we could follow Geryon (now just “G”) as a young man reconnecting with Herakles (just out of the army and traumatized, now named “Sad But Good” or “SBG” or just “Sad”) through a trajectory of reconciliation and rescue: a more level exchange at the kitchen table between G and his mother, who is aging, still smoking, and maybe becoming bored with him; G and Sad reunited on a road trip north, driving under cliffs and through ice to stumble upon a PTSD clinic built high on a glacial lake; an escape back down the mountain — and G taking heroic flight; back in the lowlands, G, Sad, and their small band ringing the mother’s hospital room and propping her up in bed. Moving through these books, we cross the range of human dilemmas (much like in tragedies), which Carson gives extraordinary recourse, reminding us that these characters (as ourselves) are both gods and monsters, capable of creating both incredible intimacy and devastating separation — and also reminding us that some separations are beyond us.

As dramatic works, Carson’s poems follow arcs that are more what Brecht would call non-Aristotelian than strictly tragic. That is, their epic progression — which takes the contemporary epic form of a road trip for portions of both books — leaves us uncertain where we will end up as we move into each scene, passing through mundane and exotic, naturalistic and fantastic along the way. The perspective of the epic, as Brecht would have it, unfolds at the material scale of the “flesh and blood” human, and in Carson’s work we recognize our own uncertain, epic lives in which one minute we’re sitting at the kitchen table and the next, at the whim of our crazy, human hearts, we’re driving toward an active volcano. Still, as epics, Carson’s poems seem increasingly to want to throw us off the trail of any clean trajectory. Autobiography of Red includes stops in Hades (Herakles’ hometown), the nearby volcano, an Argentinian tango bar, a South American Harrods, and another volcano in the Andes. Red Doc> moves across an even more varied and fantastic geography: G tending his oxen herd (including an ox named Io) under the overpass, the road trip north in the ice storm, G descending into an ice fault, ice bats (a species of Carson’s own invention) rescuing him to Batcatraz, a stop at a service station to fix a broken drive shaft, the trauma clinic, its laundry room, a play by the prophet 4NO performed by the clinic patients (à la Marat/Sade), Io flying (or falling), G flying, a hospital, rain. Yes, in this madcap array we can easily lose sight of the through-line of plot, but when coincidence seems to supersede cause and effect we are again reminded that we may not even have gods to back us up. Which leaves us to ourselves, and our friends along for the ride.

In this way, Carson’s orientation in these books may be as much novelistic as dramatic. Autobiography of Red itself carries the subtitle, “A Novel in Verse,” and a novel (in verse or otherwise) we know provides a forum for rich involvement in the complex web of human relationships as well as the motivations and errors within them. Carson shows us that poets, too, know how to orchestrate point of view, and in these two books she’ll finesse a consistently close third person on Geryon in Autobiography of Red and then create Red Doc> with a broad omniscience that moves easily into the point of view of most all of her characters, ultimately orchestrating a world in which there are no gods or hierarchies. As part of the editorial framework (both scholarly and surely fictionalized) that Carson places around the chapter-strophes of Autobiography of Red, she cites the post-Homeric poet Stesichorus (c. 640–555 BCE) as the one who initially adopted the minor point of view of Geryon rather than the heroic point of view of Herakles. Continuing this perspective, Carson brings to life a lesser character, while also humanizing the mythic hero, bringing Herakles down to size (for instance, one of his Labors is to paint his grandmother’s house). Then, in Red Doc> Geryon and Herakles (now G and Sad) are joined by an array of characters, among them G’s mother, a new friend Ida, Lieutenant M’hek (a member of the “warrior transition team of Sergeant Sad,” a “nonpsychotropic” support team for veterans), and 4NO (prophet and clinic resident who “knew Sad in the army”) — and the book swells with all their dialogue. Carson uses the book’s chapter-poems to mark shifts of point of view between the characters while also deploying the novelist’s trope of free indirect discourse to bring us the voice of each character even if he isn’t speaking. Here, too, a remnant conceit of classical drama, the chorus, contributes both to the omniscience and the swell of voices. These “Wife of Brain” choral interludes summarize action or tell us where we are going, but they also move the judgment of a narrator out into the open field of character where the book overall can become the ruddy mess of cross- and back-talk among all the assembled humanity.

There is a lot of talk of all sorts in these books: from novelistic scene to choral speeches to dramatic monologues to characters talking to themselves. While most of the dialogue in Autobiography of Red is tagged according to the conventions of fiction, there are some moments when the tags fall away and the who’s who of a scene blurs, as in this exchange between Geryon and an academic named Lazer he meets at the Bar Guerra Civil during his trip to Argentina:

How old is your daughter? asked Geryon. Four — not quite human. Or perhaps
a little beyond human. It is
because of her I began to notice moments of death. Children make you see distances.
What do you mean “distances”?

While it’s possible to trace the exchange back to the first tag in order to determine that the last line belongs to Geryon, Carson ups the challenge in Red Doc>. She indicates speeches with only forward slashes (“/”), while the dialogue rolls across very short lines, as in this opening scene in which G and his mother are recalling G’s old friend and flame, Herakles:

GOODLOOKING BOY wasn’t he / yes / blond /
                                                        yes / I do vaguely
                                                        / you never liked
                                                        him / bit of a
                                                        rebel / so you
                                                        said / he’s the
                                                        one wore lizard
                                                        pants and

pearls to graduation / which at the time you admired /

When whole chapters in the book are presented this way, absent gesture or setting, Carson draws our attention not to the individual actors but to the whole of the conversation and how it unites all participants. Her narrator later says as much: “Some / conversations are not / about what they’re about.” In this instance, G has been overhearing a tryst between Sad and Ida in the laundry room, measuring himself against what he imagines, and then he meets them emerging into the corridor. Sad turns away to “organize my life,” and Ida slides down to the floor beside G, where the two of them talk. They don’t talk about what has just happened, of course, but their floor-level talk here fulfills Carson’s assurance that “the word conversation means ‘turn together.’” Conversation — in particular dialogue between two — makes human connection. It’s our fundamental mode, even if each particular relationship is, of course, irreducible. Yes, the body is present in these books — in particular in the way we inhabit space in relations to others around us — but not nearly so much as talk and conversation. Even here at the moment of a tryst, the conversation afterward is more intimate.

This brings to mind an early moment in Red Doc> when G, having learned of his lover’s return after many years, recalls his first heartbroken departure from Sad (a scene which is not included in Autobiography of Red but would have occurred within that timeframe). There is again minimal gesture and setting, and the dialogue of the two is only barely tagged:

shock the boy the man he
knows him. Knew. […]
[…] Hands and no
place for hands last
morning later you realize
that was our last. Take my.
Fuck. Tiled floor a suitcase
standing bleeding no thank
you yes. No. Yes. Thin
red tracking no. Yes. Your
nose is he says. Take my
white skin yes take it my
astonishing morning it’s
fine. Bleeding he says.
The other. Last. No. Yes.
No. Take it. My
handkerchief. Fine. What
if he does. Your taxi is
here. Who says this. […]

G’s internal question of “who says this?” is exactly our question. The abutted exchange between these two has become one whole in G’s memory, and while the contents of the scene show separation, the impact of the form draws the two participants together. Although this contrast doesn’t offer healing for G so much as emphasize the loss.

There are other places we might see dialogue in the fabric of relationship, even in the figure of Herakles. That is, Carson leads us back to the realm of myth where Herakles, the man of body, action, and emotion, isn’t one for talk. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he’ll assert to Achelous, the river-god he scuffles with:

My brawn is better than my tongue. You win
in speech, but I can beat you with my blows. (Book IX, 288)

Carson’s Herakles is also like this, while Geryon operates via words and reason. Euripides’ play Herakles itself reinforces this dichotomy in its first pages. Herakles’ father cheerleads for his son (whom he hopes will reclaim the throne of Thebes as soon as he returns from his Labors) in a speech for which the chorus offers critical praise: “Slow start, good speech.” In response, Lykos, the usurper of Thebes, asserts his brawn: “Tower of words. / I will use actions.” Meanwhile, Megara, the wife of Herakles, laments the one-sided conversation she has just had with Lykos, who intends to kill her and her children lest the boys be “reared up as avengers.” In Megara’s view, it’s only “with men of culture / you can negotiate, they have a sense of shame!” The sense of shame, which comes from an awareness and a consideration for the broader human theater — for the human connections we call “culture” — is prerequisite for (or possibly the composition of) negotiation, dialogue, and conversation. When Herakles arrives and learns what Lycos has done (killed Megara’s father and brothers) and what he plans to do (offer Megara and her children the option of killing themselves), he steps forward characteristically toward action: “It’s time for me to change things!” Yet just prior to this charge, Herakles and Megara have had their first conversation since his departure years ago. Their homecoming exchange involves a back and forth of Herakles’ questions followed by Megara’s short answers about what has happened during the patriarch’s absence. The topics of this exchange are clearly skewed toward Herakles’ purviews of action and emotion, but within it, in part via the formalized Q&A, Euripides recreates their relationship around dialogue.

Dialogue is a means of connection, and its breakdown causes pain. We’ll also see this in the connected dramas by different playwrights that Carson has translated and united as An Oresteia (including Agamemnon by Aeschelus, Elektra by Sophocles, and Orestes by Euripides: Faber and Faber, 2009). In Agamemnon, Kassandra’s prophecies emerge in riddles that none can understand. Or else we only hear her pained cries — “OTOTOI!” — vowels of anguish not words anyone in the play can respond to or act upon. In another breakdown of communication in Elektra, Chrysothemis and Elektra, sisters arguing about what they can do after their mother (Klytaimestra) has murdered their father (Agamemnon), speak across one another:

Elektra: Oh go away. You give no help.

Chrysothemis: You take no advice.

Later, actually leaving, Chrysothemis complains, “You don’t hear a single word I say” as the two break even their strained filial connection. In Orestes, the character of Phylades, who had been “Orestes’ silent friend” through all of Elektra, finally speaks to negotiate a final escape with Orestes. The two men build on each other’s thoughts to create a solid plan, while also uniting themselves and their aims, lifting themselves above Orestes’ seemingly impossible dilemma via this intertwined dialogue. Yes, it’s within that back and forth of talk that we create a web of relationships, and talk is also the frame that defines and validates the self. Through such talk, undertaken fully and in good faith, we become suspended in the lives of others and recognized as among them.

So, while Geryon’s very first encounter with Herakles at the bus depot is described visually — “there it was one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness” — their first connection is actually a negotiation, Geryon looking for change for a dollar and Herakles offering him “a quarter for free.” Accordingly, Autobiography of Red follows their tightening relationship via their conversations, their questions and answers, Geryon “pick[ing] his way carefully / toward the sex question,” but also Herakles’ demands: “Put your mouth on it Geryon please.” And this is also why, when Herakles breaks off their romance with his leading question — “Think you should be getting back?” — Carson describes the renting of the space between the two of them: “a red wall had sliced the air in half.” It’s fitting, then, that the most intimate moments of reunion for these two in Red Doc> are the conversations they have while driving, where their topics (nature documentaries, fishing, Spam) are incidental to their affinity and there closeness comes via talk. In fact, G finds a like closeness with his herd — and Carson can use this proxy to explore the function of talk:

He may talk to them listen
stand in the herd. Listen.
That community.

Yes, talk and listening create community. And G and Sad’s communications are countered when one of them is not heard. At one stop on their road trip, G heads to the pool. “Gone swimming he calls / back as the wind slams,” and the poem ends there, with no evidence Sad has heard him. Or, driving along a sublime coast, their car conversation likewise breaks down: “Stop if we see seals says G / but Sad appears not to / hear.” G faces a particularly tough case as he attempts to draw Sad into closeness and dialogue (Sad will say later to Ida, “I’m a man who doesn’t like being liked much”), and these failures accumulate as grief for G. Others have less personal motivation to get Sad to talk. “Talk helps,” says Lt. M’hek of the “warrior transition team” about the merits of talk therapy for the traumatized soldier, and further, bolder, he asserts: “how we / talk how we are allowed / to talk is // the most part of happy or / not.” And, too, any allowance for talk must also include an allowance for silence.

Silence permeates these books. The autobiography that young Geryon is creating evolves from a written manuscript to a collection of his photographs, and he believes “all photographs are silent,” although Herakles’ grandmother will challenge this tautology, saying, “of course but that tells you nothing. Question is / how they use it — given / the limits of the form.” Geryon — and Carson — use silence sometimes as refusal, sometimes as legitimate reply. The adolescent Geryon who has “recently relinquished speech” leaves his mother considering aloud, “maybe I’ll just keep talking / and if I say anything intelligent you can take a picture of it.” After the flurry of first encountering Herakles, Geryon “had nothing to say to anyone”; when Geryon wants to keep the “struggling” of his wings from Herakles, he’ll cut him off with “I need a little privacy”; and when Geryon surprisingly uncovers his wings to Ancash (Herakles’ new boyfriend), “all of a sudden the night was a ball of silence.” Autobiography of Red even ends with a series of chapters titled as “photographs,” including a final “photograph he never took,” which is a picture of a recording made (or never made) by Geryon flying into a volcano. Titled “The Only Secret People Keep,” this sound-photo is never rendered on the page.

The entire, lyric structure of Red Doc> leaves silence on every page. While the larger project remains novelistic, each untitled poem follows the custom of the contemporary lyric to capture segments even tighter than scene, layering moments, like snapshots, each from a different perspective. As we move from one segment to the next, we’re often left with things unsaid. So, dramatically, after a tight dialogue between Sad and Ida in a doctor’s waiting room begins to form their new, brief relationship, the next poem is, in its entirety:

They do not
talk more that day.

A silence of white space fills the rest of the page. In addition, Carson has formed most of the poems into narrow, justified columns, leaving each one with an emphasized silence of line breaks against their wide margins.

For all the pervasiveness of talk and of silence in the relationship of Geryon and Herakles (G and Sad), these elements really give us insight into the most pressing — and touching — relationship through both books: Geryon and his mother. As typical teenager and parent, their earlier conversations in Autobiography of Red are standoffs, and when Geryon returns on the local bus from Hades, heartbroken after Herakles has pushed him out and back home, they don’t immediately fall into tidy repartee. Instead, they address proxies — Geryon’s new T-shirt, the empty fruit bowl on the table — until this talk turns to laughter, and “then they sat quiet.” Fast forward to when Geryon is 22, living alone on the mainland, and preparing to depart for Argentina, when he gets a phone call from his mother. We hear only Geryon’s side of the conversation, his mother’s earnest questions of concern are reduced to ellipses. In the rest of Autobiography of Red (the last two-thirds of it), his mother never reappears, and the two of them never reconnect.

This dangling mother-son connection is repaired in the opening scene of Red Doc>. Here the two reconstitute — and even improve — their dialogue while recalling that “goodlooking boy” Sad But Good (née Herakles) in Carson’s new mode of forward slash–marked speech that cleaves together their dialectic. Still, this is no saccharine family tableau, and the status of their relationship is no perfect union:

[…] They
haven’t always talked
easily. He used to think it
would improve with age
but lately she seems ever
more bored by him. Than
usual. He watches her
face. Avoids detail. To
simply say what comes to
mind to simply float.
Sometimes this does

G, who once installed turbulence between them, now longs to float in that easy space of talk or no talk that defines closeness, that creates love. Red Doc> doesn’t say this outright, and it certainly doesn’t dwell on it. Sometimes this connection is made; sometimes it isn’t. Often, the book mourns its loss. The bulk of the book follows G, Sad, and their entourage on their epic adventures, absent G’s mother. So when, 130 pages later, G gets an urgent message (from a man in “a silver tuxedo” who seems to be Hermes) to “Call / this number it’s your / mother,” we’re transported back to their interrupted connection to realize what has been missing. Then, we find that his mother is in the hospital, and rather than floating beside her, G is left with this awkward and awful exchange:

[…] He arrived on
the day after her surgery.
Has seen this corridor at
all hours. Notices again a
hesitancy in the light as if
it were trying not to shock
you with how scant it is.
He can hear the oxygen
machine through the door.
It shunts on. Runs awhile.
Shunts off. He enters.

And then their heavy attachment appears as a three-line poem on the next page:

When he is there they
lift the stones together.
The stones are her lungs.

Then something startling if subtle occurs in the book. Yes, it is clear that through multiple poems we stay with the mother in the hospital until “she is released” in death, and then we move to her funeral (where “oxen stand quiet / under trees”). Yes, it is clear that in her last days and hours she is attended by the lot of them: G, Sad, Ida, 4NO. But here Carson lifts ambiguity into resonance. In one poem Carson holds close to a “he” whom we think, surely, is G, but turns out to be a grieving but distant 4NO (the rescued prophet and army buddy of Sad), who sees himself as “no fucking / use or comfort […]. Death to / be close to makes him / laugh” but who still takes a shift bedside. Then, after a brief grounding in an omniscient poem showing G, Sad, and Ida arrayed “awkwardly about / the bed,” Carson moves to another close “he” — who this time is Sad reminiscing closely with G’s mother about his own high school antics (lizard pants and pearls), though he finds “her voice thin / enough to see through.” Here, Sad shifts into his own memory of his own mother, remembering driving with her:

[…] All the car
windows open and their
hair rushing around. He
felt like a whole person
with her that day. Perhaps
it was the car — to sit
peacefully side by side
and talk or not talk and let
time go in and out the

Sad finds with his mother that same “float” that G sometimes did with his, and the parallel of the two descriptions of this ideal state underscores its centrality of dialogue in the book. Only then do we get the “he” we most expected, and here G knows too well the nature of his loss:

[…] And the
reason he cannot bear her
dying is not the loss of her
(which is the future) but
that dying puts the two of
them (now) into this
nakedness together that is
unforgivable. They do not
forgive it. He turns away.
This roaring air in his
arms. She is released.

In death we lose the prospect of any naked, buoyant interplay, of talk and even the choice not to talk. While the failures of conversation or of disconnection between living persons is painful, when G’s mother is finally gone, placed into the van that will carry her to the cemetery, “the / freedom stuns him.” The Wife of Brain chorus delivers one last litany that assures us that Carson means her kaleidoscope of points of view to bring forth all mothers —

Mothers at altitude
Mothers in solitude
Mothers as platitude
Mothers in spring

— and not just tell the tale of a red, winged boy and his mother alone.

Which moment of encompassing grief brings forth Anne Carson’s other astonishing work of late, Nox (New Directions 2010), the poet’s epitaph to her brother “in the form of a book.” In form, Nox reproduces Carson’s original artist’s book as a long accordion-fold of paper that interleaves her sequenced exploration of her brother’s life, her investigations of history and of elegy, her family photographs, her brother’s only letter home torn into fragments, and a Catullus elegy (#101) rendered as a series of Latin lexical entries. “We want other people to have a center, a history, an account that makes sense,” writes Carson, and Nox attempts that while at once showing us the elusiveness of any such attempt. Nox is Carson’s elegy for her brother, but in reconstructing his life and her grief she also draws us into her own mother’s grief for a son, the young man who leaves home for Europe, writes one letter, and then makes no contact for the last seven years of that mother’s life, leaving her only grief: “Eventually she began to say he was dead. How do you know? I said and she said When I pray for him nothing comes back.” Late in Nox there is a short entry that Carson has reformatted with narrow, justified margins remarkably like Red Doc> and repasted on the page. Though she has also rubbed it across with graphite, she cannot obscure this tuning fork:

There is no
possibility I can
think my way into
his muteness. God
wanted to make
nonesense of
itself. To rob its
juice, and I believe
God has succeeded.

Elsewhere in Nox, Carson has considered the work of the historian to be “a storydog […] collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide,” and she has pursued the linguist’s take on “mute” as “an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.” Our muteness in conversation — those times we pause too long or don’t respond or walk off — forecasts things unsaid. This opacity, reminiscent of the fundamental hiding — or bluffing — in all conversation, is much more huge in death. We keep looking for what the dead have hidden, again “positing to those realms all that the bluff conceals.” And yet, Carson has also invoked the philosopher’s term “overtakelessness” (Unumgängliche): “that which cannot be got round. Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of. And about which one collects facts — it remains beyond them.” That the philosophers have a name for this endlessness, which we face in every conversation and in every conversation lost irretrievably to death, may be some intellectual solace. But to think we could be satisfied with understanding the muteness of our lost ones is, in a word, nonsense. Carson brings us into the tight interpersonal spheres of talk that encircle a red-winged boy, his once and former lover demigod, his dying mother — and her own brother. When those spheres break and humanity is muted, it is neither heroic nor tragic but a devastation. For all of us.


Books considered in this review:

Carson, Anne. The Albertine Workout. New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #13. New York: New Directions, 2014.

Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Carson, Anne, Trans. Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006.

Carson, Anne. Nay Rather. The Cahiers Series. No. 21. Center for Writers & Translators, The American University of Paris. London: Sylph Editions, 2013.

Carson, Anne. Nox. New York, New Directions, 2010.

Carson, Anne, Trans.. An Oresteia. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc, 2009.

Carson, Anne. Red Doc>. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.


Gary Hawkins teaches writing and serves as associate dean at Warren Wilson College.

LARB Contributor

Gary Hawkins is a poet, teacher, and scholar, who grew up in the suburbs. His poetry, pedagogy, and criticism have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Teaching Creative Writing in Higher Education, Emily Dickinson Journal, and other venues. He teaches writing and serves as associate dean at Warren Wilson College; he sets type in the letterpress studio; and he thrills at having one of poetry's most enviable addresses in Black Mountain, North Carolina.


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