Oyster Boy Review 14  
  Winter 2001
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Anne Carson's Economy of the Unlost & Men in the Off Hours

Jeffery Beam

In two recent works poet and classicist Anne Carson continues her tender assault on the American mind. Extending essay into poetry, and poetry into philosophical and linguistic experiment, Carson's work seeks the hidden with willful, guerrilla-like, and joyous abandonment without sacrificing sense or sensibility. She makes remarkable and graspable the difficult, while celebrating simple truths with aplomb. Reflection is her mother lode and re-positing her aim. She makes new the boring. She winnows beauty from language.

In the Economy of the Unlost, in hand with the ancient Greek poet Simonides and the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan, Carson ponders loss, economy, the unseen, and the unspoken through negativity, death, alienation, despair, heartbreak, self-definition, and retrieval. In its epilogue she reflects: "Yet a few pages ago we read and made sense of Celan's admonition, 'Keep Yes and No unsplit.' A word for 'Yes and No' might be useful. Poets keep coming up with these useful inventions; we have seen both Celan and Simonides constructing a word for 'Yes and No' out of the operations of the negative, out of the absent presence of gods in human rooms, out of alchemy, out of memory, out of the rules for elegiac meter and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, out of strangeness, hospitality, sleep, prayer, and commodity exchange. But to be useful, poetic invention has to measure itself against the words that are given and possible, has to tease itself out of the unknown through a language mesh where everything ugly, blameworthy, incommensurable or mad is filtered out." Carson's point: that the poet's ability to praise, at all cost, saves us, enlarges us, and teaches us to see beyond to a freedom of Being which is easily lost in the material world.

As a moral prophet, Carson yearns for a civilized society of energetic, emotive, and intellectually curious citizens. Her dissection of poetic and aesthetic thinking with all its fascinating and challenging twists and turns of phrase, its witticisms, and awkward glances at the human, serves a larger purpose—acts, itself, as a metaphor for self-knowledge. As Simonides and Celan respond to the world's absences and losses, Carson interrogates their work and gives form, defines the forms, of emptiness, in which they lived and wrote. Fascinated by the "bottomless places for reading" she finds in the literature of negation, excision, emptiness, and denial, "economy" becomes in her hands a multi-layered term which tells us not only abut the exchange of money for art; but also suffering for wisdom; and emptiness and negation for assertion and fullness. For her Simonides and Celan "make use of the void in order to think the full."

Anne Carson questions how poorly the world compensates for literature. It's not money she wants, but rather proof—that the world show by active response that literature does not exist in a vacuum. She exclaims, "Where can we go for news of truth? To words. The poet's words remain. His words hold gold. In words he knows how to clear away everything ugly, blameworthy, incommensurable or mad and manifest what is worth praise."

Men in the Off Hours rises up from Carson's determined poetics to challenge the reader to regard Time as simultaneous. Men begins obsessed by Time and ends as an elegy to her mother who died while she was writing it. Loss permeates these pages as in her lucidly sharp reworking of Catullus: "As tree shapes from mist / Her young death / Loose / In you." ("If Anything to the Silent Grave") She brings Thucydides and Virginia Woolf together in the book's opening essay to reflect on war's horrible normalcy and time's soldierly attack on the living. She plays Edward Hopper paintings reconstructed as poems against quotations from St. Augustine's Confessions.

In the sequence "TV Men" she imagines a film-set where the lives of characters such as Antonin Artaud and Tolstoy are dissected with post-modernist inquisitiveness. The poems meld psychological detritus with visual beauty as in this scene between Tolstoy and his wife: "In sex (he told her) the mind evaporates and suddenly / the body is there, / just the body with its reaches. / He was more or less repulsive to himself, / the little satin parts especially. // Her alone at a midnight table in the zala, leaning over the manuscript with her shortsighted eyes, shadow of her bent arm huge on the wall." ("TV Men: Tolstoy")

Not even in painting has Lazarus' life-stunned burial and resurrection been so ultimately revealed as in "TV Men: Lazarus." The Director of Photography's confession of unease and the irresistible "pull to handle horrors," culminate in script descriptions in which Lazarus is "shifted forward into solidity—although he pulls against it and groans to turn away." Before the agonizing ascent, the images of his decay ("his bones are moving like a mist in him") convey in equally empathetic metaphors the horrors of death: "I put tiny microphones all over the ground / to pick up / the magic / of the vermin in his ten fingers." Despite such descriptions, Death seems more desirable than "the second fact of his humanity" which begins "as his soul congeals on his back in chrysolite drops." The suffering of the world seems imminently more distressing. And yet the gentle love of Jesus' call and the remembrance of sisters Mary and Martha ("like a salt rubbed whole into raw surface") finally pushes out "Martha!" as "a bluish cry that passes at once to the soul." Later, as the painter Giotto commemorates Lazarus' rising "stained with ordinary death / a white grub tottering," God sends "the whole heat of His love of Man across the wall / in a glance." This is poetry of the highest order.

Antigone and Akmatova also succumb to such delirious treatment, and the sequence leads finally to a conversation between Thucydides and Woolf on the "Set of 'The Peloponnesian War.'" Men in the Off Hours proves poetry can be abstracted and actual at once, carrying us beyond irony to startling, almost painful, beauty. Not since Plath has language been so carved and delicate at once.

Carson's newest book, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, awaits me at my desk. I dread and savor the anticipation. If you are at all interested in the absent presence of God in human rooms, then Carson is the writer for you.