Online Edition: Fall 2005

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Decreation

Poetry, Essays, Opera

Anne Carson

Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)

by Courtney Queeney

Anne Carson’s genius and weakness reside in her work’s incredible range of form and conception. Decreation contains (among others) lyrics, essays, a screenplay, and an opera. The proliferation of forms is central to the project, and the risks she takes make her poems startle and delight. Even the least realized piece in Decreation is more original—and necessary—than the best poems put out by many of her contemporaries.

The volume is propelled by Carson’s flood subjects, knowledge and desire, and reaches after the elusive. “Sleepchains” begins by enacting a rupture:

Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.

This syntax of loss erases the speaking subject completely in “Beckett’s Theory of Comedy,” which ends,

No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Tomorrow noon?
Going up the path, no sign of you.

“Gnosticisms” contains more of the short and gorgeous, including an efficient and comical summary of an affair:

I said! you said! oh the body,
no listen, unpinning itself, slam of car door,
snow. Far, far, far, far.

But the lyric is just one kind of Carson poem. “Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin” lists clauses of (unfinished) conditional sentences such as “If Miroslav warned us that experimental animals should not be too intelligent.” In “Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices,” the best parts read right out of Godot, with the voices avoiding the twin pitfalls of didacticism and sentimentality by virtue of their hilaritas.

My gun gives me the right.
I veto your gun.
Your veto is unreasonable.
Your reason is a mystery.
Your mystery is way of lying.
This concept is no longer in use.

Carson’s at her best when she pits knowledge against emotion within form that intensifies content, but occasionally, the poems bog down in concept. Consider Scene I of “H&A: A Screenplay”:

Abelard:                     I made Heloise stand up.
Heloise sits down.
                                      I made Heloise sit down.
Heloise stands up.

And so on. The dialogue, too, is one-dimensional: “Why do you fight? / To fight. / If it’s a reward you want— / No.” A screenplay, a stark verbal scaffolding, that can be made compelling in the third dimension, here falls flat on the page.

More suited to Carson’s intellect and interests are essays, which form discursive counterpoints to the terse, fractured lyrics. “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil tell God” is the collection’s centerpiece, plumbing issues of gender, history and the self. “Decreation” is Weil’s term for her desire to “undo the creature in us.” Carson realizes this desire as a paradox, in that, “I cannot go towards God…without bringing myself along.” She sees the paradox as further complicated by each woman’s role as a writer, because “To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.”

The risks these women took threatened the established political, religious and patriarchal orders of their respective times; Anne Carson’s attraction to poetic risks—though occasionally not completely successful—makes her similarly dangerous to the comfortable contemporary poetry scene.

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