Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Anne Carson for Seattle Arts & Lectures

Two takes on Carson & Friends’ performance Tuesday, May 13 at Town Hall by Jack Chelgren & Cali Kopzcick. Two takes because how many eyeballs did you wish you had that night?


The Maximalist: Anne Carson at Seattle Arts & Lectures

by Jack Chelgren, Special Projects Intern

During the Q&A after Anne Carson’s performance at Seattle Arts & Lectures last week, someone in the crowd asked Carson if she’d ever considered translating the New Testament. Carson cooed wistfully, thought for a moment, then replied, “No—the New Testament’s too minimalist for me.” A warm chuckle rose from the crowd, filling the dim, vaulted ceiling of Town Hall. But for all the ironical self-parody of her answer, it’s conceivable that Carson wasn’t really joking. She is an artist and intellectual whose work consistently shatters our rote expectations of poetry, smashing divisions of ancient and modern, lyric and academic, fictional and historical, personal and mythical with the zeal of Hektor chopping down the Achaian ranks in Homer’s Iliad.

A quick glance over Carson’s greatest hits reveals the scope and dynamism of her work. “The Glass Essay” weds a post-confessional breakup narrative with a critical reading of the life and work of Emily Brontë. Autobiography of Red (Knopf 1998), a novel in verse cum translation of Stesichorus cum homage to Gertrude Stein, weaves the story of the Ancient Greek monster Geryon into the bildungsroman of a modern-day five-year-old. The Beauty of the Husband (Knopf 2001) maps an exploration of Keats’s famous “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” onto the story of a foundering marriage, and communicates this medley of aesthetics and failed love in twenty-nine poetic tangoes.

Carson’s performance at SAL was characteristically ambitious, featuring a cast of five local poets (Rachel Kessler, Sierra Nelson, Katharine Ogle, Ed Skoog, and Kary Wayson), two musicians (Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney), and Carson’s partner Robert Currie. The crowd whooped like tweens at a One Direction concert as the collaborators shuffled onstage, dour and dispassionate as a funeral procession. Carson, looking like Marianne Moore in a colonial suit and red tie, dismissed the applause with a few brusque waves of her hand.

First up were “Uncle Harry” and “Falling,” a pair of “lyric lectures” delivered by a lecturer and “a chorus of four Gertrude Steins.” Carson played the lecturer for “Uncle Harry,” while Nelson, Kang, Kessler, and Currie took on the Stein chorus, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at four microphones like reporters in a press box. Punctuated by fragmented, singsongy interjections from the chorus (“No noise, no potato!”), Carson marched out a flatly declarative account of memories of her great uncle Harry. The poem see-sawed between crystalline recollections of family life and frayed syntactic freeplay, the rebellious offspring of Stein’s The Making of Americans and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Throughout the piece, Ogle and Wayson stood at the back of the stage, shaking out and folding a basket’s worth of large, pastel-colored blankets. This sheet-flapping provided a literal and a metaphorical background to the poem, lending an air of chore-like drudgery to Carson’s task of sifting through and scrutinizing childhood memories. Yet it also suggested a distinctly cathartic quality in the poem—that mining the depths of family trauma could be the emotional equivalent of airing out linens. Skoog took over the part of lecturer for the second poem, “Falling,” which probed the multiple significances and implications of the titular motion, from the symmetrical falls of birth (when, according to Homer, one falls from between the legs of one’s mother) and death to the descent of a soldier’s helmet knocked from his head. In one of the most memorable lines of evening, Skoog-qua-Carson reflected that he had never had a meaningful conversation with his father, who located himself so far from language, Skoog noted, it was as if he wore silence as a helmet.

The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of “By Chance, the Cycladic People,” a poem of facts about the early Bronze Age inhabitants of Cyclades, recited in random order and set to original music by Kang and Kenney. Currie sat off to the side of the stage, reading off numbers at irregular intervals to cue Carson on which facts to read. The resulting poem abounded with strange confluences of music, verse, and silence, as well as delightful, frequently comic non-sequiturs, as when “Not sleeping well made their legs fall off” was followed swiftly by “So began the dinner party.” Many of the facts had a vaguely aphoristic quality (“To play a stringless harp requires only the thumbs”), while others troubled the historical and factual bent of the poem by muddling the classical and the modern (“The Cycladic people were very fond of Proust”).

The Cycladic piece exemplified an interest that hovered around all three works of the evening: that of parataxis—the linking together of disparate words, ideas, and phrases—and the question of how disparate these units may be for the association to succeed. How much continuity or linear logic do we require, the poems seemed to ask, for a piece to be effective, affecting, and memorable? Carson touched on this point explicitly in “Falling,” anticipating the criticism that her “lectures” are somehow scattered or incoherent. It is precisely the diversity and irreconcilability, the purposeful incoherence of subject matter, what the poet Charles Bernstein terms in his own work “dysraphism,” that Carson likes best about poetry—this “terribly perilous activity,” the lecturer informed us, “linking together fragments of human sin.” Rather than approaching a topic directly, Carson’s poems affirm their fragmentation, offering discrete, diversified components that orbit around a central impulse or concern like the pieces of a Calder mobile.

A handful of people got up and left early with looks of befuddlement playing across their faces. The crowd that stayed, however, was one of the largest, most attentive and enthusiastic I have seen at a poetry reading. The prevailing climate of awe and excitement was hardly surprising, for insofar as someone who breaks almost every brittle convention she comes across can be an institution in contemporary poetry, Anne Carson certainly is one. Discovering her work is like finding a new room in a house you’ve lived in for years—so strange and novel, and yet so natural that you’re stunned you haven’t known and dwelt in it all along. Her performance at SAL affirmed the qualities that make her a revelatory and inimitable force in contemporary literature: a supreme yet unassuming erudition; a perspicacious sense for penetrating, staggering turns of phrase; and a generous heart well versed in the myths, songs, and stories we sing to ourselves, the strains of love and hurt that course through the everyday, making us human.


Overhearing Anne Carson & Friends

by Cali Kopczick, Contributing Writer

The word of the night was dialogue. Anne Carson, a poet, translator, Classics scholar (etc.) made her Seattle Arts & Lectures reading on May 13th a thoroughly collaborative affair. The event double-billed Carson and her partner Robert Currie, but also welcomed musicians Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney, as well as local writers Rachel Kessler, Katharine Ogle, Sierra Nelson, Ed Skoog, and Kary Wayson. All of Carson’s friends had something to say during the night—even if they were silently billowing and folding sheets at the back of the stage. A rotating panel of four readers filled the Chorus of Gertrude Steins, sometimes arguing and sometimes speaking in tandem. The dialogue of people accompanied images and facts loosely arranged in a style that Carson referred to as the “lyric lecture.” After Carson read the first, “Uncle Harry,” she handed the podium over to Ed Skoog, who read “Falling.” The pieces were different—the first focused on Carson’s uncle, a deaf hay reaper, and the second essay circled around the problem of controlling trauma in the wake of any kind of fall. However, the Gertrude Steins (Carson being one of them for the second lecture) offered a guiding (if polyphonic) voice in their revision of endings:


In closing “Uncle Harry”:

GERTRUDE STEIN:  Can you repeat that?

GERTRUDE STEIN: No. This is the end.

GERTRUDE STEIN: There is no such end.


Later, during “Falling,” Skoog exclaims “I have such an end!” He goes on to quote (with the aid of the Gertrude Steins) an Aristotle passage about the Achilles sponge, which in the context of the piece is a devastating tie-together. Skoog concludes that, “Every lecture should end with Aristotle.”

After giving the audience a few moments to absorb “such an end,” violinist Eyvind Kang and singer Jessika Kenney joined Carson for “By Chance the Cycladic People,” a composition that puts Classics in conversation with John Cage. Carson had written numbered sentences about the ancient Cycladic civilization, known popularly for their featureless statues but less so for the invention of the handbag and the frying pan. Once Carson had solidified her text, Currie helped her randomize. Kang and Kenney composed the accompaniment, throwing in everything from silence to dissonant violin and machinelike growls. During the performance, Currie called the numbers for each new movement, sometimes before Carson had even finished reading the last one. The randomized rough edges between readers and sounds added texture and pace to the reading. Some of Carson’s lines, like the refrain 4.3: “Is it because you don’t want the impact?” were punched into place by escalating violin and notes that Kenney held for longer than I could believe. Other lines, like “Their eyes fell out” were given a solid chunk of silence afterwards.

When the final movement died away, Carson simply bowed to either side like the maestro she is and said “The end.” Of course, as evidenced by the last-minute call-and-response of her “Short Talks,” the post-lecture Q&A, and the Chorus of Gertrude Steins, once you open a dialogue like Carson does, there’s “no such end.”