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Red Doc>, by Anne Carson

Red Doc>, by Anne Carson. (Knopf, 2013)

There is a story that swims in and out of focus in Anne Carson’s long-form poem “Red Doc>” – a story we believe is the loosest of sequels to her “Autobiography of Red” largely because she tells us that’s what it is. I suppose it is a common expectation that a reviewer summarize the plot of an epic poem. In sidestepping that task, I am waving the white flag at the prospect of presenting first “Autobiography of Red,” an incredibly impressionist retelling of the secondary Greek myth of Herakles and Geryon, before proceeding to “Red Doc>,” in which those characters are warped further, in some cases nearly beyond recognition, and carry on in a story that is by Carson’s own assertion past the end of their myth.

In territory like this, a few things become clear: Whatever the antecedent for these works, it fades quickly away. The job of the reader is not to chart the course of “Red Doc>” from beginning to end, but rather to hold on for dear life. And it takes a master like Anne Carson to write poems that seem to shut the reader out, and yet compel the reader to keep climbing over the wall in hopes of being accepted inside. I will say this: after over a hundred pages of kaleidoscopic characters, dialogues, actions, and reflections, it is both a relief and a devastation to arrive in a comparatively lucid place with G (Geryon) and his mother, and the effects of those final pages lingered with me long after I finished.

“Red Doc>” foregrounds its severe structural choices: a title assigned by Carson’s word processor’s automatic file name-generation algorithm. Thin vertical ribbons of justified type whose thicker left and right margins serve as a visual reminder of the way the words in between amount to only a sliver of the world and the lives to which they point. A complete absence of the comma, that most human, most fallible punctuation mark. Dialogues sheared off with slashes rather than quotations and he-said, she-said.

I am struck by the way the writing in “Red Doc>” gives the impression of being almost irresponsibly arbitrary and yet as well-worn, as organically placed as river rocks. At least after the first reading, I would say the story is as much a device as the typesetting choices. All is in service of an experiment in the porosity of language – the unexpected moments when language stops being the customary barrier between one interior life and another, and bits of unfiltered life actually pass through intact to scare us, harm us, and jolt our hearts out of the rote exercise of beating. The fact that many of those unfiltered moments deal in grief, mortality, and chaos makes this experience all the more wrenching.

There is a fair share of conventionally poetic writing here. As one character ponders how musk oxen (one of whom happens to be a mythologically transmogrified character) might regard humans, Carson writes of animals,

Do they experience the entire cold sorrow acre of human history as one undifferentiated lunatic jabberwocking back and forth from belligerence to tender care?

But most of the work of this book is done with incredibly utilitarian words, phrases, and sentences. The sublime does not emerge from linguistic fireworks but basic speech, which, after all, is the currency of the real world and real life.

At various points in “Red Doc>,” Anne Carson makes formalist observations on the nature of writing itself. In one of those, she writes,

prose is a house poetry a man in flames running quite fast through it.

That’s a striking image, but neither half of the metaphor really characterizes the writing in “Red Doc>.” If I elaborated on Carson’s metaphor to find a place for her, I might liken her to one who wanders through the darkened house, lighting her way with a series of matches she discards without making sure they have gone completely out.

I have a sense of Anne Carson as a writer too fiercely independent, too resolute to care whether her readers follow her or not. As “Autobiography of Red” did, “Red Doc>” gives the impression of an intensely personal story, verging on a language all its own, that the reader discovers and then handles carefully, respectfully, finding it fulsome even as it eludes him, and hoping it will continue to reveal itself over time.