Short Talks by Anne Carson
Brick Books Classics, 2015; 75 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
“The surfaces of the world are aesthetically uneven,” critic Elaine Scarry writes in the essay, “On Beauty and Being Wrong.” Surfaces are what we see and sense of the world, whether animate or inanimate, sentient or unaware. Surfaces are what may be seen and sensed of us. Given that receptivity varies, and that observations are as subjective as they hope to be objective, what we notice about surfaces is uneven, too.
When Brick Books published Anne Carson’s first book of poems, Short Talks, in 1992, she was at the start of what has proven a long creative and scholarly engagement with languages, art, history and the human. This 2015 re-release of the book is expanded with an introduction by poet Margaret Christakos, and a brief afterword by Carson. As demonstrated in her later work, the voice here is preoccupied yet intimate, philosophical yet commanding. The speaker’s attention is selective, not discursive. Surfaces connect in a uniquely associative manner, the way a library collection becomes associative as one moves from stack to stack, from floor to floor.
As often occurs in Carson’s work, the book begins after a previous, initializing action. In “The Glass Essay,” for example, this catalyzing incident is the speaker’s abandonment by her lover. At the start of Short Talks, the speaker explains she now possesses three pieces of her original manuscript, the other fifty pieces taken by “men” who “Put them in a crate.” From the outset, a relationship is established between the speaker and a text, a text that has disappeared and a disappearance that engenders her response. The poems that follow are an attempt to record what she initially overlooked, but as René Char wrote in Hypnos, “Memory has no control over what we remember.” These re-created surfaces are theoretical, wondrous, dangerous, proceeding with a caution that may or may not last.
Not one to shy from the abstract, Carson cultivates her own type of unevenness, a distinct mix of hyper-attention and opacity, as in “Short Talk on Geisha”:
The important thing was,
someone to yearn for. Whether the quilt
was long, or the night was too long, or you
were given this place to sleep or that place
to sleep, someone to wait for until she is
coming along and the grass is stirring, a
tomato in her palm.
In places, the poem hurries by, refusing clarifying language as it fosters inexactitude: “thing,” “someone,” “that place,” and “coming along.” This rushing forward is interrupted by particular adjective, noun, pronoun, and verb choices, such as “important,” “quilt,” “she,” and “yearn.” A peculiar relationship evolves between the abstract and the concrete, between the named and the summated: while bodily perceptions and experiences (want, hunger, sleep, color) are suggested, the autonomous body remains a hazy premise. Coherence is achieved in part through craft. The poems in Short Talks are justified in columns, making form one method by which distances, abstractions, and temporal shifts are contained and organized. Repetition of word and sound is another means of connection, and also another kind of surface, aurally sensed but invisible, and outside of vibration, untouchable.
Throughout, figurative language is sparingly employed. Instead of image, there are many things in Short Talks, including birds, jewels, knees, bridges, gates, hats, and houses. In a recent conversation published in GRANTA, poet and editor Barbara Ras reflects on the objects occupying her poems:
“ . . . many things . . . do appear in my poems, but their presence is a by-product of other preoccupations and my perpetual tendency towards restlessness.” This subliminal restlessness of mind flows beneath the poems here, outwardly manifested as the poet leaps among not only objects, but subjects, from Seurat to Brigitte Bardot, from Ovid to autism, from the Brontë sisters to van Gogh.
Parts of the body (arm, head, palm, uterus) appear frequently, disconnected from a unifying body and functioning instead as evidence of the self’s physical presence in the world. Hands are folded behind a head (Dostoevsky’s). A palm holds a tomato. The river opens and shuts “its stone lips.” The poet’s choice of the word, fascicles, to describe the contents of the book reinforces a body-text connection. For while the term certainly brings to mind the work of Emily Dickinson (whose own work, upon her death, was found bound into forty fascicles), the word also refers to the organization of skeletal muscles, heart muscle fibers, and nerve fibers, all grouped into bundles. Often, as in “Short Talk on the Mona Lisa,” the body is implied, but not visible as a cohesive entity:
Every day he poured his question into her,
as you pour water from one vessel into an-
other, and it poured back. Don’t tell me he
was painting his mother, lust, etc. There
is a moment when the water is not in one
vessel nor in the other—what a thirst it was,
and he supposed that when the canvas be-
came completely empty he would stop. But
women are strong. She knew vessels, she
knew water, she knew mortal thirst.
Many words reference the body—“thirst,” “mortal,” “lust”—but the culminating focus here is on the mind behind those eyes and celebrated smile. The painting—this surface—is the initializing object for a poem that pours between past and present until the line between them nearly dissolves. “Don’t tell me he was painting his mother, lust, etc.”: the argument over intentions long lost now occurs in real time. Carson’s work habitually imagines an empathy with creators of art and literature. In “Short Talk On the Rules of Perspective,” she writes: “Someone who spends his life drawing profiles will end up believing man has one eye, Braque felt.” Not Braque wrote, or Braque said, but Braque felt.
Imagination collapses time, making this contemporary possession of The Mona Lisa and Braque, among others, a possibility. Yet a gulf unavoidably remains between the abstractions of love, lust, and yearning, and the tangible particulars of object and body. What is this distance that infiltrates Carson’s oeuvre as she engages with, and examines, aspects of human experience such as betrayal by a lover, the aging of one’s parents, and the death of a sibling? Abstractions, felt so keenly by the heart and mind, are located in and experienced by a self frequently destabilized by its own reaction to this world, or, due to some struggle, a world from which the speaker has been exiled:
I went travelling to a wreck of a place. There
were three gates standing ajar and a fence
that broke off. It was not the wreck of any-
thing else in particular. A place came there
and crashed. After that it remained the
wreck of a place. Light fell on it.
In this poem, “Short Talk on Where To Travel,” the speaker’s location is vague. Her emotional tenor is stunned but detached. While it seems reportorial, two details deepen the poem’s matter-of-fact surface. One, the “three gates” may refer to Revelation 21:13: “On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.” Or, it may be an allusion to the three gates of Buddhism, said by some to represent moral precepts, meditation, and wisdom. Second, the statement, “Light fell on it” indicates that light enters the landscape of the poem from a source outside of the poem, reinforcing the poet’s tendency to locate a catalyzing relationship or authority (artistic, literary, historical) beyond the frame of her text. “What is the difference,” the speaker asks in “Short Talk on the End,” “between light and lighting?” Perhaps light is that which comes from within, and lighting is that which falls—or is turned—upon the changeable surfaces of this world.