Anne Carson is among that small number of contemporary writers who have achieved the unthinkable: she has produced poetry that has made the bestseller lists. Since the success of Autobiography of Red (1998), all of her books have sold big – and so has her back catalogue, including her scholarly works Eros the Bittersweet (1986) and Economy of the Unlost (1999). Eros the Bittersweet, her idiosyncratic study of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, even made an appearance in the pilot episode of the television show The L Word, in which one character proclaimed to another, ‘That book practically changed my life’. Not quite as mainstream as Robert Pinsky’s appearance on The Simpsons, perhaps, but the name-checking of a contemporary poet on the small screen was a significant moment in pop culture nonetheless.
Now, over a decade since Autobiography of Red caused a sensation, Carson has returned to the characters from her most popular verse narrative. Red Doc> is offered as a sequel that ‘continues their adventures in a very different style and with changed names’. With these words Carson declares her lack of interest in standing still. Red Doc> displays some of the recognisable traits that pervade her work, but in its pages the central characters of Autobiography of Red are transformed from their mythic identities as Geryon and Herakles into G and Sad (full name: Sad But Great). With this renaming – arguably a dwindling – Carson’s protagonists move out of the heroic mode and carry with them a sense of disappointment.
Red Doc> is a reunion, but it also an elegy and an adventure story that leads its protagonists from G’s little red hut to a glacier, down an ice fissure, into a private psychiatric clinic, and then to the hospital bedside of G’s mother, Ida. Ida brings G and Sad back together, and when they leave her behind, ostensibly for a day trip, she eventually follows them. She is ‘filled with / mood like a very tough / experimental baby’; she makes things happen.
Yet despite the book containing a deal of absurd action, it is hard to categorise Red Doc> as a work in which much really happens. The relationships between characters old and new do not go much beyond a surface gloss. Only the late appearance of G’s mother reveals a relationship that remains fraught. From the opening pages of Autobiography of Red to the close of Red Doc>, the relationship between mother and son retains the frisson that seeps from the erotic relationships Carson portrays. The weird tension the poet captures between stasis and action, past and present, is the book’s achievement. Any kind of plot summary would be beside the point.
Red Doc> is Carson’s first volume of new poetry since Decreation (2005), though a number of books have appeared in the interim: Grief Lessons (2006), her translations of four tragedies of Euripides, the facsimile of her handmade book Nox (2010), and Antigonick (2012), which, in telling the story of Sophocles, edges into the realm of graphic novel. The Euripides and Sophocles books are translations or adaptations, while Nox appeared out of sequence, having taken a decade to find its way into print. The original book was first accepted and then lost by a publishing company. It was found again and ended up in the hands of another imprint, New Directions, which published it in one of the most luxuriously produced volumes of poetry in recent memory.
Nox was firmly elegiac, addressing Carson’s sense of loss after the death of her brother; Decreation retained the elegiac tone, but was more of a grab bag of poems and essays. Taking up the last third of the book was the title work: an opera libretto about Sappho, the medieval mystic Marguerite Porete, and the philosopher and ascetic Simone Weil. In many ways, Red Doc> continues in the style of that libretto, mixing tender narrative with more absurd moves that at times border on slapstick. Amid the operatic unfolding of ‘Decreation’, multiple choruses of papal inquisitors, invisible tap-dancers and female robots (assistants to the Greek god Hephaistos) deflated the plaintive tone. In a similarly comical spirit, Red Doc> presents us with ‘ice bats’ that emerge from and retreat to their home inside a glacier, BATCATRAZ. These bats make conspicuous the mechanical workings of the plot as it transports the reader into new realms. Their appearances also serve to puncture any veneer of seriousness or self-importance that might seem to emerge in the poetry, and suggest that Carson is well-aware of the expectations weighing down new publications, especially one revisiting her most popular work.
While these comical incursions destabilise the work, the focal point of the book remains G and his sensibility of ‘redness’. Still distinguished by his unforgettable red wings (‘THEY’RE RED / no / is he / red / yes / wings / yes // okay I do know this guy’), he remembers his mother with ‘her ashtray her red velour / bathrobe’. He ventures out from his ‘red hut’, thinks with his ‘redletter brain’, writes with a red pencil, and exhibits ‘red sadness’. Still, the hue is not as insistently present in the new work. Another diminishment.
Where Autobiography of Red took as its primary form the alternation of long and short lines, the narrative of Red Doc> is presented in slim columns of text that unfurl down the centre of the page. The opening poem is a dialogue between two unnamed voices that makes it clear that Carson is aware of the pitfalls of sequels. One voice announces that he has ‘finished Proust’; his interlocutor replies ‘well I’m / not fond of those multivolume things’ and goes on to claim that she has ‘read all the Len / Deightons in the library’. Our ability to distinguish these voices grows slowly as the text proceeds, though they often remain undifferentiated and become jumbled again. Carson’s thin columns reduce the impact of line breaks, enhance the occasional confusion of the voices of the text.
In addition to this main text, Red Doc> also features the periodic voice of the Wife of Brain, whose centre-aligned poems act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the action, orienting the reader and punctuating the story. After the opening dialogue between G and Ida, the Wife of Brain appears immediately to reintroduce the figures from Autobiography of Red:
the following faces
the red one (G)
you already know (what’s he done to his hair) his old friend
third Ida Ida is limitless and will soon be our king
Here the Wife of Brain offers directorial instruction: the dramatis personae are defined, though other characters will enter the fray as the story proceeds. Carson also uses this voice to place the reader in time and space, as when she writes that the ‘scene is / a little red hut where G lives alone / time / evening’. Elsewhere, the Wife of Brain alerts the reader to the ‘first reversal’ of the text when the ‘short road trip’ envisioned by G and Sad becomes an Odyssey that leads them into a ‘private [psychiatric] clinic’. This first reversal signals a shift in our expectations of the text and is a warning that there are more such shifts to come. The choral voice is arch: the Wife of Brain knows the unfolding story – a tragedy of sorts – and knows the story we have already heard. She is the most playful of the book’s voices: within the constant form of her single-stanza commentaries, she varies her mode of expression. Here the narrative framework is laid bare; there she gives a catalogue of military rations. Or she falls into a schoolyard-chant-like anaphora, as when she sings:
They drank bright mead in cups of gold
They drank bright mead to catch his shrieks
They drank bright mead what kind of knife
They drank bright mead between his cheeks
Carson’s awkwardness is often her virtue; at moments like this, however, one wonders if her awkwardness is just, well, awkward.
During the course of the book, G’s voice is emerges as the most recognisable. This is in large part because we are privy to his emotional responses to the action we witness. He also reflects on the texts Carson invokes as counterpoints to her narrative, comparing his own experiences to the work of Marcel Proust and Daniil Kharms. This is a regular feature of Carson’s writing. From her use of the collected works of Emily Brontë in ‘The Glass Essay’ from Glass, Irony and God (1992) to her fascination with John Keats’s marginalia in The Beauty of the Husband (2001), her poetry has been in constant conversation with other sources, be they from literature, film or the visual arts. Though Red Doc> comes with a half page of notes identifying Carson’s in-text allusions, end notes are often not necessary, as she embeds her citations in the text. G’s explicit reflections on the work of Proust, in particular, speak to his reflections on his own life. In Search of Lost Time becomes a touchstone at crucial moments, such as when G reflects on his reaction to watching Sad sleep by comparing it to Proust’s account of Albertine: Carson paraphrases the scene explicitly.
But it is Kharms’s work and life that more fully informs the tone of Red Doc>. When G contemplates the book in his hands Carson writes
WEIGHING IT IN his
hand he pauses then
throws it across the room.
Does he hate Today I
Wrote Nothing: The
Selected Writings of
Daniil Kharms translated
from the Russian by
Matvei Yankelevich for
some good reason or for
not being Proust.
This ambivalence towards Kharms – as G spends more time with the Selected Writings, Carson tells us ‘He still / hates the book but is / beginning to love the man’ – reflects the uneasy relationship Red Doc> has to the absurd. Kharms’s influence is evident in the bats retreating to BATCATRAZ and the moment in which the ox, Io – the only named member of G’s herd – flies above the winged G and ‘lets loose a / great fart and poops / gloriously just missing his / head’, but these forays into the absurd are grounded by the narrative of a solitary life, and the poem’s journey into memory. In memory, the heat between G and Sad occasionally resurfaces, but that heat remains no more than a memory.
What emerges instead is the story of a different kind of passion. G and Sad make a brief attempt to rekindle their sexual relationship, but as Sad notes when their fumbles fizzle out, there is ‘not enough / juice for the squeeze’. In Autobiography of Red, their passion brought them literally to the volcanic brink; their reunion here is not as lovers, but as a pair linked by their shared past. This shared past remains distant, however, and when Carson takes the reader back to Autobiography of Red what rings out is almost a sense of futility:
happened to your
autobiography says Sad
you were always fiddling
with it in the old days. I
gave it up says G.
Nothing was happening in
The stasis that characterises the hiatus in their relationship and the fifteen-year gap in the author’s continuation of their story define Red Doc>. Carson makes it clear that the past cannot be recovered. What we see of the passion of G and Sad is in the form of flashbacks, as when G recalls their first meeting with the words ‘HE WAS FOURTEEN / it was years ago and Sad’s / name wasn’t Sad yet. First / comet.’ While G retains the sting of their lost passion, the little insight we get into Sad’s reflection on their past relationship bears the stamp of an amused affection. Referring to a letter he wrote when he severed himself from Sad, G recalls his devastated hope that it would bring a contrite and desperate Sad in pursuit. Meanwhile, the narrator tells us the true fate of the letter: lost for two years, it is found by a friend of Sad’s who reads it aloud. Sad’s lingering attachment to G is such that he will not allow his friend to mock his former lover, but the letter stirs him no further.
Red Doc> offers a development in Carson’s work, but it is not necessarily a development that lovers of Autobiography of Red will relish. It creates a curious and at times compelling world, but one that may also exasperate the reader as its narrative veers from one scene into the next. Though the earlier work had its own literary filters – there, the ancient Greek poet Stesichorus and the arch-Modernist Gertrude Stein played the role of literary interlocutors – its tone was more consistent. Autobiography of Red gave us the arrowhead wound of a wild passion gained and lost; Red Doc> never quite captures the same sense of urgency. The closest it comes to urgency is when G reflects upon his past, a story the reader has already largely encountered, and when he is forced to confront his familial ties. While his faded relationship with Sad is a significant loss, the patina of that loss resembles the melancholy of aged, yellowing varnish. (In comparison, his relationship with his mother, who in taking him to school each day in the earlier work ‘neatened his little red wings and pushed him / In through the door’, retains its sting.) As such, Red Doc> will no doubt disappoint many who were impressed by the portrayal of love between a monster and a hero in Autobiography of Red.
It seems Carson is aware that this new work may puzzle some of her fans: she takes as her epigraph Samuel Beckett’s ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Red Doc> is no failure, but it is certainly another attempt to circle the relationship between G and Sad, to come away from a story of love’s successes and failures with a new sense of meaning. Nonetheless, Red Doc> can bring pleasure with its tendency to careen off in unexpected directions. To get the most of out this new book, the reader must have a willingness to be surprised and bemused by these shifts. The curveball turns in the narrative reflect Carson’s desire to find genuinely surprising images and metaphors in her work.