Astralize the Night
May 18, 2017
9 Min read time
Anne Carson’s new work, Float, is a boxed set of twenty-two chapbooks in which the poet plays with different voices.
Knopf, $30 (cloth)
Genre hybridity has long been a hallmark of the Anne Carson brand. Her first poetry collection, Short Talks (1992), features a series of humorous prose pieces that adopt and satirize the tone of academic lectures. Autobiography of Red (1999), and its 2013 sequel Red Doc>, are billed as novels in verse, though that amalgamated label hardly explains those projects. Float, her most ambitious publication since Nox (2010), occupies similar territory. A boxed collection of twenty-two individually bound chapbooks in a sleek plastic case, it includes some traditional lyrics, some translations, some plays and scenes from plays—what readers might think of as lyric-dramas. It also features essays, lists, and loosely structured meditations. In fact we might say the pieces “float” in a loose network of relations, interchangeable in order and readable as individual projects, but connected by a strand of interrelated themes—the problem of representation, translation as an act of creation, and the idea of “network” itself. The book, if we can call it a book, contests not only conventional understandings of genre and readership, but, through its collective disjunction, the classificatory modes by which we comprehend our realities. Float urges us, at least implicitly, to reconsider the essential divisions we fashion between subject and object, self and other, bodies and the spaces they inhabit.
In “Cassandra Float Can,” one of the chapbooks, Carson describes Day’s End, a 1975 conceptual piece by the New York–based artist Gordon Matta-Clark. Trained in architecture, Matta-Clark became infamous for site-specific projects that appropriated existing structures, usually abandoned and often slated for demolition, by cutting “huge circular and boat-shaped holes” in their walls and ceilings. Sometimes he obtained permission, sometimes not. To produce Day’s End, he broke into New York’s Pier 52 and, over the course of several months, cut twenty- and thirty-foot holes in the walls and floor “to expose the water below.” As Carson notes, “He wondered how it would be to sit and watch this passage of light over the span of, say, a year.” Matta-Clark aspired to “retranslate” the structure—his term—and referred to such projects as “anarchitecture,” a negation of the original construction that made the building “into an abstract of itself” and revealed its “semiotic system.”
Trying on modes of thinking not her own empowers Carson to grasp reality with vibrant fullness.
Carson opens her discussion of Day’s End into a meta-commentary on her work as a classicist, poet, and “etymologist”—a term deriving from the Greek etymos, meaning “real, true, actual,” but in its verb form einai, “to be, to exist.” The etymologist, she argues, “makes cuts that show Being as it floats inside things,” demonstrating each thing’s “is-ness,” and revealing “how it floats and how it can.” Float aims to excavate such “is-ness”—to “make cuts” in received ideas and probe the categorical apparatus of classifying, dividing, and organizing Being against a set of culturally defined, systematizing principles. Much of Carson’s corpus has been dedicated to this task, but in its material division of generically disparate writing in distinct books, Float offers a radical reconsideration of this process.
As an etymologist, Carson’s method is, like Matta-Clark’s, one of cutting holes and revealing semiotic structures. Take “How to Like ‘If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso’ by Gertrude Stein,” a playful rumination on the titular Stein piece, concerned with what Carson calls the “question of likeness.” As Carson reveals, Stein sketches the boundaries of selfhood—of likeness and of difference—through her use of unstable grammatical subjects, such that “Her syntax flickers back and forth.” Stein’s meanings accrue through repetition, surfacing in minute variations on a word or phrase: “If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.” “Right away,” Carson notes, “it is ambiguous who he is,” and that synthesis of grammatical subjects suggests a fusion of ontological selves. “What is the difference,” Carson asks, “between a ‘portrait’ and a ‘completed portrait’ of Picasso?” The answer, “Napoleon,” is ostensibly absurd, though as Carson notes, Stein’s verbal tableau—“her page, her mirror”—is above all a clear reflection of herself.
But the “telling of a mirror is tricky,” and Carson suggests that Stein’s subjects are not “interchangeable.” As much as the text interrogates likeness, its emphasis on numeric order stresses individuality and difference: “Who comes first. Napoleon the first.” Stein simultaneously inspects the nature of exactitude—the extent to which one thing can resemble another—underscoring the diffusion of subjectivity that characterizes her non-standard grammar. As Carson claims, “resemblance may intend identity but disclose difference.” She sees Stein’s identity-through-difference, or difference-through-identity, as demonstrating the self’s dependence on others to constitute its own Being. Carson’s aim, like Stein’s, is not necessarily to remove the boundaries of identity, but to probe them, poke them, find out where they are porous—to “cut” the dross from essential structures and “translate” them into precarious frames that reveal the permeability of their “is-ness.”
Carson’s anarchitecture adopts yet another modal valence in “Nelligan,” a series of loose translations from Émile Nelligan (1879–1941), the Rimbauldian Québécois whose poetic career flourished and extinguished by the age of twenty. Nelligan spent his life from that point committed first to the Saint-Bénoît-Joseph-Labre Asylum outside of Montreal and later to the city’s Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Asylum—unsurprising, given the poems, which seem to have been written with a melancholic awareness of Nelligan’s increasing instability. Carson describes his poems as “black stabs at winter and transcendence.” The translations excavate the melancholia evident in the French, rendering Nelligan’s poems, with varying degrees of artistic license, into parsed versions, at points quite close to their originals, at others reduced to clipped emblems of their francophone selves.
“Hospital night dream,” for instance, maintains Nelligan’s 4-4-3-3 stanza form while discarding the rhyme and introducing indentations throughout. The result is a visually staggered, colloquial production that modernizes Nelligan’s characteristic restraint. “Falling away white” adopts Nelligan’s couplets, maintaining a slant rhyme that mimics the original. The twelfth and thirteenth lines rhyme the Germanic “stars” consonantly with the Latinate “disasters,” which contains within it “asters,” Latin for stars; Nelligan himself rhymes the French “désastres” with “astres.” The approximation captures the original closely. But Carson takes liberty with the first and final couplets, not only indenting the stanza’s second line but staggering it into four- to two-syllable fragments over the space of three lines, such that
Et nos coeurs sont profonds et vides comme un gouffre,
Ma chère, allons-nous-en, tu souffres et je souffre
Our hearts are deep and void as a crater—
my dear, you suffer
Another piece, whose original I cannot locate in Nelligan’s small oeuvre, reads in its entirety, “Do you want me to astralize the night?” Perhaps Carson playfully condenses what is likely a longer, more self-serious lyric, “cutting” the verbal rafters from its frame and distilling it, in a single line, to its semiotic essence.
In “Merry Christmas from Hegel,” the collection shifts from its modal concern with “retranslation” to directly interrogate the nature of thought and representation. Among the shortest chapbooks in Float, the piece probes the “clumsy dichotomy of subject and verb”—a stand in, for Carson and many other theorists, for consciousness and materiality—placing grammar in opposition to Hegel’s “speculation,” the “effort to grasp reality in its interactive entirety.” Couching this investigation in biography—“It was the year my brother died”—Carson braids humor, grief, and philosophy. Through this braiding, she establishes an analogy between the displaced subjectivity of melancholia and a “philosophic space where words drift in gentle mutual redefinition of one another”:
Christmas Day I was sitting in my armchair, reading something about Hegel. You will forgive me if you are someone who knows a lot of Hegel or understands it, I do not and will paraphrase badly, but I understood him to be saying he was fed up with popular criticism of his terrible prose. . . . The function of a sentence like “Reason is Spirit” was not to assert a fact (he said) but to lay Reason side by side with Spirit and allow their meanings to tenderly mingle in speculation.
The speaker’s loneliness prompts her to “put on big boots and coat” and go “out to do some snow standing.” Entering the woods, she finds the natural world to be suddenly imbued with vitality through which Carson upends our understanding of the object world as inanimate—as mere vegetable or mineral. “The white” of the snow, she says, is “stunned with itself,” a statement that at once posits the agency of inert matter but that self-consciously ironizes that idea, giving way to “ravishing peace.” Carson experiences this peace in the midst of her “standing”—“so ravishing,” she states, “I am unembarrassed to use the word ravishing.” The passage recalls Francis Ponge more than Hegel, magnifying the object world to demonstrate how Hegel, snow, and an entity called “Anne Carson” assemble to form a distinct moment of consciousness.
The peace Carson locates in this scene is not “a peace of separation from the senses” but one of “washing-through,” of “looking, listening, feeling, at the very core of snow, at the very core of the care of snow.” The speaker’s enhanced perception of materiality—of the object world as agentic or alive—opens her to an empathic awareness of objects themselves, whose “core,” if recognized and understood, enables her to think of consciousness as networked or diffuse. “The world,” she writes, “subtracts itself in layers,” a deconstruction Carson might easily enact on her own oeuvre—a move reminiscent of Matta-Clark’s “cutting” and of the lyrical distillation she performs in “Nelligan.” The piece concludes with a reflection on the act of reading, which was what had prompted her snow walk in the first place:
[The snow] has nothing to do with Hegel and he would not admire the clumsily conventional sentences in which I have tried to tell about it but I suspect, if I hadn’t been trying on the mood of Hegel’s particular grammatical indignation that Christmas Day, I would never have gone out to stand in the snow, or stayed to speculate with it, or had the patience to sit down and make a record of speculation for myself as if it were a worthy way to spend an afternoon
The act of “trying on” a mode of thinking not her own—of fusing her consciousness with another’s—empowers Carson’s speaker to “grasp reality” with vibrant fullness.
Float is a difficult work, not only because readers will struggle to classify it, or because it is so formally disparate, but because, from form to syntax, it interrogates the principles of intellection itself. It takes as its subject the subject, then splices it, loosens its borders, and reveals it as a fraud. “No gentleman is an island,” Carson states. The quiddity of selfhood is its “likeness” to others. And yet, those others have their “likenesses,” a fact that distinguishes them as subjects in and of themselves. In this way, Float constantly defies its readers’ expectations, making Carson impossible to pin down, and marking her work as sui generis. In its capacity to upend our assumptions about fundamental concepts, Float challenges readers to reconsider Being, define “is-ness” in relation to the things we encounter, and outwardly categorize those things, just as inwardly—psychically, ontologically—we classify and organize ourselves.
May 18, 2017
9 Min read time