Canadian poet and classicist, Anne Carson, has followed up The Autobiography of Red with this stunning “sequel”, Red Doc>. G, the central character, a winged being and herdsman like his mythical namesake, Geryon, is on a road trip with artist, Ida (who looks like a “tough experimental baby”), and his former lover, Herakles, now in the form of Sad the Great, a traumatised war veteran.
Red Doc>‘s narrative is fragmentary, like Stesichorus’ 6th century BC original. The travellers find themselves variously falling through a crack in a glacier into a cavern of ice bats, in a psychiatric clinic where a riot breaks out, and at the hospital bedside of G’s dying mother. Along the way, there’s Io, the flying muskox; Hermes in a silver tuxedo; and 4NO, the oracle who sees five seconds ahead of time, all of the time.
Red Doc> concerns the random nature of life, the interplay of time and memory, and the unique and crashing certainty of death. The title was selected by default by Carson’s computer and the book is dedicated “for the randomizer”.
Carson ranges widely in her influences and allusions, drawing on Russian surrealist-absurdist poet, Daniil Kharms (who makes a cameo appearance in G’s dream), Proust, Stein and Kerouac, as well as Greek myths and popular culture. Nor does she confine herself to a single form – Red Doc> is part lyrical poetry, part dramatic dialogue, part fractured epic. It is at once contemporary and timeless, modernist and post-modernist.
In the hands of a lesser writer, such a range of material and genres would be in danger of veering out of control. But Carson leads her readers to teeter exhilaratingly on the edge of mayhem, whilst she remains firmly in charge of language and form. So Red Doc> opens in media res with a dialogue in which the two voices are differentiated by backslashes:
GOODLOOKING BOY wasn’t he / yes/ blond /
yes / I do vaguely
/ you never liked
him / bit of a
rebel / so you
said / he’s the
one wore lizard
Wife of Brain, the voice of an occasional commentator, chorus and narrator interjects in centred poems to move the story on, provide context and stage directions, and to break through the boundaries of poetry and prose, artifice and action. She asks, rhetorically,
what is the difference between
poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose
is a house poetry a man in flames running
quite fast through it
when it meets the mind waves appear (poetry) or
both are defined by
length of lines and there are times
your life gets like that..
But mainly, the text is boxed into narrow fully-justified oblongs down the middle of each page, corralling the fluidity of the language and syntax:
BLUER THAN HOLES
in blue are his eyes. He
loves driving into this
emptiness. Place that is
nothing else but what it is
he says. What do you
mean G. thinks but doesn’t
ask. Sad would just repeat
it. G. would just get mad.
This is poetry that challenges but it also entertains. From the opening dialogue:
…/ could be too late for me to appreciate Proust on
the other hand I’m at a loss
I’ve read all the Len
Deightons in the library / hundreds of people visit his
home every year some just
burst into tears / Len
Carson’s erudition is immense, her lyricism beautiful; the combination is profound and moving. Winning the TS Eliot Prize for a second time would not be random.
(Ed: please note that all of the original formatting in Caron’s Cape Poetry edition cannot be reproduced accurately on this wordpress page)