Culture / Books & the Arts / June 4, 2024

Fox and Hedgehog

The myths of Anne Carson.

The Myths of Anne Carson

Throughout her long and prolific career, Carson has specialized in unexpected juxtapositions between modern life and ancient times, contemporary art and the literature of the past. 

Emily Wilson
Illustration by Lily Qian.

Be Canadian. Be zany. Be moody. Be relatable. Write about your mother. Write about desire. Write about trauma. Write about loneliness. Write about grief. Write about nature. Write about the body. Invoke universals. Make it mythic. Tell it slant. Do not use rhyme. Do not use meter. Use short lines. Leave a lot of space on the page. Juxtapose your words with quivery line drawings in ink or paint or collage.

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Wrong Norma

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If you want to produce poetry that a large subset of American teenagers and twentysomethings will adore with a passion verging on religious devotion, these simple rules provide your best hope. Of the three prominent writers who have triumphantly followed this track, the most senior, born 1939, is Margaret Atwood, who has published 18 books of melancholic, reflective poetry, at least one including her own, quirky art, that often juxtapose contemporary experiences with allusions to ancient and medieval fables and myths. The youngest, born 1992, is Rupi Kaur, whose work has an enormous following, especially among young people on social media. Many readers with no interest in any other poetry—including one of my own daughters—have found a kind of spiritual salvation in Kaur’s visceral, poetic evocations of the struggles of young womanhood.

Both Kaur and Atwood are, in different ways, usually clear to the point of didacticism. When Kaur writes, as she frequently does, about the experience of recovery from a painful breakup or trauma, she urges empowerment in unambiguous terms:

if you were born
with the weakness to fall
you were born
with the strength to rise

Atwood is far angrier, spikier, wittier, and more allusive. But she, too, leaves no room for ambiguity about how her characters feel, and she often whips up the reader to a righteous feminist rage, as in “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing”:

You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

The satisfying punchline makes the “torch song” of romantic lament into a literal fire, ready to burn down the patriarchy and the women who enable it, along with the mythical city of Troy.

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Anne Carson is the third prominent Canadian writer who checks all the boxes and inspires a devotion verging on idolatry. Much of her work is classified by booksellers and publishers as poetry because they have to put it somewhere, although her work usually has deeper ties to the essay. Like her compatriots, Carson produces “poetry that can seduce even people who don’t like poetry,” as Sam Anderson noted in a New York Times Magazine profile, “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson,” back in 2013.

And yet Carson is a very different kind of writer from either Kaur or Atwood, or indeed anybody. The experience of being a woman—traumatic for Kaur, enraging for Atwood—is almost entirely absent in Carson’s work, whose characteristic mode is more often ironic or cute, seeking or hinting at deep emotions that never quite materialize. Carson can be too skittish to invite the reader to know exactly how to feel or respond, even with the numerous pieces of her writing that are, at their core, jokes. The New York Times critic Wesley Morris recently described the film May December as “a funny movie that doesn’t tell you how to laugh at it”—a characterization that also applies to a lot of Carson’s work. She performs a kind of awkward stand-up comedy on the page, using a meandering, shaggy-dog narrative style dressed in so many artfully allusive disguises that it can be hard to tell if what lies beneath is a laugh, a rictus of pain, a profound meditation on the nature of human experience, or nothing at all. Her willingness to try on different disguises, different genres, different genders, and different voices is a mark of her courage and her curiosity.

Carson’s latest collection, Wrong Norma, exemplifies this wide range, and this confusing slipperiness. Appearing after almost a decade in which her major publications have been reimaginings of ancient Greek dramas, Wrong Norma, like Carson’s earlier work, engages with the classical world through literary collage. Characteristically, she pastes various scraps from ancient literature alongside samples from contemporary culture and fragments of her own experience. The new collection combines all her usual genres of writing: so-called “short talks” and mini-essays, jokes and anecdotes, shards of memoir, and playfully inventive translations from the ancient Greek, along with visual art. In its multiplicity, the book offers a set of pieces that, Carson declares insouciantly, are “not linked. That’s why I’ve called them ‘wrong.’”

For some late-period writers, the publication of a ragbag batch of self-avowedly unrelated bits might signal a waning of powers. But in Carson’s case, this kind of deliberate “wrongness” is not a symptom of age; it has always been essential to her literary agenda. Throughout her long, prolific career, she has specialized in unexpected juxtapositions—between ancient and modern, sense and nonsense, the lyrical and analytical modes. The new collection revisits many of her familiar obsessions, including Plato, Proust, art, swimming, film, scenery, violence, grief, desire, disappointment, dressing up, animals, aesthetics, and alienation. Once again, she shakes up her kaleidoscope of sparkling allusions into another set of visions and revisions. The effect is often at least partly funny, but Carson also gestures toward a more serious purpose: She uses writing and art to find a kind of rightness in putting things together wrong.

Anne Carson had a lonely childhood. Born in Toronto in 1950, she had one sibling, a brother, Michael, who was four years older. In adolescence, he got sucked into the world of drugs as a dealer and addict and then largely disappeared from the family’s ken for decades before dying in his 50s. Her mother, Margaret, was a homemaker and a devout Catholic with whom Carson attended Mass for many years. Her father was a bank manager, which meant that the family moved to a new location every three years so he could take over a new branch. Carson commented in an interview that after a certain number of new schools, she decided that the “next time I go somewhere I’m just not going to make friends; there’s really no future in it.”

As a solitary, imaginative, resourceful teenager, Carson found her own ways of surviving and thriving. Visual art became a lifelong pursuit, as did the adoption of various disguises. The teenage Carson liked to dress up as somebody else, ideally a man. She playacted as her father the banker, a role that entailed being “manly and reticent.” When that got old, she became Oscar Wilde, aspiring to his flamboyant wit and irony. Manly taciturnity and exuberant irony—these would become the twin modes of Carson’s literary style, a combination of dry and quirky, vaguely metaphysical humor layered with allusion and transvestism.

It was during her adolescent Wilde phase that Carson experienced her magic spider bite, the moment she was infected with her superpower: She discovered, in a shopping mall in Ontario, a copy of Sappho’s poetry (in the old Willis Barnstone translation, with the Greek original facing). As she later said in an interview, “I thought, ‘Well, if I learn Greek, I could be all the more like Oscar Wilde.’… It seemed like the natural next step.” All at once, Carson had discovered a new and lifelong persona in the language and poetry of ancient Greece. A kind Latin teacher at her next school proved willing to tutor her one-on-one during school lunch times. The language provided her with a glimpse of “unbelievable otherness,” and yet at the same time, it was “like a harbor always welcoming. Strange, but welcoming.” Like her various masculine disguises, the alienness of ancient Greek offered her a means to access truths and experiences that hovered always just a little out of reach.

Carson continued these interests in college. She enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto and studied ancient Greek and Latin. But her relationship with academia was never straightforward. Disliking some of her classes (she had a particular hatred for Milton), she toyed with art as an alternative path, dropped out twice, and on the second occasion enrolled in art school. This, too, proved to be a disappointment; as she later recalled, “We spent a year designing cereal boxes. It was horrible.” She returned to the university, but her interest in visual art never went away. Her career as a writer can be seen as an attempt to design boxes to fit not cereal but experience.

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After finishing her BA, Carson got a PhD in classics, also at Toronto, and then what she characteristically calls “some jobs” in academia. She taught at Princeton for several years and then was hired for a number of teaching appointments in Canada and the United States, including fairly long stints teaching classics at the University of Michigan and Greek and poetry at NYU. Carson has now largely retired from teaching, but her usual bio still reads: “Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living”—omitting all mention of her numerous prestigious awards and publications. The mysteriously pithy ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Nature loves to hide” (physis kryptesthai philei). The same might be said of Carson, who often hides herself behind or inside the ancient Greeks, combining a quasi-religious devotion to their language and literature with an ambiguous relationship to the academic discipline of “classics.”

Carson’s first book was Eros the Bittersweet. Based on her dissertation and published in 1986, it is an admirably peculiar book, albeit one that marches through a canon very familiar to classicists, including Sappho, Plato, and Longus. It is not the kind of scholarly monograph that is usually required for a tenured job in classics (and it is therefore no surprise that Carson, for all her literary fireworks, did not get tenure at Princeton).

Carson’s interlocutors in Eros are not classicist scholars, although she dutifully trots out a few of them in her bibliography. Instead, her book is fundamentally anti-academic and anti-historicist. Antiquity for Carson is primarily an aesthetic object, not the focus of scholarly investigation (something she would later literalize in her memorial for her brother, Nox, where the left-hand pages—commentary on the Latin Catullus poem—are soaked in tea to provide a “mysterious sepia overtone”). The experience of painful desire, she contends in Eros, has been the same for all people in all times and places—and it also always had something essential to do with writing and with art in general.

The term “bittersweet” in Carson’s title is taken from Sappho. The oxymoron (a term that means “sharpblunt”) highlights the book’s interest in fusing apparent opposites. Themes and passages from tea-soaked antiquity—Plato, Homer, the ancient Greek novelists—are repeatedly put next to more recent figures: Dante, Pushkin, Velazquez, Queen Victoria, Rilke, Barthes, Shakespeare, Woolf. The specific cultural and performative contexts of ancient Greek poetry are not of interest for Carson. She has much to say about the intricacies of “Sappho’s mind,” but nothing about her complicated status as an aristocrat in an era of political turbulence and revolution, and nothing about her composition of songs to be performed with musical accompaniment by a chorus of women. Carson even treats a fragment from a lost play by Sophocles as a “poem” rather than what it was historically—part of a speech from a verse drama.

In addition to ignoring literary history, Carson is uninterested in contemporary thinkers who might appear to have some insight into the nature of human desire. The first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality had been published in English by 1978—a vast and important project that was also obviously engaged with the topic of eros. But in her Eros, published nearly a decade later, Carson makes no mention of it. She also has little truck with psychology: When Carson comments that “infants begin to see by noticing the edges of things,” there are no footnotes; she feels no need to delve into the academic field of infant psychology to support her intuitions. Some readers, myself included, may also be conscious of the large gap between Carson’s literary abstractions and our own complicated experiences of desire and relationships with real-life human beings.

But all this is arguably beside the point—like quibbling with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life for failing to explain the meaning of life. Carson demands to be read not for her intellectual or scholarly rigor, but in some other, more intoxicated spirit. Her work echoes the meandering essayistic mode of Barthes’s 1977 A Lover’s Discourse more closely than that of any normal academic monograph. Her chapters are each a short essay—foreshadowing Carson’s skills as a writer of “short talks” or prose poems—and they reorder familiar passages and ideas into strikingly original collages. The colors of her insights may be bland in themselves, but they shine through their juxtapositions—a verbal version of the luminous, endlessly varied squares and rectangles of Josef Albers or Mark Rothko.

A typical example can be found in her chapter “Symbolon,” which juxtaposes Sappho’s “sweetbitter” with Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Aristotle on the human desire to know, Paul Ricoeur on metaphor, and Plato’s Aristophanes and the eternal search for one’s other half, all covered in under six pages. A “symbolon,” for the ancient Greeks, was one of a pair of objects used as a matching tally—similar to the kind of “friendship jewelry” sported by modern 10-year-olds to demonstrate their undying devotion to one another. Carson holds up each of her various fragments next to the rest and asks, repeatedly, “Do they match?” In the end, they all do, because nothing matches: Velazquez and Ricoeur, like the ancients, turn out to be pointing to the fundamental importance of what isn’t there. Absence, for Carson, is the essential truth about love, life, and art.

Eros the Bittersweet set the tone for the rest of Carson’s career. Repeatedly, she creates a highbrow literary performance full of strange juxtapositions spun out to surprising, and sometimes gimmicky, effect. In her dramatic script Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Carson conflates Helen with Marilyn Monroe. In Economy of the Unlost, she sets the poet and Romanian Holocaust survivor Paul Celan alongside the archaic Greek Simonides. The comparison is, like any good improv prompt, startling, implausible, and even offensive—Simonides was, of course, neither a Jew nor, as far as we know, a member of any oppressed group. But Carson’s deep fixation on what it means for writers to leave things out, along with her willingness to run with her premise, makes for a strangely moving essay, one that enables the reader to see both poets as shaped by and transcendent of the specifics of their time, culture, and personal experiences. Carson’s comparative method opens up the possibilities for literary insight in readings not shaped by historicism.

Carson’s visual art might be seen as secondary to her writing. But across her large oeuvre, the opposite is closer to the truth. (She has described her essays, for instance, as “painting with thoughts and facts.”) Like David Bowie or David Byrne of Talking Heads—creative people of more or less her generation—Carson lived through the “explosion” or “decreation” of artistic form in the 1960s and turned to words when the visual art scene proved unwelcoming to her vision. She began her nonacademic writing in order to provide captions for her own drawings, belatedly realizing that she was better at the former than the latter. Much of her writing can be read as a brilliantly varied set of solutions to a self-imposed cartoon caption contest, usually using texts rather than images as the prompt. The numerous pieces in the classic Carsonian genre of “short talks” are best defined not by their brevity (as if they were miniature novels or essays) but by their length: They are blown-up versions of the one-liner.

Her most famous book, Autobiography of Red, shows her deep interest in visual art, turned inside out: The protagonist is a photographer who knows that cameras are there to disturb and whose essential nature, invisibly, is “red.” The subtitle is “A Novel in Verse,” but even by the infamously messy parameters of the “novel” and the capacious norms for “verse” in the late 20th century, Autobiography is deliberately monstrous and multiple, constantly disturbing traditional boundaries of literary genre and literary history. The book begins with the quip that the archaic Greek poet Stesichoros “came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” A section titled “Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichoros” contains a sequence of free-verse pieces about the three-bodied, winged red monster Geryon, his parents, and his death at the hands of Herakles. This story was also the subject of Stesichoros’ Geryoneis, but Carson’s “fragments” bear almost no relation to the original.

Following three appendices about Stesichoros and Helen, we at last reach the promised “novel,” or at least novella—a short story laid out as verse, in 47 choppily lyrical sections, about a sad boy with secret wings, sexually abused by his older brother, who falls for heedless, selfish Herakles, goes to Buenos Aires, and gets his heart broken. After the peculiarities of the pseudo-classical frame, it’s startling to realize that the narrative fits squarely into the usual conventions of 1990s novels: It’s a kind of bildungsroman, a portrait of the artist as a young man; it’s about desire, trauma, abuse, and survival; it’s often at least a little bit funny; and the world-building, such as it is, is more or less contemporary (including Dunkin Donuts and bologna for the sections set in Canada). But none of this has much to do with Stesichoros, or Geryon, or the ancient Herakles. There are plenty of queer romances in ancient myth that Carson could have chosen, but Geryoneis isn’t one of them. Instead, she creates a charmingly strange, tragicomic book by tagging startlingly wrong captions on familiar things. We see modern stereotypes—the soulful artist, the arrogant drifter, the doomed, abusive love affair—in new colors through labeling that tells us “this is Geryon” or “this is Herakles.”

Like many people whose childhoods were partly shaped by the Catholic Church, Carson has a mystical yearning for spiritual fulfillment combined with a strong spirit of rebellion. A literal, singular capital-G “God” makes an occasional appearance in her writing, but her spirituality is more often expressed as a reverent fixation on Greek antiquity, combined with an eagerness to doodle in the margins or spray-paint across the delicate parchment of her own most beloved texts.

Most of Carson’s publications over the past two decades have been translations or adaptations that share in this quietly anarchic approach to the originals. Her 2002 If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is the closest to being an actual “translation,” at least by the usual norms of modern publishing; it can be used in the classroom to teach Sappho, as well as to teach Carson. But even here, she approaches Sappho’s Greek from an idiosyncratic perspective, prioritizing her own aesthetic, poetic, and sexual preferences. Many 20th-century readers have been interested in Sappho for her depictions of same-sex desire between women, but sapphism in this sense is, here as ever, of no interest to the playfully performative Carson. In Sappho 31, “He seems to me,” the Greek makes clear that the speaker and her crush are both female; Carson’s translation does not. Sappho 102 expresses overwhelming longing for a pais, which could mean either a boy or a girl; Carson makes it “boy.” Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet figured prominently on the television series The L Word, but this popular vision of a lesbian or lesbian-friendly Carson owes more to projection than to close reading.

The “queerness” of Carson’s reimagining of Sappho lies in its quasi-Modernist style, with its focus on abstraction and the aestheticization of the fragmentary—an oddly old-fashioned mode for the early 21st century. The Greek text that appears on the page facing Carson’s translations, based on the edition of Eva-Maria Voigt, contains numerous errors of transcription, including regularly printing lunate sigmas as final sigmas. One could blame the publisher, Knopf, but it seems implausible that Carson has had no power to intervene over the past 22 years. The careless approach to the original signals Carson’s priorities: The Greek is present not for comparison (most people would obviously be unable to read it) but as an aesthetic object, another attractive set of tea stains. The gaps and omissions in the text—marked by undifferentiated square brackets with no specific information about the textual evidence for the Greek—are similarly presented as another aesthetic object, rather than as evidence about the transmission of the lost originals. In fact, after the publication of her Sappho translation, Carson would go on to collaborate with her second husband (“the randomizer,” as she calls him), the installation artist Robert Currie, to create a performance piece in which some performers raise their arms into square brackets to mark the typography as others read the translations. It is very silly and very much in tune with the aesthetics of the 1960s avant-garde London art scene (Currie is originally from Britain)—a vast distance, one might think, from Sappho herself. But one could also argue that the piece restores the performative aspects of ancient choral lyric, while substituting the visual ornaments of typography, blank space, and moving arms for the lost glories of Sappho’s music.

Beyond her husband, Carson has collaborated productively with a number of artists and writers in recent years. She turned her adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women into a “comic book” with the artist Rosanna Bruno and her Antigone I: Antigonick into a collaborative work with Claudia Rankine called Mile Long Opera. These various friends and colleagues were presumably able to choose whether and how to work with Carson. The same, of course, is not true of the dead. How exactly would Sappho, Euripides, or Simonides feel about what Carson does with them? Are her dead collaborators honored, or mocked? Heard and studied, or exploited and used for an extractive practice of literary creation? The answer is all of the above, in varying degrees.

In her numerous translations and “translations” of ancient Greek tragedy, Carson frequently inserts anachronistic references and creative riffs on the original. Often, these variations and departures will be invisible or inaudible to someone who has not read the original; for instance, to take one example from hundreds, in her Elektra the protagonist is made to say to her loathed mother, “You are some sort of punishment cage / locked around my life.” It’s a striking pair of English lines, but the memorable image of the locked “punishment cage” is Carson’s invention, with no antecedent in Sophocles. Similar creative additions can be found on every page.

Other Carsonian versions of ancient texts are much more explicitly presented as reinventions. H of H Playbook is labeled not as a translation but an “explosion of thought” on Euripides’ great tragedy, Herakles. It includes scraps of text juxtaposed with collage, paintings, and sketches, with the ancient hero partly transformed into an American war veteran, interlayered with the suggestion that he is also a football hero through the visual pun of “H” as the goalposts, as well as the suggestion that Herakles is a coach whose plan or “playbook” has gone horribly wrong. For those of us who adore the devastating original, Carson’s “explosion” may not seem to add very much, but you have to admire the courage and tenacity with which she continues to experiment and play with form, and the restless energy with which she returns, over and over again, to her fundamental themes of loss, trauma, masculinity, and performance.

Montaigne famously used the essay form to dig deep into his own knowledge, reading, intuitions, and sensibilities, in an attempt (an “essai”) to answer the question “Que sais-je?“—“What do I know?” Carson doesn’t have Montaigne’s extraordinarily humane vision of the possibilities of empathy; despite her generous willingness to collaborate with peers, or hide behind them, other people are still not really her thing. But she is interested in understanding the outer limits of what she knows, running a kind of ongoing literary salon on the page, rewriting and reinventing poets, writers, and artists from wildly diverse eras and inviting them to talk to one another in her ongoing quest to explore her own cognitive capacities, feelings, and desires.

This quest continues in Carson’s new collection. Containing many familiar elements, including a mix of genres, sources, and disparate, sweetbitter feelings, Wrong Norma explores what, if anything, links one thing to another. Running throughout is a series of typewritten interviews, reproduced as faint photocopies, between unnamed interlocutors who discuss this question, among others. Some of these scraps are nearly illegible, as if Carson were again re-creating a lost archaic poet. Some acquire a kind of profundity through the Steinian process of repetition: “do you like jam / I do… do you like jam / it is in my thoughts.” Layered amid the inquiries about Éric Rohmer, bed-neatening habits, and the philosophy of time comes the essential question: “How do you sustain morale during a long project?” Carson offers various jokey answers, including “bourbon,” “Lutheran guilt,” “yes,” and “not a fan.” Yet these answers only raise the question more intensely: If this—Wrong Norma and even Carson’s whole career—is a single project, what holds it together? What kind of stickiness sandwiches the hunks? Would Carson prefer to opt out of connecting and just be wrong (“the pieces are not linked”)? Do you like jam?

Trying to make a collage of disparate bits of writing and culture is a fun surrealist parlor game, and sometimes that is all it is. But in Wrong Norma, more than in her earlier work, Carson is also interested in the connections that join the social fabric together and the places where it frays. In “We’ve only just begun,” the speaker notes, devastatingly, “There comes a moment you realize other people are not interchangeable.” Carson limps slowly toward this understanding, but she is moving in that direction. The first piece features somebody who seems to have Carson’s habits—“she” goes swimming outdoors and thinks of the challenge to “know beauty exactly” in every specific body of water—but this Carsonian avatar also reads the news and knows about refugees drowning: “What is the price of desolation and who pays. Some questions don’t warrant a question mark.” Where the crafted persona of the younger Carson was often too much inside her own head to worry about politics, this late-era Carson knows that there is a price for everything, including her own devotion to beauty and the self.

The mysterious penultimate piece picks up the theme of political responsibility and moral “wrongness,” although it provides no easy answers. Returning to Carson’s earlier subject, the poet Celan, it offers a sequence of almost childish artworks and captions that takes us through the not-at-all-childish story of how the poet traveled up a mountain to visit the Nazi Hellenophile philosopher Martin Heidegger. Celan wrote his most famous poem, “Todtnauberg,” after this visit—and took his own life four years later. The story is haunting, and Carson’s images, using collage, paint, pencil, and typewritten captions, are evocative and disturbing: They recall several distinct artistic touchstones (Van Gogh’s yellow chair, the classical Chinese brushstroke mountain) to evoke a terrible, simple journey up and down the mountain, whose implications are anything but simple. Why did Celan visit Heidegger? What did the visit mean to him? What did they say to each other? Whose fault was his death, and so many other deaths? What do Hellenophilia or poetry have to do with the Holocaust? So much is, as Carson notes, “unknown.”

Another piece in the book returns to the theme of desolation and deprivation through the archaic Greek proto-satirical poet Hipponax, whose obscene, scatalogical poetics and “limping” iambic meter were associated with poverty and satire against socioeconomic class privilege. Carson treats the Greek in her characteristically slapdash fashion (and the publisher, this time New Directions, has not intervened): Hipponax’s poetry is printed without the breathings, as if the impoverished ‘Ipponax had a funny Hollywood-style Cockney accent (and the same goes for other scraps of Greek in the volume, which are riddled with basic errors).

But even if Carson is not serious about her philology, she does wrestle seriously with the political and moral questions underlying Hipponax’s poems. She circles around the relationship between poverty and poetry, vividly articulating how poverty and privilege generate different kinds of shame, and thus not only different ways of being in the world but also different poetic forms and expressions. She worries about her own prejudices: Who is “the poet,” and can a poor person really be one, just as much as a comfortable white Canadian lady on her way for a nice swim? If Wordsworth, with his superior gaze at the leech-gathering underclass and his habit of stealing phrases from his sister’s journals, is a comically negative example of how poets can treat wealth and poverty, is Carson herself any better? Her answer: “I keep my dollar. Avoid shame. I am confused. Shame is confused. We are all stingy. Wordsworth was stingy.” This could be a partial acknowledgment, on the part of the MacArthur-winning author and her literary persona, of her own privilege—although maybe Carson wiggles off the hook by skewering Wordsworth much more unambiguously sthan herself.

Poverty, in the real world, is no fun. But minimalism as an aesthetic choice can be a deeply attractive mode, with a long and storied history in 20th-century art and literature. A running theme of Carson’s work has always been the desire to cut words down to the knucklebone, to find the simplest, shortest way of telling the truth. Omissions—even those caused by the accidents of history—are taken to provide access to an inner or higher truth. As Carson’s compatriot Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

The most successful pieces in Wrong Norma are among the shortest: two prose poems of a single paragraph each, titled “Little Racket” and “Saturday Night as an Adult.” In both, Carson performs the tight, controlled voice of a lyric poem with vivid details of time, place, and a clearly characterized speaker. Both read beautifully aloud (from “Little Racket”: “when all at once the sluices opened, broke a knot and smashed the sky to bits and it fell and keeps falling even now as dark comes on”). Both, too, contain devastating details that change everything: “where they keep the victim” occurs like a shock wave in “Little Racket,” while in “Saturday Night as an Adult,” a frivolous anecdote about a bad night out becomes something else as the self-absorbed speaker comes to the devastating realization that adult life has nothing to offer but bony fish in a noisy restaurant and that “we” are not, and never will be, the glamorous main characters of a Dashiell Hammett novel: “We cover our ears inside our souls. But you can’t stop it that way.” The disciplined awareness of when to stop makes the piece land, inviting and rewarding. Like Beckett, another great poet of minimalism and of poverty, Carson is at her best on the thin line between social comedy and metaphysical horror.

Many of the longer pieces in Wrong Norma are less successful, and I often wished Carson had found a way to boil them down, like fruit into jam, to the sharp single-paragraph form at which she excels. A long semi-comic piece describing the first week of the universe from the perspective of Zeus/God/the sky (“Lecture on the History of Skywriting”) is affected and far too cute. Like many of us, Carson uses writing to find out what she thinks; but the means of production do not always need to be preserved in the finished product. You can throw the ladder away after you make the climb.

In several other pieces, Carson seems to be aspiring toward a different kind of writing. In “Flaubert Again,” she riffs inconclusively on the idea “of a different kind of novel,” but the piece itself ends up mostly a ramshackle hodgepodge of personal anecdote and literary allusions of the usual Carsonian kind. Two others—“Eddy,” a mostly jokey piece about a forensic detective, and a meandering three-parter called “Thret”—gesture toward the plottiest of genre-fiction genres, the crime novel, and allow Carson to play with plot while also demonstrating her own lack of patience with it. The dead bodies, the blood, are somewhere offstage; the realia of actual material bodies colliding in space have never been easy for Carson to represent, despite her highly theoretical interests in sex and in pain. Bravely but perhaps unwisely, Carson includes the “little indecent places where she didn’t know what she was talking about.” The attempt itself has a certain interest, given Carson’s long-standing fascination with what is beyond us, what we miss.

I have been told that Carson, preparing to give a talk onstage, has been spotted in the green room speaking to herself and saying over and over: “I am Anne Carson. I am Anne Carson.” It’s the kind of line that many public speakers, even those of us who are socially anxious or shy, would not feel the need to practice. But for Carson, the performance of her own personal identity, on the page as well as onstage, is a site of struggle and artistry. Even now, in her 70s, she is still in a process of constant becoming, and her writing always gestures toward the possibilities and limits of self-transformation. “Once I spent a season impersonating Joseph Conrad…. He was hot in my coat,” she writes in “An Evening With Joseph Conrad”—a claim that may or may not be literally true, but that conveys an important insight about identity, or at least about Carson herself. In “Flaubert Again,” she quotes Sartre: “I am always making myself up as I go along.” Carson’s Sappho invokes Aphrodite as the goddess “of the spangled mind” (poikilophron’), and Carson herself specializes in spangles, in artful multiplicity and the glory of dappled things (in Greek, poikilia). The sense of performative mutability in Carson’s literary self is an important element in her popularity with young readers, who are often still in the process of inventing themselves. Not for nothing do readers on sites such as Goodreads make comments like, “It feels cool to read Anne Carson. It makes you feel like a cool guy.”

The fox drawn by Carson on the cover of Wrong Norma deserves to appear on Carson fan merch, and presumably will. (Please sign me up for a hoodie.) It offers a cool sinister image that can be read in multiple ways, like a Wittgensteinian duck-rabbit. Is it a weary or thirsty fox with its tongue out, or a goblin laughing, head turned? Are the front paws the feet of a living animal, or the long evening gloves of a lady who wears a dead fur as a hunted prize? Could the drawing suggest Carson’s mother, against whose fake fur coat she snuggled when they went together to Mass?

The image acquires new layers from the various foxes who appear in the collection. There is a description of a red-fox drawing in the first piece that seems to offer a glimpse of the right way to swim, to be in the world without self-consciousness, “without thinking how it looks”: “the fox does not fail.” Another, cuter fox appears in “The Visitors,” a potential enjoyer of jam who acts as a semi-comic avatar for the speaker’s unconscious wishes and the possibility of a simpler way of being: “The fox breathes with the night, with the stars. In and out he breathes.”

The archaic Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog, one big thing.” Carson, with her vast range of allusions, disguises, and mixtures, is a fox—a canny one, whose ability to curl up and hide inside her own creations may also owe something to the hedgehog.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new translation of The Iliad is out this fall.

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