They Tell the Truth But Tell It Slant

Poets Anne Carson and Charles Wright revise and refresh the usual ways of seeing the world.

By Sandra Gilbert and D.H. Tracy
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera, by Anne Carson. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

Reviewed by Sandra Gilbert

Anne Carson has won a formidable array of prizes and is a MacArthur Fellow, but I still remember my first encounter with what I could then only define as the utter strangeness of her sensibility. Not the least of the pleasures in her latest multidisciplinary offering is “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” an essay that illuminates the mystery informing her strongest writings. Recounting a dream that she had as a young child, Carson describes a vision of her family’s living room that seems to be as much a product of the visionary imagination as of REM sleep:

The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls … nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different … as changed as if it had gone mad…. [but] I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping. I had entered it from the sleep side. And it took me years to recognize … why I found this entrance into strangeness so supremely consoling. For despite the spookiness, inexplicability and later tragic reference of the green living room, it was and remains for me a consolation to think of it lying there, sunk in its greenness, breathing its own order … something incognito at the heart of our sleeping house.

Carson uses this dream as an entry into an analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Man-Moth,” a poem itself based on a sleeper’s misreading of the word “mammoth,” along with discussions of further sleep-drenched works. But what I find most resonant are the entranced defamiliarizations that illuminate the dream-work out of which Carson’s own art often arises.

Like most of Carson’s books, Decreation includes some fine examples of such art, including the comically ecstatic “Ode to Sleep,” into which “Every Exit Is an Entrance” cleverly segues:

Think of your life without it.
Without that slab of outlaw time punctuating every pillow
–without pillows.
Without the big black kitchen and the boiling stove where you
snatch morsels
of your own father’s legs and arms
only to see them form into a sentence
which–you weep with sudden joy–will save you
if you can remember it
later!

At its best, the verse here shares with the prose Carson’s gift for telling what Dickinson called the “truth,” but telling it “slant.” Especially moving are the elegiac lyrics in memory of her mother with which she opens the volume. “Sleepchains” is heartfelt in the angular grief with which it shapes the cauchemar of lamentation:

Who can sleep when she–
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
………………………..

Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.

But the work of Decreation weakens when the decreation of the daytime world doesn’t issue in a recreation of dreamlike vistas: exits don’t turn into entrances. In “H & A Screenplay,” Heloise and Abelard sit at an absurdist kitchen table uttering a pointless series of Beckett knockoffs: “Hot day. / … / You know I wonder about those leftovers. / What about them. / Will they last.” This stuff makes me wonder about “those leftovers” too: Carson should consign them to the disposal. This brilliant poet should remember the livingness of her dream’s green living room.

Sandra Gilbert is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently Belongings, and two works of non-fiction. She is a professor emerita at U.C. Davis.

© 2007 by Sandra Gilbert. All rights reserved.

Scar Tissue, by Charles Wright. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $22.00.

Reviewed by D.H. Tracy

At this point, let’s face it, a new book by Charles Wright–Scar Tissue is what, his fifteenth? sixteenth?–isn’t going to sneak up on anyone. Thirty-five years into his decorated career, we know what to expect, and one of the pleasures of Scar Tissue is its familiarity. Those long, mossy lines, steeped in the South but trailing references to Italian cities and Chinese poetry like exotic fronds; the poignant descriptions of Virginia landscapes, all cobweb-delicate and yet hiding a robust benevolent sly smile; the meditations on the nature of existence; the unbelievably cluttered imagery, first falling on Vaseline, then church bells, then artillery rounds, then a crystal goblet, which is the order of metaphors in one ten-line description in “Matins”–there’s something reassuring about all this. It’s like running across a rerun of The Waltons, only the grandfather’s been replaced by the concept of Ultimate Nothingness and John Boy’s been swapped for Li Po.

It would be easy to pick this book up with a smile, shake your head fondly, and not give it too much thought. But you’d be missing out, because there’s a good book of poems here, even if you have to look to find it. The mode of the poems is frequently conclusive, rather than descriptive or dramatic or nostalgic, and the steady arrival of lines telling you How Things Are is at times a dull bombardment. But beside all that, or beneath all that, is Wright’s ability to write really striking images–lines about shadows sliding “In their cheap suits,” about lightning that “flashes like hoof sparks”–and to create, especially in short poems like “Pilgrim’s Progress” and “Waking Up After the Storm,” moments of beauty unlike those of any other American writer.

He’s been using this limited palette for so long because it works, after all; something about this kooky combination of Virginia forest, Tang poetry, old cars, Dante, and woodsmoke really does bring you to a feeling of contemplative suspension that surprisingly recalls Wang Wei. It’s worth looking for, that feeling, even when it’s nestled a long way down in a grand late-period complacency. This book won’t change your life when it’s trying to, in other words, but it might change it a little when it’s not.

D.H. Tracy’s poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

© 2007 by D.H. Tracy. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at http://www.poetryfoundation.org.

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~ by ericedits on April 29, 2008.

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