Thursday, November 16, 2006

Plainwater, by Anne Carson.


This is my favorite piece of writing that we’ve encountered in class so far. I’m going to start sounding like a skipping record, because my second favorite piece was The Master Letters, and while I wouldn’t call Pessoa out for #3, I think I wrote of him more effusively than I intended.

Also, whenever I sit down to write these papers, it’s very tempting to simply compare them to each other, since we’re already examining them from the perspective of common questions, and it’s easy to find ways to define them vis a vis one another. I’m not going to expend a lot of energy resisting that temptation, but I’m going to at least try to yield to it in an unorthodox way.

I think of almost all of my favorite writing as being earthy: dank, murky, musty, and organic. The most obvious and common way to do this is to simply write about these things. To keep the actual words soil-sized and dig around in the dirt. William Faulkner strikes me as this way: if you write about a bayou, it’s a given that the story (or poem) is going to be steeped in mud and Spanish moss. I like this. But there’s a second kind of earthiness that I like even more, which is a sort of coldly mediated Earthiness. I think of this in terms of melting snow and February, and things that are hot pink and sky blue, and I think that these are just arbitrary calls based on personal experience. But there is something, I think, to the idea of mediation.

It all begins with a book cover that is glossy, clean, milk white, and unobstructed. A frilly lace font and a really abstract picture that I assumed was some sort of computer-generated geometric creation until I figured out it was specks of rain on a window, and a kid looking into a glass ball. The font size meant a great deal to me; if one page was getting too crowded, the leftovers were given their own page and the original page was left relatively empty.

I realize that it is more important to talk about the text and what it is doing. On the other hand, choices like what I’ve described are so central in defining my first reaction and relationship to the project that I don’t see how I can overlook it. Regardless of whether Anne Carson had any say in the cover and layout, they are well-matched to the writing itself and follows along similar lines.

Basically, this is a very neat presentation, the book divided into five parts, each structured around a different theme, premise, or field of exploration, and the long of which are divided into shorter chapters. Even the individual poems (none of which are very long) are numbered or separated by horizontal breaks, just as quotations are set aside in font, alignment, and italics, and moments that are (superficially perhaps) poetry and prose are clearly identified by line breaks, artistic punctuation, and the like.

In short, everything simple, easy, and comprehensible in this book has been made attractively explicit.

Ambiguity is only reserved for something dim and delicious.

For example, one thing that I lusted over here was the intermedial freedom. A versatile artist is one who can navigate with ease between different conventions of writing. These pieces not only seemed to simultaneously satisfy the criteria of essay, poetry, and fiction, but essentially contradicted each in confrontational ways.

The poems, for example, while not militantly asymmetrical, didn’t rely easily upon shape, rhyme, meter or other traditional devices. On the other hand, each short burst (“I slept, woke, slept in a fever of dogs. / Let us make no mistake about the freedom.” (52), “Let tigers. / Kill them let bears. / Kill them let tapeworms and roundworms and heartworms.” (99)) was musical and passionate. While these are clearly not sentimental poems, relying too much on contradiction and conversational philosophy, the visceral imagery and tempo suggested passion, speed, and music.

Likewise, the prose was just as contradictory, pitching itself as “essays” which embodied enough of Carson’s personal experience that they could have been as effectively billed as a “memoir” (especially in The Anthropology of Water), and whimsical enough to have been all-out fiction. And the crowning touch… here poetry, without the line breaks and with more moderated punctuation would have been sufficiently deregulated to pass as her prose. On the other side of the same coin, there wasn’t anything keeping her prose from becoming poetry other than conspicuously imposed structure.

But the most intriguing element among all these ambiguities was her constant alternation between the abstract and the sensual, and her completely engaged and honest commitment to both. Typically, nothing will turn me off to writing faster than the naked word “phenomenology” but in the Canicula di Anna I have no doubt that the curiosity is fundamentally sexual, or that the hunger in the Anthropology is for literal bread vs. gold, and must in some way literally nourish before it can justify any penitential urges.



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