Anne Carson’s new book Red Doc> straddles prose and poetry, but it is always wildly inventive, blending different historical periods and imaginary beings with our own. Like a medieval-style storyteller, she creates new variations of accepted stories and mythic characters. In her widely syncretic imagination, all these things are going on at once. Carson is arguably the most famous Canadian poet writing today. She is also a respected classical scholar.
Red Doc> is a sequel to her earlier verse novel, Autobiography of Red, but the two main characters appear here with changed names: G is a kind of winged red monster and the friend and lover of Sad (full name Sad But Great), a traumatized war veteran who has a mythic association with Heracles.
The mathematical symbol > at the end of the title appears to mean this story is greater than what comes after; Carson has said that “to live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”
G and Sad travel through green pastures, across ice fields, through a hallucinogenic landscape to a psychiatric clinic for a stay. They eventually get to the house where G’s mother is near death. They seem to be relatively helpless in their undefined quest.
The rambling quality of their adventure evokes the scenes with gods and monsters in the ninth through 12th books of Homer’s Odyssey. Here, the extravagant characters they interact with include Io, a bovine creature who takes drugs and feels she can fly (and who is saved in a deus ex machina by a swarm of bats); Ida, an artist, short on patience; 4NO, a man writing a play; and an old muskox herdsman.
Also like Homer is the militaristic tone to the book, although it manages to feel contemporary at the same time; the following passage sounds consistent of a recently deployed Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran.
I had a/tan when I came home no/wounds no cuts. Everyone/kissed me. Sure I sat by the/fire I talked to the old man./There were the smells. The/bone beneath. Sweat broke/out on me at breakfast. I/didn’t expect to come home/that was not in the plan./Some point I guess the/brain cells just give out./You read a hundred/military manuals you won’t/ find the word kill they trick/you into killing.
Despite Carson’s subdued, even dry, approach to expressing emotion, parts of this book are shockingly moving, especially when she describes the impending death of G’s mother. The poetry around their final meeting is strangely haunting in an understated way. It presents loss and our tenuous human interconnectedness in its fragile and mysterious passing.
His/mother once told him a/story about her dying./They never liked each/other hadn’t visited for/years but someone/arranged a phone call. So/there they were mother/and daughter on the/telephone separate cities/separate nights both/suffering from asthma and/so moved they couldn’t/speak. I heard her/breathing I knew what it/was his mother said.
Carson’s writing takes poetry outside its usual and sometimes outmoded boundaries, but it’s always an inspired creation.
Ewan Whyte is a writer and translator living in Toronto. His work includes translations of the poetry of Catullus and the odes of Horace.