It’s a long time since I’ve gone out of my way to read a book of poetry (which this isn’t quite exactly, but poetry enough); Anne Carson has kind of jumped into my head, one of those mental worms that wriggles around and wriggles around until you can’t ignore it anymore. Fortunately one of the libraries I raid had two books by Carson: The Beauty of the Husband, which is pure poetry and very very good, and Decreation which is a blend of poetry, essays, opera and screenplay and other forms I can’t even name. The Beauty of the Husband is very good, but Decreation, perhaps because of its blend of different forms, is something else entirely.
The theme ‘decreation’ stems from an idea of Simone Weil’s, a way of “undo[ing] the creature in us” as a method for removing the self so that the Being can properly encounter God’s light. As Carson explains:
“Decreation us an undoing of the creature in us – the creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition.”
The idea of decreation is nebulous, intentionally so as Weil offers neither a single definition nor a clear view of how to achieve it or how to recognise it when you do, though I suspect it is something we all recognise in some way. I have experienced what I would recognise as ‘decreation’ through reading certain books, for example. A moment when my self seemed to dissipate and I was open, blank and receiving. I would not, personally, interpret this as being ‘exposed to God’s light’ as Weil does, but I think I understand what she means. But it is nebulous, and such nebulous terms are fertile territory for a wild poet’s mind. Carson explores this idea ‘decreation’ in various different forms. Decreation through sleep. Decreation through art. Decreation through madness. Decreation through eclipse (the decreation of sun and moon). Decreation through love. Decreation through exposure to God. The exploration of sleep, the way Carson explores life from the ‘sleep side’ is absolutely fascinating. In it Carson uses Woolf and Homer to explore how we decreate via sleep, how sleep enables us to enter a different state of being in which the usual forms of logic, the usual methods of dealing with the world, no longer apply. None of this is particularly surprising, but the way Carson breaks it down is. For example, in exploring Socrates dreams in the days before his death, Carson reveals:
“As if he had slept in the temple of Asklepios, Socrates emerges from his dream “seeing with both eyes.” And he does not hesitate to trust what the woman in white has let him see, though Krito dismisses it. The woman in white will turn out to be correct. Socrates is inclined to trust, and to be correct about trusting, different sources of knowledge than other philosophers do – like his crazy daimon, or the oracle of Apollo, not to say the good sentences of sleep. Socrates also puts a fair amount of faith in his own poetic imagination – his power to turn nothing into something.”
Here she shows how trusting in ‘sleep side’ or alternative sources of ‘knowledge’ is a strength in those willing to trust it, that accepting one version of reality alone is to accept a limited source of knowledge and, thus, miss the fullness of knowledge that’s available to you. Socrates may die that day or in two days time, this is irrelevant. How he approaches his death is his power, and the point, really, of Plato telling us about him at all.
Each of Carson’s explorations takes a different form, though the essays were most interesting to me and a long form poem on a work of art called Seated Figure With Red Angle by Betty Goodwin which includes such arresting lines as:
“If body is always deep but deepest at its surface.
If conditionals are of two kinds factual and contrafactual.
If you’re pushing, pushing and then it begins to pull you.
If police in that city burnt off people’s hands with a blowtorch.
If quite darkly coloured or reddish (bodies) swim there.
If afterwards she would sit the way a very old person sits, with no pants on, confused.
If you reach in, if you burrow, if you risk wiping in.
If a point that has been fed over years becomes a little bit alive.
If the seated figure started out with an idea of interrogation.
If there was a quality of very strong electric light.
If you had the idea of interrogation.
If interrogation is a desire to get information which is not given or not given freely.”
And so it goes on, exploring, burrowing, digging into the mind. There’s an abstract and a concrete element to Carson’s poetry, some of it is hard to follow but it is always rhythmic and the depth and inventiveness of it is extraordinary.
One of the things I noticed as I read was how many of Carson’s influences, the other writers she explores, were female. She cites Woolf (extensively, making me need to read The Haunted House), Dillard, Weil, Sappho and a 12th Century French mystic named Marguerite Porete who, on account of her ‘heretical’ writings, was burned at the stake. But she also references Homer, Plato (exploring Socrates), the movie director Antonioni, Keats (who appears to be a regular influence, his hand hovering over all of The Beauty of the Husband), Beckett. Her gaze is wide ranging and interrogative, and her expression controlled and yet daring. I think this is the most glaring thing about Carson’s work, its sheer daring. She observes, in the fourth part of a three part essay, that the women – Sappho, Porete and Weil – all of who sought to decreate to bring themselves closer to ‘God’ had an extraordinary sense of daring, that they had “the nerve to enter a zone of absolute spiritual daring”. Yet I would argue that Carson, too, has entered a zone of intellectual and linguistic daring into which few can follow. Hopefully, unlike her counterparts, she is not burned as a ‘fake woman’ but even if she was I do not think she would care at all. Carson is on a different plane to the rest of us, her mind dances and connects and forms beautiful works of art with words in whatever form seems most appropriate: essay, poem, opera, rhapsody. It is bewildering and exciting, incomprehensible at times but aspirationally I think repeat readings would reveal more and more if its beauty and meaning. A book to return to, which is pretty much the qualifier for me of whether poetry is good or not. Carson is good. Read her.