red doc> by Anne Carson; Knopf, 164 pages ($24.95). You won’t find the actual color red on the hardcover dustflaps of either “red doc>” or “Autobiography of Red,” the book to which “red doc>” is something of a sequel. On the original “Autobiography of Red,” the book’s title and the poet’s name are both printed in a pale purplish brown. That couldn’t be more apt. Such is the world of scholarly circumnavigation and misdirection of one of the most remarkable of all living writers.
She has never been a particularly “easy” writer, for all her wit and incisive directness. She’s too formally playful. She is only more difficult than ever in “red doc>” but is still as singular, radical and intellectually bracing as no other poet anyone could name. (Though, if you look hard enough, some precedent could be found in David Jones.)
If you want to kick the word “genius” in the poet, scholar and translator’s direction in all earnestness, very few will be sufficiently exercised to argue much. If that’s NOT what she is, it certainly denotes her rarity and elevation over the morass nicely.
“The Autobiography of Red” was Carson’s wildly idiosyncratic “novel in verse” based on the creation of Stesichoros, a Greek poet who, she tells us with typical dry wit, “came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.” (Right there, in that sentence, you may have everything you need to know about why Carson was once a MacArthur grant recipient.) Stesichoros, born about 650 B.C., “seems to have had a great popular success” and was called “the most homeric of lyric poets” by Longinus, “a sweet genius in the use of adjectives” by Hermogenes.
Stesichoros’ epic poem about Geryon “the name of a character in ancient Greek myth” inspired Carson’s wild, free variation of the tale of a “strange winged, red monster … quietly tending a herd of magical red cattle” until Herakles (Hercules, for Roman and Saturday AM TV purposes) came back and killed him to get the cattle. In Carson’s verse novel he is a photographer. In the far more elusive “red doc>,” she gives us Geryon and Herakles in later life. “G,” for instance “doesn’t merely sing to the herd at night. He may talk to them listen stand in the herd. Listen. That community. A low purple listening but with a height to the sound.” Welcome to Anne Carson’s world. Bring your own commas.
– Jeff Simon