'desire doubled is love and love doubled is madness'
– from The Beauty of the Husband, p. 38
One feels that Anna Carson is a Miss because of the precocious brilliance that she possesses, but actually Anne Carson is far from it, she is a Mrs, and indeed that is what The Beauty of the Husband is all about.
Many of my friends ‘discovered’ Anne Carson before me. In fact, I have to give credit to a friend urging me towards Autobiography of Red about two years ago, but I was not ready for it then. I am a firm believer that there are times when we can be, because of the stages of personal development that we then face, especially well-primed for a text. I am glad that, for example, I read Germaine Greer or someone like John Fowles as an adult. I think that in the case of the former, if I were a child, I would not understand the adult content of the book and in the case of the latter, the finely crafted texture of the prose would have been lost on me. However, there are exceptions, the enduring appeal of a writer like Neil Gunn and the vernacular heave and sway of his prose style would be equally enchanting to a clever child as it is to an adult.
But I have praised Neil Gunn enough elsewhere. Now I want to think about Anne Carson. I borrowed a copy of The Beauty of the Husband from the English-language poetry section of the National Library of Iceland in Reykjavik. I took it away with me for my ‘final’ work camp in East Iceland, knowing that long novels and books were not well-suited to my very busy schedule. I became quickly absorbed in the story – unusual for narrative poems, which I can often find difficult and unapproachable. The story was basically about the relationship between Carson and her husband. It was not a conventional relationship (which relationships ever are?), but a troubled, problematic, passionate and brilliant one. As Carson delineates the story of the love growing, ebbing, transforming, diminishing – much like an Elizabethan sonnet cycle – the reader is drawn into a privileged, dangerous, sensual world in which Carson and her husband play a very ‘high-level-game’ with language.
I remember once in Ghent watching a band of young jazz musicians. Their knowledge of the musical scores, instruments and indeed music as a whole was so far-reaching that at any given point they could trade instruments with each other and happily carry on. I saw the same thing in Húrra and Kex Café in Reykjavik. When I mentioned this to my friend Joachim, he smiled as though I were taking such wizardry for granted. Yes, but it is a very high level sort of game.
Couples tend to create worlds and then lose themselves there. It is called infatuation. However, I am already old enough to know that the result of this kind of accelerated vortex of fascination is disastrous. Getting lost is never fun and even when you are two you can feel alone. Alone is a soft way of putting it, it’s more like being cut adrift on an ocean or being a castaway on an island: it’s absolute. So many of these worlds (highly secretive, ornate and private) simply disappear, fly off record like planets spinning off into other solar systems. But what Carson does in The Beauty of the Husband is capture the whole fluttering, temporary and fierce organism, for a moment on the page. I haven’t lost you yet, have I?
It’s a very personal book. It’s about that the private world that love creates between two people. Most of all it is about a conspiracy that Carson and her partner share, a conspiracy over the way words work. The assumption is that they are both experts and they can play; words have lost all of the conventional shades of their meaning; they signify in different ways, ramify differently. It is a life-long courtship over semantics. The acknowledgement – deflationary and tragic – that it is language itself rather than love or even sexuality that is compulsively drawing her back to him, hits hard. As she says rather gloomily later on: “He was not wrong that sad anthropologist who told us the primary function of writing is to enslave human beings. Intellectual and aesthetic uses came later” [p.93]. So it’s words, and by extension poetry, that is responsible for their messy romance, and the desperate game of ping-pong that ensues. In this world reading and writing have a kind of sexual glory. As he writes in a letter to her: “If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you. … To tell it to” [p. 54].
All of this discussion about signification and meaning must make the book seem rather aloof and difficult, but it’s not at all like that. In fact, sometimes Carson’s mannered colloquialisms, American drawl and gossipy story-telling make the reader feel that are partaking in some Harvard-sponsored chat-show. He does this, she does that, he runs away, she feels wounded etc. Sometime I felt frustrated by mundane gender stereotypes – she’s the patient Griselda, he’s the persecutor, Iago-type; she’s fatally attracted to his brilliance, beauty and probably also to his brutality. He loves to provoke her. The whole thing seems depressingly violent and teenage for someone of Carter’s intellectual subtlety.
I can imagine my English supervisor stamping the floor in frustration at this point. Why am I assuming the narrator of the poem to be Carson? Do I remember nothing about the authorial fallacy? It’s a college-level error. But I actually think Carson is passed all that. Whether the poetic voice is Carson’s or not, whether the description of the love affair is autobiographical, is irrelevant. That is the story that she chose to write, and I’m sorry, but its not particularly Keatsian. He was all about sleepy women with downy breasts and lusty though ultimately impotent men. She’s telling this story for a reason. Writer’s sublimate truth; they never entirely fabricate it – there’s always a psychological anchor somewhere. At this point I am reminded of something that Jeanette Winterson wrote in the foreword to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her response to the question of whether the work of several months of compulsive writing in her mid-twenties was autobiographical went something along the lines of:
Of course on one level Oranges are not the Only Fruit was an autobiography, but on others, of course it wasn’t at all.
This is a position I would be prepared to defend in relation to most books. There are reasons that certain stories are told, and the way they are told. Stories (with the exception of myths and folk-lore that are expressions of communitarianism and collective consciousness), are the products of authors with minds. They are fantasies. There are reasons for the narratives that find their way onto books than simply craft and effect. We are not machines. Writing is obviously a very psychological activity, it makes me pause for thought to consider what we can reveal sometimes against our own intentions by what we write. But I want to get back to Carson.
The air of danger pervades this poem is perhaps what makes it so gripping. The danger and inherent violence of the relationship is heightened by the poem’s sexual libertinism. This is Carson on sex: they were ‘like peacocks stepping out of cages into an empty kitchen of God’ [p.24]. At one point she challenges her husband: ‘You used to say the body is the beginning of everything” [p. 117]. Dangerously good, I should say. Epicurean appetites ripple through the book. It is poetry at its most modern and decadent. Poetry on a knife-edge. You feel like things are sliced down to chance, to the briefest yet most consequential tosses of the coin. She’s magic: contracts time, slows, bleeds, it down. The narrator herself laments: ‘If only one’s whole life could consist in certain moments’ [p. 101]. The sexual chicanery, the hedonism, its all connected to one glorious hidden subtext about how poetry can really serve society now: it can make life, struggle, love more vivid; it can elicit what is normally intangible. I’m going to quote Carson back to herself.
Napoleon used to say “I write myself between worlds”
Well if Napolean did it, Carson does it too. She does not only create worlds but writes towards new worlds, new horizons, new possibilities. She is a breaker of limitations.