It’s been a while since I’ve read any poetry. Life, I find, often gets in the way.
Life, which isn’t poetic, crashes into the part of the soul that yearns for something more elevated than this, meaning that the literature I end up seeking out is as dark and depressing – or (instead) distracting – as possible. Either art that mirrors life, or art that is nothing like it, rather than art that suggests a life far from what one gets.
Red Doc> by Anne Carson is the type of poetry that makes me wish I read more of the form. The kind of poetry that teeters on the brink of genres, that clashes and mashes and mixes ideas and identities and histories and myths into something that is, without doubt, a serious artistic achievement. Rejigged Greek myths, polar adventures, post traumatic stress, war, loneliness, bereavement, death, sentient cows, lava flows – this engaging and enveloping work never fails to impress with its scope, inventiveness and success rate.
Carson is not someone I have read before*, but I did recently see her adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae (titled Bakkhai) at the Almeida Theatre. This was a very last minute trip – a friend of mine is working on another play with one of the actors who was in it and was given a couple of tickets. I didn’t know what I was going to see, and coincidently it turned out to be a) the only Greek tragedy I studied in detail as an undergraduate and b) adapted by a poet whose most recent work I’d blind bought (due to a gushing review in the Guardian) the day before when sad in a bookstore. Her take on Euripides was more than a translation, but the structure and the plot had not been altered – big chorus (a beautiful a capella** choir), with all the main action happening offstage and recounted through narration. The stagecraft (if I’m using that correctly) of an old dramatic form. Bakkhai‘s ending featured the male actor who was Madam Trunchbull when Matilda first opened manically playing a middle aged woman driven wild by bacchic delights: in this, and in many other ways, the play felt like something thousands of years old. Which it is, of course, and Carson (who, to quote the author bio on the cover of Red Doc>, “makes a living teaching Ancient Greek”) knows this, but I’d hoped for a more universalised idea.
If anyone reading this doesn’t know Euripides, Bacchus (the fun god) gets angry at a town for refusing to worship him, so lures all the settlement’s women into the countryside for wild, debauched, parties until they eventually tear apart the mayor (or whatever) of the town, who had ventured into the woods in the hope of calming them down. The message, the moral, is that if you don’t let your hair down from time to time, the human urges to behave badly (well, to drink and dance and screw) overwhelm the self. Little and often, we must be self-indulgent, because otherwise we get pent up and bad things happen. Easy moral, applicable to the contemporary world because humans do not change. A modernisation, I thought, would’ve been easy. The fact that it wasn’t worried me a bit, and I left Red Doc> unread for about a month, fearing it would turn out to be a little more staid (well, not staid, old-fashioned) than I’d hoped. I was wrong.
The poetry is alive, the language is involving and intense. The narrative isn’t really a narrative – it shifts, it slides, it is hallucinatory and moves in unexpected directions, very suddenly. We start with reminiscence, with a sense of age, of illness, shift into a restlessness, a present where the past has impacted too much, move into talk of cow-herding, into reading Russian literature and discussion of Proust***, into taking a road trip with a lover, into exploring a cave full of bats, into incarceration in a psychiatric hospital with a man who can see five seconds into the future, into an escape following a disastrous play performed by an inmate that didn’t come with the right “trigger warnings” for the right patients, to a sudden volcanic eruption that threatens to engulf the whole known world, to the lead character (G) flying, soaring, to a cow jumping off a cliff to the arrival, all of a sudden, at the death bed of G’s mother and the world that begins and opens, supportless, after ones parents are dead.
In this, as perhaps is apparent, the structure is dreamlike. But the non-linear narrative is secondary to the wit, to the beauty, to the knowledge of the language:
what is the difference between
poetry and prose you know the old analogies prose
is a house poetry a man in flames running
quite fast through it
You could take the entirety of the common sense of humans and put it in the palm of your hand and still have room for your dick.
HOW OR WHAT in their minds animals call us we hesitate to think.
The collection ends:
Down the street she notices a man in his yard in his undershirt standing looking up at the rain. Well not every day can be a masterpiece. This one sails out and out and out.
These are the passages I circled, noted down, as I read through the book, but even now as I skim through looking for things to quote, my eyes are caught by more. I could offer quotations from every page, I could show the dialogue that is used frequently to great effect – conversations with emotional heft and a vividness of life; I could show the descriptive passages of landscape and the mind that show great imaginative clarity; I could include the bits that made me cry, the bits that made me touch my chest in awe, the bits that made me grin with their dexterity, intelligence and… I don’t know the perfect world, but I think it is this: poetry.
Red Doc> is energetic, immersive, smart and brilliant. The only thing I found surprising about the text – which is something I’ve been surprised by with poetry before – is the age of its writer. Poets seem able to keep a vitality and an energy to their work throughout middle age that novelists don’t. Carson, as an educator, will have been near to youth her whole life, but I don’t think that is what makes a difference. The poet’s soul – the true poet’s soul – is different from yours and mine (if you’ve read this far into this essay, you’re not discerning), it is unageing and ongoing and eternal.
Poetry is alive, that’s the fucking crux of it, and the great poets all write poetry with energy, with heart, with a love of life. That’s probably why I avoid poetry – too much optimism in it, too much joy. Good poetry is often life-affirming, optimistic, wrapped up in the sense of the importance and validity of existence and experience. I don’t feel that, as a dead-eyed depressive, and don’t like being reminded that my feelings are a lack of joy, rather than an awareness of joy’s essential non-existence.
Red Doc> is a real treat, though. Recommended.
* Though Autobiography of Red has now shot to the top of my “to find” list.
** Not like Glee.
*** Got volume 3 packed for my holiday next week!