A Review of Anne Carson's Float — December 29, 2016
by Christopher Nelson
That a mind can be so various in its attentions is a primary delight in reading anything by Anne Carson. Float is not an exception. The “book” is a collection of twenty-two chapbooks—two just over a page, and the longest a forty-page “lyric lecture with shared chorus” reminiscent of her opera in Decreation. The chapbooks are housed in a plastic case, not bound to each other, and are intended to be read in any order. Similar to her previous book Nox, Float even further refuses the expectation of linearity and cohesion; but unlike Nox, which is unified by the subject of her brother’s death, Float is a delightful mystery bag in which we find writings that aren’t concerned with relating to each other. One chapbook, for example, contains eight translations of potent poems by Émile Nelligan; another, a brief reimagining of Euripedes’ Bacchae; there are two numbered-list poems, a brilliant series of nonce sonnets about pronouns, and a couple of essays rich with Carson’s signature insights about classical esoterica; etc.
Because the range of styles, forms, and subjects is so various, to attempt a comprehensive review of Float would be a kind of folly; instead, this review will be intentionally myopic: a reflection singularly focused on the occurrences of God, gods, and signs of God. In doing so, however, I don’t want to suggest that with Float Carson has written a book about divinity. She hasn’t; and the subject isn’t necessarily more prominent than a variety of others, but I think it warrants unique consideration. Recall that Aristotle’s defense of poetry included the claim that it was more philosophical and serious than history because poetry “speaks more of universals.” And isn’t God the most universal subject of all, for It contains every other: Love, Death/Time?
“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” is an eccentric and convincing essay that calls upon Homer, Friedrich Hölderlin, Francis Bacon, Ibykos, Paul Celan, Joan of Arc, and others to champion the power of silence and the untranslatable and to lambast cliché. Carson writes that “we resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this?” The interrogation of Joan of Arc is featured in the essay to exemplify the refusal of cliché as an act of defiance and, thereby, loyalty to the mystery that is God. Joan of Arc’s judges were authorities on religious imagery, protocol, and nomenclature, so when a woman who claimed to be in contact with the divine contradicted the orthodox language and narratives used to describe God, they were flummoxed and enraged. Carson highlights a sentence from Joan of Arc’s testimony: “The light comes in the name of the voice.” Such a sentence “brings a whiff of immortality with it,” Carson writes, because it employs language, a tool of the known, to attempt the unknowable, even if those words stop or stutter our semantic understanding, such is, after all, the mystery of God.
In the same essay, Carson makes the case that Eve is one of our oldest refusers of the cliché. In Adam’s “primordial act of naming, [he] had taken the first step toward imposing on the wide-open pointless meaningless directionless dementia of the real a set of clichés that no one would ever dislodge or want to dislodge—they are our human history, our edifice of thought, our answer to chaos.” Like Joan of Arc, Eve makes a catastrophe of cliché, and in the reign of cliché, to be a catastrophizer is to be a hero. History does not treat these women well. I’m reminded of a poem of Carson’s in The Truth About God, “God’s Woman,” published in 1995, in which God’s woman is critical of nature being “stuck / up between my legs on your pink baton.” God’s response to the criticism is to encircle her with “Fire. Time. Fire.” and force her to choose. I’m conflating texts here, I know; but there are times, like this one, when the thematic threads that hold the fascinating structure of her ideas together are visible. In the chapbook/poem “Pronoun Envy,” Carson writes, in the voice of an imagined collective of women, “In a world / where God is ‘He’ / and everyone else / ‘mankind,’ // what chance / do we have for / a bit of attention?” While Carson has the legerdemain to treat God with a humorous irony that doesn’t diminish the gravity of that subject, the critique is poignant: the God that we give human names, narratives, motives, and gender to is not the God that is felt in the silencing ideas of a Joan of Arc testament or a Paul Celan poem in which a man comes to the world with “the lightbeard of / prophets” and he can “only stammer and stammer.” Cliché, like insisting that God is male, is not a safety that those close to the fire have chosen, fortunately. Carson reminds us of this.
The best example I can cherry-pick from the various writings of Float to illustrate Carson’s disdain for the male-imagined God is “Sonnet of Addressing God” in the chapbook Possessive Used as Drink (Me). In this poem a confusion of pronouns when referring to God holds an implicit message. She writes, “God swung her/ his/ their/ God’s legs over the side of the girder.” This multiplicity and uncertainty continues, and it is the point—or a main point. After several more lines in which God positions Itself to drop from this girder of great height, she writes, “We/ You/ They/ I/ One screamed from below.” A brilliant move suggesting that the separation between “us” and God is an imagined/unreal/cliché one.
Fifteen poems about Zeus comprise the chapbook Zeusbits. Apparently as a matter of course, we don’t regard Zeus as God, but the literary similarities outweigh the differences. His name even means God, coming from PIE dewos and noticeable in the Latin deus. It might not be just literary similarities that outweigh the differences; perhaps the theological do as well: think, for example, of the demigods of Genesis (especially noticeable in the language of the Torah, which has been muted in Christian translations), where divine beings take human girls as wives because of their beauty. It’s a page from the Olympian’s playbook. I’ve digressed … but the tone with which Carson is critical of God is the same tone used in the Zeus poems, which portray him as ruthless, violent, horny, greedy, and, perhaps above all, mysterious. At one point, Zeus even “consults his own viscera”—haruspex, to read the future in entrails. Often preposterous—Zeus mailing two million households instructions to view Robert Mapplethorpe photos—any humor, however, is overshadowed by the patriarch’s violence, which, I think, is the point. In the brief poem “Zeusex,” Carson tells us that because “He is the sky,” there is nothing other than “night jump[ing] into his arms.” This is juxtaposed with a girl “ravished behind her housing project in East London / whose father that evening set her on fire / to make a point about purity.” And in “Zeus and Research Funding” it is difficult to see a doctor because they are all busy “keeping torture victims alive down by the lake.” Zeus’s interests are many in these poems, but domination and violence for the sake of violence make a motif; Zeus even wages war on lichen, and his “tigers lay cold and golden amid their lawyers.”
Throughout her oeuvre God peeks in with his/her/their/our terrific/terrible eye. God appears most prominently in (no surprise) Glass, Irony and God, but the problem/predicament of God is addressed perhaps most directly in an essay in Decreation called “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God.” Similar to one of Float’s theses of speaking the unspeakable or untranslatable instead of relying on cliché—to insist on truth even if that makes a catastrophe of the real—, the Decreation essay notes how the apparent absence of God is a condition somewhat resolvable by “unselfing” or “decreating”—i.e., by allowing a catastrophe of the self. Catastrophe comes from the Greek katastrophé, which means “an overturning.” It is an appropriate word to describe encountering the real and/or God. Furthermore, it is an appropriate word to describe Anne Carson’s work—poems, essays, and writings that befuddle genre distinctions and consistently overturn our expectations. Not many poets earn the title catastrophizer, but Carson, book after book (and “book” after book), has proven she is catastrophizer par excellence.