For years, if not for the right reasons, friends have recommended that I read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. The verse novel retells Stesichorus’ now-fragmentary Geryoneis, in which Herakles steals a herd of cattle and kills their red herdsman Geryon; Autobiography of Red depicts Geryon as a winged red monster who is also an adolescent struck by desire for a James-Deanian Herakles. Friends have made me the recommendation believing that the book would lend me, a queer classics student, support either for my queerness or my love affair with antiquity. Comfortable with both, I in fact needed a crutch for neither. But in Autobiography of Red I found support of another kind, a legitimating of my adolescent life’s loneliness, the mental life to which I often withdrew and found difficult to open to others.
In Autobiography as elsewhere, Carson’s verse opens minds with singular intensity. She gives a voice to Geryon’s rich and incommunicable sense of the world—a sense that escapes the participants of that world but into which Autobiography allows us a glimpse. Herakles and Geryon over the phone:
I had a dream of you last night. Did you. Yes you were this
old Indian guy standing on the back porch
and there was a pail of water there on the step with a drowned bird in it—
big yellow bird really huge you know…
Yellow? said Geryon and he was was thinking Yellow! Yellow! Even in dreams he doesn’t know me at all!
Autobiography communicates the red that Herakles cannot see.
Red Doc> is Carson’s newly completed sequel to the Autobiography; it, too, captures perfectly inner senses of the world. Red Doc> follows Geryon and Herakles, later in life and under different names. At first, everything about the book baffles, the way that a plate stuck round a pole surprises the squirrel headed to the birdfeeder above. The name baffles: the angle-bracket is a part of the title and is pronounced something like “Psssshhht.” The typesetting, too: much of the text appears in a narrow strip down a wide page. (As I turned pages on a flight to Ann Arbor—where Carson, incidentally, still lives—my seatmate glanced over and remarked, “They wasted a lot of paper.” “Maybe,” I replied. “I haven’t finished yet.”) But Red Doc>, quirks and all, reveals more than it obscures. Last Tuesday night at Live from the NYPL, Carson read a lyrical passage in which Geryon, now “G,” watches his herd of musk oxen:
They stand in a circle facing away from the center (calves in the center) and the long guard hairs hang down to brush their ankles like pines. Like queens. Like queens dressed in pines. Musk oxen are not in fact oxen not castrated bulls nor do their glands produce musk. Much is misnomer in our present way of grasping the world. But pines do always seem queenly as they sway so grand and anciently from the sky to the ground.
Carson’s reading of the passage numbered among a dozen moments when I thought, “That. Yes. Just like that”; another came when Carson provided the interior monologue of Io, G’s favoured musk ox, as she wakes. These senses of the world, however inaccessible, appear to have been perfectly articulated. A musk ox may wake up just like that.
I have now seen Carson read three times. Her voice is curiously controlled, stopping short of a monotone by a peak here and dip there. The restraint focuses a listener’s attention purely on her words and creates an exquisitely intense reading. Embellished with little emotion, her phrases are clear, cold, and as inescapable as the death of G’s mother that crowns Red Doc>. Listening for long is almost physically shocking; I remarked to my friends as we left the reading that I felt concussed. A strophic selection offered the strongest blow:
Mothers ashamed and Ablaze and clear At the end As they are As they almost all are, and then Mothers don’t come around Again In spring
After the reading, I walked by myself up Fifth towards the Park, turning over my thoughts and her words, thinking about mothers and then again how light looks to me in the morning and what it might look like to a musk ox or a winged red monster. It felt good to be lonely.