happened to your
autobiography says Sad
you were always fiddling
with it in the old days. I
gave it up says G.
Nothing was happening in
my life. They look at one
another and start to laugh.
—from Anne Carson’s Red Doc>
I recently saw Anne Carson read portions of Red Doc> at Pitzer College. My attempt to understand her work—specifically, the intersection of both Red books—is skewed by that experience. Perhaps skewered is the more exact word. She also read a fifty-three part essay about Albertine from Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. She numbers her paragraphs, she says, to give the audience hope that they will eventually end. I believe there is more to it.
She stands, darkened, onstage behind a podium. The auditorium descends toward her. Her voice is a focal point, a backlit pinprick, like the pupil of an eye. She does not trip a single syllable, does not tongue one misstep. She reads with unaffected, perfected reverence, “Time passes time / does not pass. Time all / but passes.” So time stops in the downward auditorium. Ice bats draft our hero to safety within the corridors of a glacier. Lava-like blood goes cold.
Later that night I write Carson a letter (not to be delivered) about the people who fidgeted in their seats, who rustled their pant legs, who click-clacked their flip flops up and down the darkened aisle, who coughed and checked their phones throughout the performance. It is a verse-letter.
Red Doc> is Carson’s sequel to Autobiography of Red, a novel in verse about a red boy with wings, written in 1998. In this precursor, Carson tracks the romantic and artistic trajectory of Geryon, a character prefigured in Greek mythology as a red-winged, monstrous cattle herder who is killed by Herakles. Geryon is only a minor character, little more than a name mentioned in the fragments of Greek poet Stesichoros. Geryon was just one of many monsters slain by mighty Herakles (Hercules). But…
Carson resurrects Geryon. She raises him from childhood through early adulthood in a strangely contemporary world. Here he is on the first day of school: “Geryon’s mother took him to / School She neatened his little red wings and pushed him / In through the door.” As Geryon grows older he hides his wings, but no one seems to notice that he’s red. Geryon engages in sexual acts with his older brother in exchange for cat’s eye marbles and trips to the beach. His brother’s sexual advances teach Geryon the difference between within and without—what’s I and what’s other. After this discovery he begins his autobiography.
And so it is. Carson takes us inside Geryon. The pivotal moment comes in adolescence when Geryon meets the rebellious, ruggedly handsome Herakles. They become lovers, they visit the volcano of Herakles’s hometown. Geryon takes up photography, capturing what’s outside to render what’s within. Herakles gets bored and shatters Geryon like a bulb of light. Years pass. Jump-cut to a twenty-two-year-old Geryon in Argentina, bumping into Herakles in a bookstore: “After all these years—he picks / a day when my face is puffy!” By now Herakles has taken a Peruvian lover, Ancash, and they continue their exploration of South American volcanoes with Geryon in tow. Herakles burns this newly formed bundle of kindling at both ends. More magma. Carson ends the story just after Geryon temps death by flying into a volcano and thus realizes his artistic identity as a living, self-affirming myth:
He has not flown for years but why not
black speck raking its way toward the crater of Icchantikas on icy possibles,
why not rotate
the inhuman Andes at a personal angle and retreat when it spins—if it does
and if not, win
bolts of wind like slaps of wood and the bitter red drumming of wing muscle on air—
The verse novel stops shortly hereafter. Stesichoros’s prophesy is not fulfilled: “the red world And corresponding red breezes / Went on Geryon did not.” Carson’s Geryon lives past the end of his myth. But enough of the past.
Red Doc> is written fifteen years after Geryon’s Autobiography. The jump in time seems to coincide with the book’s fictive chronology. Middle-aged, Geryon now leads a quiet life as a herder of musk oxen, and goes simply by “G.” Herakles—now called Sad But Great, but mostly just “Sad”—has recently returned from war with PTSD. On the dust jacket, Carson casually explains that she wrote Red Doc> because she “began to wonder what happened to them in later life.”
The dramatis personae is larger in this follow-up. There’s Ida the neurotic sketchbook artist who knocks G out with a two-by-four for trespassing under her freeway overpass. G’s unnamed mother balances the book with some much-needed death-bed pathos. There’s also 4NO, a battle compatriot of Sad who constantly sees five seconds into the future, but “functions pretty well / considering.” The CMO runs a psychiatric clinic beside a glacier that rests above a volcano. (He’s also an auto mechanic.) Hermes in a silver tuxedo appears from time to time and guides the gang (G, Sad, Ida, and 4NO) toward their unraveling fates, though 4NO already knows where they’re going. And Io is Geryon’s most beloved musk ox who scarfs psychedelic gorse and leaps off a cliff under the care of M’hek, another of Sad’s war buddies, who watches the herd while G, Sad, Ida, and 4N0 undergo treatment at the glacial psychiatric clinic.
Apologies, but it seemed necessary for those uninitiated with Geryon to understand how he became G and who this red-winged man is in the world that spans both Red books.
In matters of form, Red Doc> expands Carson’s genre-bending repertoire. Once again, she writes a novel in verse, but with this project, there is more emphasis on verse.
Red Doc> uses three main formal structures. One is a newspaper column format that both left and right justifies the lines. These narrow strips seem at first automatic and therefore not craft-sensitive, but they actually generate the book’s break-neck velocity. The pacing and aeration produced by the form complements the plot, which has G and Sad constantly jumping place to place, from freeway underpasses to glaciers to volcanoes to pastures to hospitals and everywhere in between. Along with being germane to the hopscotch narrative, the pacing allows for dynamic shifts of perspective. The omniscient narrator transitions seamlessly from the head of one character to the next, without signaling the shifts, so they all seem to inhabit the same cognitive discourse.
This polyphony kept me engaged, but also made me miss the tender insides of Geryon, who often occupies the periphery of this narrative as the other characters take center stage. Even when G “feels / such a stab of envy plus / love plus hate” because Ida is sleeping with Sad, it feels temporary, a passing emotion, and the story skips on to discuss Proust or the CMO’s minotaur psyche, without rending the reader’s heart the way Geryon’s emotional tectonics so moved us in Autobiography.
There are also poems composed entirely of dialogue in this book. Carson separates each speaker’s lines by a backslash to enact the back and forth exchange of conversation. Some of these dialogue-poems are broken into stanzas and begin with longer lines. For example, the book begins:
GOODLOOKING BOY wasn’t he / yes / blond /
yes / I do vaguely
/ you never liked
him / bit of a
rebel / so you
said / he’s the
one wore lizard
pearls to graduation / which at the time you admired /
The pacing is rapid, the enjambment is rampant, but the clarity of the conversation remains intact. Without the speakers being explicitly introduced, the reader suddenly understands that G is talking to his mother about Sad who has just returned from military duty with PTSD and is now addicted to antidepressants. Carson even inserts a stage direction—“[stubs cigarette]”—so the reader knows that this is G’s mother. More often than not, these poems are just an exchange of voices. This technique further blurs the lines of genre by incorporating the unadorned dialogue of playwriting.
A last formal construction is a group monologue known as The Wife of Brain. These self-titled poems are centered and occur intermittently throughout the book. Like a Greek chorus, The Wife of Brain is a collective voice that comments on the dramatic action: “a red man unfolding his wings is how it begins then the lights / come on or go off or the stage / spins it’s like a play omnes.” Wife of Brain often helps ground the reader when the chaos of the “play” becomes overwhelming. These poems also offer meta-reflection on process and the genre boundaries the book is challenging:
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
Like the man in flames, we run through this book (it reads really well) not quite sure what it is. Wife of Brain is yet another way that Carson mediates between the mundane and the epic. Her formal techniques literally enact the collision of these two worlds and further redefine the lines of creative writing.
Red Doc> is radically different from Autobiography of Red in terms of form because in the sequel, Carson’s project itself is radically different. Autobiography is a fairly straightforward romance about a sensitive artist struggling to define his relationship to art while engaging “the human custom of wrong love.” Carson there creates a tale of epic proportions by exposing the lush, troubled interior life of Geryon. Use of the lyric sustains our connection to the little red-winged boy and we ride the slow lava-flow of his prefiguring in Stesichoros’s fragments. We sail a molten ship into the immortality of a new myth.
Carson dedicates Red Doc> to the “randomizer.” I Google “randomizer” and several sites for random number generators pop up. I ask one to choose a number between two and 9,998. The randomizer births the number 8,086. I ask it again, with the same range: 5,795. What has this experience taught me? Birds build a nest in the porch rafters one day. I write an urban-pastoral about posterity, how we build a world for those who come after us. The birds are gone the next day, bits of thistle and bird shit scattered across the porch steps.
Fate in Red Doc> is the randomizer. The narrow strips of poems lure us down the page like water into a sinkhole. We cannot resist its current no more than the characters can resist their destinies. Wife of Brain poses “that old tragic question who are we at the whim / of (whom?) whom / hums the tune.” The circularity of this question represents the lack of agency and sense of inevitability at play in the book. This fatalism is embodied by the character of 4NO, Sad’s war buddy who constantly sees five seconds into the future. He considers himself a Prometheus figure, a bringer of foreknowledge to the dim lives of those around him. But how much wisdom can five seconds contain: “The future is already. He / cannot win. / He cannot / help. He cannot change.” 4NO’s gift of prophecy saves no one, and by the novel’s end he desperately staves off the blinding white light of the future by writing and writing and writing. Craft is the only harness for the randomizer: the characters are dropped into this proton-accelerator world and they ping around the vacuum. Carson’s virtuosity with language pins them down for a static millisecond and we marvel at their fragile beings before they zoom off toward new challenges.
But chaos is not the only operating principle in Red Doc>. We are still tracing the arc of our hero. We still care about him, especially if we read the Red books in succession. In the first installment of his journey, he overcame the impediments to self-knowledge. He came of age and flew in the face of his demise. In this book he has another challenge to cope with. The first poem, the conversation between G and his mother, foreshadows this new conflict when she pulls out a cigarette and he asks, “so your surgery is scheduled / for when.” Fifteen years after the end of Autobiography, G’s mother still smokes. It doesn’t take a prophet to see what will happen.
I’m back in the auditorium in the black still static of time. Carson’s voice suspended like smoke. The students suddenly stop fidgeting. G’s mother is about to die: “Time taking / Night by the hand and / trotting off down the road. / Time passes oh boy. Time / got the jump on me yes it / did.” Thus we are skewered.
Once again, G does not die as he does in Stesichoros’s tale. He outlives his creator, his mother, and he will surely outlive Anne Carson. The death-bed sequence haunts us with the fact that the randomizer only has the option of choosing numbers within a given set. These are the rules. Being born is the low value and the reasonable limits of human life wait at the opposite end. Whatever happens between those numbers is pure possibility. Carson reminds us that there is only one conclusion to the flesh, no matter how we mythologize it:
simply stroll away amused
that an intimate event
(breath) should be
mistaken for a law
governing all beasts?
She finishes G’s second journey with a level of intimacy (a mother’s last breath) that is not risked elsewhere in the book. This stroke of gravitas balances out the POMO playful entropy and gratifies the reader. After the pell-mell montage of events she roots us to the earth and buries us.
Red Doc> departs from Autobiography of Red in ways that are maddening yet cohesive. Both books have different projects and we must face each on its own terms. Together they form a piece of art that confounds expectation, on and off the page. The two epics of Geryon/G harmonize in a weirdly warm, delicate union and leave you ringing like a tuning fork long after you’ve read them.
Anne Carson asks if I want my name in the book. I shake my head. She signs, Respectfully AC 2013. I walk away terrified in a good way under a grey sky, thinking of how to explain it.
Greg Emilio is a Southern California native who writes poetry and book reviews. His work has appeared in Foothill, Miramar, Pleiades, and World Literature Today. He teaches English at Chaffey College and tends bar at The Press Restaurant in Claremont.