“Immortality on Their Faces”: The Persistence of Autobiography of Red
An artist’s life is an unconventional life. . . . It appears to rebel but in reality it is an inspired way of life.
—Agnes Martin, “Advice to Young Artists”
I’m reading Anne Carson again. I didn’t know what else to do; a former lover recently took his life, in a way that my mind keeps replaying, on a secluded beach in Hawaii. Carson’s scholarship on ancient Greek love is strangely consoling. With any two lovers, she writes in Eros the Bittersweet, there is “erotic emotion that sets the interval between two people vibrating.” On my first date with Brian, after a few beers, we walked down a sycamore-lined street in my neighborhood, trading puns, teaching each other the names of subtropical plants. The interval between us was abuzz. I’m remembering his dark, deer-like eyes, his understated snowboarder masculinity—and the vastness between us, his frustrating unknowability. And I recall one of my favorite lines in Carson’s Autobiography of Red, a “Novel in Verse” published to great acclaim twelve years after Eros. On the platform of a bus station, two dudes experience love-at-first-sight: “it was one of those moments / that is the opposite of blindness. / The world poured back and forth between their eyes once or twice.” In the synapse between Geryon and Herakles fires such a signal—powerful, oscillating—echoed in the novel’s alternation of long and short free-verse lines. Then the winged, red monster-boy, with a dollar, asks the artsy drifter for change.
Quirky and touching, Autobiography is one of those rare works of contemporary poetry that gets poets and non-poets reflecting deeply on their losses and loves. It is poetry for folks, as it has been said, who don’t like poems. Having sold over 25,000 copies, lauded by the likes of Harold Bloom and Alice Munro, it’s a runaway poetry bestseller, though certainly not without its detractors. A young woman on Tumblr shows off her gnomic tattoo from Autobiography: “Words bounce.” A dancer and an academic I know both want one too: a folded-up red wing and a volcano, respectively. Now, sixteen years after its publication, I think it’s time to account for Autobiography of Red‘s wide, sustained appeal.
Tapping into a powerfully dark etymology, the book weds hybristic content to an at-times dizzyingly hybrid form. Let me explain. Our h-word comes from the Latin hybrida: the baby of a wild boar and a tame sow. Oiiiink-eeeeerck!—that piglet’s squeal, sounding like an old garbage disposal, began in the throat of the much-earlier Greek word hybris. Or, as we spell it today, hubris. In ancient Athens, though, it didn’t mean excessive pride, some tragic hero’s fatal flaw. Hybris meant, often with sexual overtones, humiliating acts committed simply because, to the victimizer, they felt good. It is the opposite, Carson tells us in Eros the Bittersweet, of aidos, the etiquette that prevents dishonor.
Geryon faces hybris, it seems, at every turn in Autobiography. As a child he is molested repeatedly by his older brother, with whom he shares a bedroom. In late adolescence he is emotionally and verbally abused by Herakles, who in the parallel universe of Greek mythology murdered Geryon and stole his cattle. Later Herakles’ new lover, Ancash, suddenly punches Geryon with both fists, and Geryon’s reaction is characteristically quirky and gentle: “He’s ambidextrous!” Even nature assaults him: monkey vocalizations at dawn take “little nicks out of him”; roses in the hot sun subject him to their painful cries; starlight keeps him up by “crashing against the window screen.” One chapter’s opening one-line stanza sums up the situation, for us and for Geryon: “Under the seams runs the pain.” Like many others, at the hands of human perpetrators, I have suffered this type of “sweetbitterness.” In a bathroom, on a desolate shoreline, in a restaurant parking lot—that’s as much as I’ll say here. But it is trauma, I think, that has led many of us to art. Wearing the bee suit of aesthetic form, we can more safely approach swarms of pain in order to say, in a memoir or sestina that risks navel-gazing and oversharing, the unsayable: what never can be satisfyingly sung, tweeted, or dissertated about violation and love. About how they can become conjoined, monstrously, seamlessly.
The traumatized mind can be enacted through form. To paraphrase Helen Vendler, form itself is emotional content. Cross-genre writing workshops, quite common these days, look at hybrid forms: that is, any work, grafting together two or more distinct genres, that defies neat categorization. In such a course I teach, these texts might include flash fiction, prose poems, or PDF scrapbooks made of torn receipts, lyrical screenplay fragments, and Facebook posts in tatters. We call poems “lineated compositions”; Gertrude Stein, our fairy godmother, debates language and narrative with John Milton in the ether above our seats. In my section of English 94, “Writing Across Genres,” Autobiography resonated especially with Helen, an overachieving undergraduate fiction writer. In her remarkable, PowerPointless presentation on the book, she recited an original eight-section poem to us in the same spirit as Carson’s, with its unsettling mix of visceral imagery and punchy discursiveness. “This is a book about genre,” she declared one April afternoon in our classroom. “You’re a sly one, Greg Wrenn, but I see / what you’re up to.” She went on to say that genre lets writers “take a set of conventions. already uploaded to your brain / and smash them against your skull.” Just consider, as she suggested, how many genres are folded into Autobiography: memoir, lyric poetry, coming-of-age novel, romance, travelogue, Socratic dialogue, sculpture, photographic essay. Formally, Autobiography is a sexy mash-up. A monster who makes for a good bedfellow.
As we push against aesthetic conventions to make more authentic art, we are sometimes pretentious and silly. But at its best, whether in literature or engineering, hybridity is not a highfalutin’ hipster fad; it’s a mindset, a necessity, that rejects business-as-usual—in art, the body, the carbon economy—in order to reawaken and survive. Someone’s Carolina grandma gave up her 1995 Cadillac for a used hybrid Honda; internal combustion joining forces with a lithium-ion battery cut her tailpipe CO2 emissions by 57%. In a long poem I wrote, because he can no longer live in his abused, out-of-whack body, a man elects for surgery to turn himself into a hybrid creature—a compulsive, suicidal choice. Adrienne Rich’s stunning hybrid poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” restlessly alternates between quotation and spontaneous utterance, between poetry and prose, as a bewildered, outraged moral response to the Vietnam War. Hybridity seeks new solutions to old, urgent problems.
Despite his trials, Geryon does not grow disenchanted—he doggedly, passionately engages with the world. Indeed, what helps keep him from being that kind of autobiographer—”one of those people / who think of nothing but their stores of pain”—is his willingness to experience beauty with his problematic body, in his shining mind. Geryon remains—like a raw wound at the sternum that won’t scab over—open to life, as writers must if they are to matter. He is not the cardboard Geryon from the Tenth Labor or the simply pitiable Geryon of Stesichoros’ humanizing lyrics. A multi-dimensional character in a complex narrative, Carson’s Geryon photographs burros, obsesses over what time is made of, lies awake at night worrying about a captured pair of belugas. He has wings, and he uses them. Often employed to make Geryon a compelling contemporary mythic hero, the sheer gorgeousness and originality of Carson’s poetic prose—her prosaic poetry?—is her answer to the understandable cynicism of our age. To those who wish they had never been born and want to die. In one of the most lyrical, moving moments in Autobiography, at the last authentic tango bar in Buenos Aires, Geryon witnesses a musical trio playing together “in a state of pure discovery”:
They tore clear and clicked and locked
and unlocked, they shot
their eyebrows up and down. They leaned together and wove apart, they rose
and cut away and stalked
one another and flew up in a cloud and sank back down on waves.
Geryon’s attention moves away from his personal heartbreak outward to heart-mending, communal delight. Aesthetic beauty that has nothing yet everything to do with him. Art that we return to—van Gogh’s bird nests, Nina Simone’s crooning, Shakespeare’s sonnets—nourishes us in this way. To any text we bring our wounds, our untranslatable, dark wisdom. An enduring poem reflects our complex essence back to us. Our loneliness is transcended, briefly—that is the hope, at least. In the process, Carson aims to restore dignity to the dishonored Geryon and, by extension, us.
Ultimately, Autobiography is—in that broad, postmodern sense—queer. “Non-normative” is another possibility. Like Carson herself, the book defies easy labels. When asked in a Paris Review interview about her “life as a gay man,” she responded, “It’s been a somewhat checkered career as a gay man. I was never totally successful.” One New York Times reviewer described Carson as “giv[ing] the impression of someone from another world, either extraterrestrial or ancient.” Her craft talk at Stanford, when she was a visiting professor, wasn’t some staid lecture on dactylic verse. Instead she and her students read fragments of Sappho while her partner—the Randomizer, Currey—walked around unraveling a ball of yarn, creating a vast network of string in the lecture hall. One of her favorite hobbies is drawing volcanoes. Like her stunning long poem “The Glass Essay,” Autobiography of Red is likely an allegorical Autobiography of Carson—a highly imaginative record of surviving one’s strangeness. Yet the text is so mythologized that many of us can identify with Geryon and the many other freaks—analogues for a subversive, disquieting artist—that populate the text. For instance, Herakles’ grandmother tells Geryon of Lava Man, the sole survivor of a volcanic eruption who became a circus freak:
He gave out
souvenir pumice and showed where the incandescence had brushed him
I am a drop of gold he would say
I am molten matter returned from the core of the earth to tell you interior things
If some writers were called “weirdo” and “faggot” as children, it was likely because, more than anything else, we wanted to read books and write in our journals. We had to hide our metaphorical red wings.
Some readers resist Carson’s genre-bending. One such reviewer in Poetry rhetorically asks about Carson’s work, “Is it that the medium isn’t so much the message as the marketing strategy?” Well, did Jackson Pollack make action paintings instead of still lifes because he wanted a full-color photo spread in Time Magazine? His splatters of paint were not in bad faith, and neither is Carson’s artistic questing, even if it’s not always successful. In my view, they are comparably transformative artists. We talk a lot about racial and socioeconomic diversity, and rightly so—but there’s also a diversity of neurological hardwiring, of blindingly talented artistic brains, some of which gravitate toward the avant-garde—not as an attention-getting affectation but rather as an instinctual phenomenology. Whitman and Dickinson, Williams and Eliot, Louise Gluck and Jorie Graham—we need not take sides. At the same time, just because a text is hybrid or “experimental,” that doesn’t make it good. Autobiography‘s sequel, Red Doc> came out last year and reminds me of that truth. I often found its narrow, justified, largely unpunctuated columns of text unreadable. If Autobiography is a deep-sea dive, Red Doc> is a zippy jet-ski ride, a book that is altogether too breezily well-read:
WEIGHING IT IN his
hand he pauses then
throws it across the room.
Does he hate Today I
Wrote Nothing: The
Selected Writings of
Daniil Kharms translated
from the Russian by
Matvei Yankelevich for
some good reason or for
not being Proust.
I no longer see myself in Geryon, named “G” in Red Doc>. Who in my life—or yours—is willing to have a tantrum over Marcel Proust? I find myself not caring.
In the nook above my printer, I reshelve Carson’s books. It’s way past midnight, and I’m cold. Outside it’s drizzling.
A new email pings: a memorial is in the works for Brian. If I have a chance to deliver a brief eulogy, what would I say? Would it be part-poem, part-encomium, part-memoir? How is a life—with its routines, losses, and flashes of nobility and wrongdoing—to be summed up? As I walk away, bits of Autobiography‘s final chapter come back to me, and I turn around, take the book down to get them right. “And now time is rushing towards them,” I read aloud, “where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces, / night at their back.”