The Sunday poem: No 32 Anne Carson

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 32 Anne Carson
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Poignant, sensuous, daringly original, combining dry wit, erudition and compassion, Carson is a Canadian professor of Greek with a unique gift for turning human precariousness, the deep wounds which suddenly open in ordinary conversation, into surprising lyric. Her new book Autobiography of Red, her second collection in Britain, replays a Greek epic about a monster killed by Hercules as a gay photographer wounded by an affair with a callous flirt.

This is only half the poem, which is one of a sequence with three main subjects: grief for the end of an affair; an identificatory obsession with Emily Bronte - her life, her understanding of pain and her character Heathcliff who (like the poet) loses his love; and a visit to Ma, in whose fridge ("brilliant as a spaceship") a yoghurt extractor cowers "beneath a wily arrangement of leftover blocks of Christmas cake." Ma never approved of the ex-lover, and shoots out helpful questions like "That psychotherapy's not doing you much good is it? You're not getting over him." The blend here of sceptical affection, sparring tenderness and defensive irritation gives way in the poem's second half to the visit to Dad: once a dashing pilot, now in an Alzheimer's home.

Musically, this poem begins by contrasting rhythms. Flowing sentences like the first stanza (or the tenth, with that Summer Catalogue) are brought up short by bare single words (Not. Moon. Air. Sunrise. Women? Nope.) This contrast of registers and rhythms gets across in sound the poem's main conceptual contrast: between the inside - the spirit, what people privately think and feel - and the ritualised, external outside of life. Domestic chat, the body chewing toast. The poem seems to suggest that the different Rules of Life operated by mother and daughter correspond to different sides of the spirit-body divide. The short bare words are the poet's, the prosey flowing rhythms mainly mother's, or describing mother. The poet, the I (with whom the reader identifies), sleeps with curtains open as wide as possible, likes to wake up, identifies with Emily Bronte who fed wild birds from her plate, who lived indoors but loved the open moor. Mum has toast, not a hawk, by her plate. Her exasperated voice and furious finger say she is against high-cut bathing suits, International Women's Day, exposure (light on your face, sun on bare legs). She is on the side of tight curtains, closed surfaces, keeping things in; which makes her heroic, gentle behaviour when she faces the glaring tragedy in her own life, the husband with Alzheimer's, a moving surprise.

But from the first line, the poem is really about mum's inner feelings, working out by the way she chews her toast if she's had a good night, is about to say a happy thing. These stanzas are a choreography of intuition about mum's feeling, from ridicule (Ma, are you serious - echoing furious) to appalled sympathy: my mother is afraid. Soundwise, afraid has been prepared for by the word of the overt argument, drapes followed by rape, grape, Women's Day, disgrace, raped, into frail, afraid, and the reason for being afraid: eighty. The AY sound belongs with things Ma feels threatened by, including a Day for women who lay grievances bare (about being raped) and swimsuits for women who, by baring their legs, seem to deserve to get raped. These are things she pulls drapes against, doesn't want to wake up to. Both arguments, drapes and rape, bear on the poet's sexual grief explored earlier in the sequence, especially a poem remembering sex with the lover who no longer loves her. Rape? The poet wants to see light, understand - hence the psychotherapy. Her mother is all for covering up, hence hostility to therapy and open drapes. From here, the AY sound moves on to plate, and - the climax of this part, which moves the poem on to the second half - today. Ma's hostility, a natural follow-on to one of our oldest arguments, is transferred to the kitchen clock. In family kitchens, hostility, fear and pain routinely happen in disguise. Emotions get displaced on to objects, drapes close over feelings. But the clock also reminds you of the passage of time: those eighty years in another guise.

My mother is afraid. Explaining something from within a poem is often disastrous. You follow some taut movement of words and clunk! - you get explained to. Carson avoids the clunk by making explanation drop on the poet, too. We have a hawk's act, dropping from a great height, before the hawk itself: which sits at another kitchen table, caught between two other woman bound by affection, separated by opposing Rules of Life. The soft Fs (frail, fact, from, afraid) separate this stanza from the rest. It is a window into soft, clear, inner feeling in this domestic maze of scepticism, indignation and old arguments seen in terms of a computer menu. The transferred epithet frail (it's not the fact that's frail but Ma, and the poet, seeing how frail Ma is) leads into the visual details: tiny sharp shoulders, hunched, blue bathrobe, little merlin hawk. The explanation introduces the image for the poem's central concept: heroism.

Carson could have called this poem anything, "Random Channel," "Slicing the Pumpernickel," or "Visiting Dad". That visit occupies the rest of the poem and knits the themes together: the poet mourning lost love, Ma calming the unrecognising shell of her own lost love, the body versus spirit theme. For where is the spirit in an Alzheimer's-gripped body? By naming the poem after this strange hero, a hawk at the kitchen table, Carson draws strands of heroism together. The wild creature in the kitchen, frailty that keeps going, makes wily arrangements in the fridge, refuses to see all that light, but faces tragedy steadily when it has to. Humourising mundane details (bits of bacon when Charlotte wasn't around, hot slice of pumpernickel) and her own efforts at dealing with difficulty (that insouciant toss, the I interpose strongly, a send up of overwritten autobiographical narrative in the seventh stanza where the poet tries to deflect Ma and, just like Ma, uses external things to symbolise what she is doing) are all wily human arrangements for facing grief. Grief for everyone: father, lover, woman of 80, and poet who has, like Heathcliff, lost her love.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Hero' is taken from Glass and God (Cape)


I can tell by the way my mother chews her toast

whether she has had a good night

and is about to say a happy thing or not.


She puts her toast down on the side of her plate.

You know you can pull the drapes in that room, she begins.

This is a coded reference to one of our oldest arguments,

from what I call the Rules of Life series.

My mother always closes her bedroom drapes tight before going to bed at night.

I open mine as wide as possible.

I like to see everything, I say.

What's there to see?

Moon. Air. Sunrise.

All that light on your face in the morning. Wakes you up.

I like to wake up.

At this point the drapes argument has reached a delta

and may advance along one of three channels.

There is the What You Need Is A Good Night's Sleep channel.

the Stubborn As Your Father channel

and random channel.

More toast? I interpose strongly, pushing back my chair.

These women! says my mother with an exasperated rasp.

Mother has chosen random channel.


Complaining about rape all the time -

I see she is tapping one furious finger on yesterday's newspaper

lying beside the grape jam.

The front page has a small feature

about a rally for International Women's Day -

have you had look at the Sear's Summer Catalogue?


Why, it's a disgrace! Those bathing suits -

cut way up to here! (she points) No wonder!

You're saying women deserve to get raped

because Sears bathing suit ads

have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?...

The frail fact drops on me from a great height

that my mother is afraid.

She will be eighty years old this summer.

Her tiny sharp shoulders hunched in the blue bathrobe

make me think of Emily Bronte's little merlin hawk Hero

that she fed bits of bacon at the kitchen table when Charlotte wasn't around.

So Ma, we'll go - I pop up the toaster

and toss a hot slice of pumpernickel lightly across onto her plate -

visit Dad today? She eyes the kitchen clock with hostility.