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Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera

by Anne Carson
272 pages,
ISBN: 1400043492

Danger on Peaks

by Gary Snyder
128 pages,
ISBN: 1593760809


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Lows and Highs
by Iain Higgins

The two writers whose work is reviewed here are as different from each other as chalk and soy cheese. Gary Snyder seems to me more interesting for what he says than how he says it, though such a claim somewhat underestimates his quiet craft. Anne Carson strikes me as more interesting in her manner than her matter, even if to say this means underplaying her intelligence. Yet however different the appeal of their work may be, both writers resemble each other in being uninterested in composing conventional anecdotal lyrics centred on a sensitive "I"¨or even on an ostensibly insensitive alter ego, as in the work of Irving Layton or Al Purdy. Not that Carson or Snyder has turned completely away from the various lyric traditions available to Western writers since Pound¨far from it. Snyder's most-honoured poetic teachers have been fine ancient Chinese writers like Han Shan, and Carson's include Sappho¨neither of them masters one could accuse of pre-modern impersonality.
The point is rather that you won't find in Car-son or Snyder the sort of poem that starts like this: "Clipped my skull on the lip of the bridge / as I plunged feet-first into the anxious river. / My teeth jawed together, all castanet / or clam-shell, crunched my tongue to pulp. / I couldn't talk, or scream, or lift a finger" (Matt Rader, "Falling", from Breathing Fire 2: Canada's New Poets). Snyder is superficially closer to this kind of thing¨which might be called the vernacular anecdotal poem¨than Carson, but his deep commitment to Buddhism keeps even his I-centred poems from being simply about himself. In their very different ways, Carson and Synder both displace the purely personal in their writing. Even when it occupies the poetic foreground, it is not the central concern. As writers, then, both of them ultimately work¨despite their fame, despite their awards¨against the cult of literary personality that has become as pernicious as that of literary prizes. As Carson says in the essay "Decreation", triangulating Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil to locate her own poetics, "each of them feels moved to create a dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the work and the teller disappears into the telling."
The sprawling, multinational edifice that is now Anne Carson began with a small, quirky book called Short Talks, published by Brick in 1992. True, "Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay" appeared some years earlier (in 1986, from Princeton University Press), but, brilliant as it is, Carson's revised PhD dissertation would never have reached an audience beyond classicists or literary critics without Short Talks. The book reappeared three years later (in 1995) as part of Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, which itself came out in the same year as Glass, Irony, and God. This double whammy was in effect Athena bursting full-grown from Zeus's forehead, since these collections pretty well contain all of her poetic concerns and modes as writer, good and bad, as well as two of the best things she has ever written, "The Anthropology of Water" and "The Glass Essay". The collections were both published out of New York (a far cry from the brickworks of London, Ontario), the first from Knopf (Highbrow), the other from New Directions (Modernist), and the latter even came with a characteristically pithy introduction by Guy Davenport. "Anne Carson's eyes are original," he rightly insisted, while warning readers not to expect predictable poetic beauty: "If a good line happens, it happens," a remark that in context is descriptive not damning.
Carson was soon publishing at a graphomaniacal pace. In 1998, came Autobiography of Red, and one year after that, Economy of the Unlost. Three years after Autobiography, Men in the Off Hours (recycling and revising its "TV Men" from Glass) stepped into the limelight and took home the Griffin Prize, and only a year later Carson's readers were introduced to The Beauty of the Husband, a book whose literary moves so wooed some readers that it won two poetry awards, the 2001 T.S. Eliot Prize and the LA Times Book Prize. Prior to the belated Canadian and English approbation that she received alongside the LA Times Book Prize, Carson had of course already enjoyed plenty of other American admiration: a Lannan Award (1996), a Pushcart Prize (1997), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1998), and a MacArthur Fellowship (2000). Just in case anybody had forgotten that Carson is by training and profession a classicist, she also published translations of Sophocles's Electra in 2001 and Sappho in 2002 (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho).
Now three years after the Sappho comes Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera, a formally miscellaneous yet thematically more or less coherent collection in the manner of Plainwater, Glass, Irony, and God, and Men in the Off Hours.
Like those other three collections, Decreation is a mixed bag of a book, and probably the weakest of the lot. Along with Carson's usual startling twists, turns, and tartness, it contains some pathos and bathos, and even a few scrapings from the bottom of the barrel: Anne Carson doing Anne Carson with one hand behind her back doing something else perhaps. Bad as it sometimes gets¨and this book contains the worst thing that Carson has ever published, Decreation: An Opera in Three Parts¨the book is mostly fairly good, preferring to offend by taking risks than to bore with more (yawn) of the same. The new book after all has as its epigraph John Florio's rendering of a sentence from Montaigne's "Sur des verses de Virgile": "I love a poetical kinde of a march, by friskes, skips, and jumps." And Carson plays the Montaignesque role, frequently stooping to splash readers with "incongruous ideas" from "the queer pool of [her] mind" (to quote an aside from "Totality: The Colour of Eclipse"). Mostly the effect is refreshing¨the frisks keep the reader on her toes, and the splashes are generally bracing, as in the book's opening poem, "Sleepchains":

Who can sleep when she¨
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
Cicatrice by cicatrice
all the links
rattle once.
Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.

If a good line happens, it happens, as Davenport says, because Carson's aim is not one damn good line after another but "the music of what happens." Carson's own image for making music happen is tucked away in "Longing, A Documentary", the book's terse closing piece, where she pictures herself as getting photographic paper to develop on a river bottom in moonlight and strobelight. The archaic and the high-tech are her media, in other words, and her effects are variously chiaroscuro and flashy, but she is above all not a writer of the upright Apollonian noon. Quoted by itself, any one of the above lines from "Sleepchain" would be enough to prod yet another apoplectic splutter of rage from her critics, who are sometimes right about her faults but clearly overlook what makes Carson a poet with a genuine claim on our attention: not her lines as such¨quoting even several lines often misses what is most engaging in her work¨but her movement through them: swift, startling, and satisfying.
"Neither rhyme nor reason," insisted The Guardian's literary critic Robert Potts when Carson won the T.S. Eliot Prize. Potts preferred Geoffrey Hill's Speech! Speech!, which is to say that he would have preferred his Carson not Canadian, female, and Classical, but English, male, and Early Modern: "Erudition. Pain. Light. Imagine it great / unavoidable work; although; heroic / verse a non-starter, says PEOPLE" (Hill's opening words). Carson (who could well have thought these same thoughts as Hill, but would have expressed them in her riverbottom dialect) is not less demanding of her readers than Hill is of his, but Carson prefers not to slap them around. In addition, her books contain a good deal of fashionably contemporary female angst (which she usually does exquisitely) that gives her a shapely leg up on the brilliantly but unfashionably fulminating Hill as he shakes his gnarled oaken cane menacingly at the blight we call the contemporary world.
Davenport got Carson's "unpoetic" power exactly right when he said that her poems are like "notes in their pristine urgency." The best ones, that is; the worst read like lecture notes in their yellowed inconsequentiality and do not even have what Dryden called "the other harmony of prose" (Carson, like Hill, can suffer from the academic habit of constantly instructing the reader).
After the fine start called "Stops", Carson treats her readers to one of her usual essays¨"Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)". Relying on the juxtapositions and ellipses not of Pound, but of tired old academic New Historicism, "Every Exit" hops into the prose sack with Homer and Woolf and Elizabeth Bishop and Socrates and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and manages to make them all seem like pretty dull bedfellows. The book's two later essays¨"Totality: The Colour of Eclipse" and Decreation: How Women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God¨are fortunately much better, and in addition offer oblique insights into Carson's own pared-down poetics. So too does the compelling Q&A session called "Quad", a concise meditation on Beckett which also tells her readers what she is about. "[I]s there a plot," "Quad" asks, answering thus: "To keep moving at all times and not touch the hole at the center of the thinness." "[S]imply a game," runs a subsequent question: "I do not find games simple" comes the tart answer.
Games can be boring, though, or dull, and the two pieces ("Foam" and "Sublimes") that follow are every bit as dull as "Every Exit", shifting Longinus, Antonioni, and Monica Vitti listlessly around the board. The next section, "Gnosticisms", is better. How many contemporary poets, for instance, could describe uncomfortable urban nights as well as this:

Forgot? How the mind goes at it, you open
the window (late) there is a siffling sound,
that cold smell before sleep, roofs,
frozen staircase, frozen stair,
a piece of it comes in.

Mixed amongst the good as well as the fair-to-middling pieces are the ugly and the bad: "Seated Figure with Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin", "Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices", and "H & A Screenplay". The Goodwin poem is an "iffy" theme-and-variations response to a painting that remains uncompellingly disjunctive, and is also full of pointless (as opposed to poetic) non sequiturs. Explicitly inspired by Gertrude Stein, "Guns" only manages to confirm the (misleading) stereotype of Stein as a dotty old charlatan (and as for the piece's contribution to the North-American debate over guns, no comment). "H & A Screenplay", which might well have been called "Abelard Asshole and Hurtin' Heloise", manages to turn two extraordinary human beings into ideological puppets in the sex and gender wars, and is not redeemed even by its occasional comedy: the moment, for example, when the police startle the intellectual lovers in their parked car, ruining their tOte-a-tOte (like Hill, Carson can sometimes be funny, but laughing aloud might spoil the more general air of portentousness that pervades their work).
Finally, there is Decreation, which can only be described as an experiment in "rym dogerel", to quote the Host of the Canterbury Tales, who thought Chaucer's "drasty rymyng" in such a mode "nat worth a toord." Chaucer's effort, though, was a deliberate parody, whereas Carson's¨well, who knows? I will spare the reader an excerpt, and merely note that the opera sounds no better performed than it does on the page, if the recorded samples are any indication (they are available through The Borzoi Reader at the Random House website.) The only way that the opera might actually work is in a performance by Monty Python¨John Cleese (et al.) as the Quidnunc Chorus, and Eric Idle as Marguerite Porete, or the two of them as Abelard and Heloise! But somehow I think that mocking mystical or any other decreation (creaturely self-undoing) was not Carson's aim here. Alas. "[L]ittle do, / little oh, / alas," as she says in her far more interesting meditation on the same concerns ("Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions").
From Plainwater to Decreation, some ten books in ten years¨a manic and probably unsustainable pace. If the chaff were winnowed out of the Collected Carson, readers would find themselves amongst some of the most engaging poetic writing of our time. No one of course can say how these quirky wordthings will wear over the long haul (and the haul since Homer and Sappho has been a hell of a lot longer than that since Woolf and Beckett), but at the moment she has earned her right to dance on the page with those she has brung with her, Sappho, Beckett, and Woolf amongst them. If you were to measure her best work to date against Italo Calvino's millennial qualities¨lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency¨you would find that it has all of them, in various measures.
So too does the best work of Gary Snyder. Despite a similar impulse to teach the reader and a similar lack of interest in shaping fine lines (if a good line happens in Synder, it happens), Synder is very different from Carson. If transatlantic High Culture and the classroom are her preferred milieux, pan-pacific Counter-culture and the mountainous backwoods are his. Of the same literary generation as Geoffrey Hill but self-schooled worlds away in the North Pacific Ring of Fire, Snyder has since the mid-1970s published only about one book of poems per decade¨a mere trickle of books compared to the torrents of Hill and Carson. Danger on Peaks, the latest¨and possibly last¨is also his first free-standing collection since 1983, when Axe Handles came out (Left Out in the Rain, No Nature, and Mountains and Rivers without End were all books of a different sort: fugitive poems, new and selected poems, and a book-length poem, respectively).
For those who know Snyder's work, there is nothing new in Danger, including its literary unevenness, but it is still a book worth reading; it contains a handful of throw-aways, but also some fair-to-middling things and some pretty good work, much of it in his deceptively simple rip-rap structures, and all of it tempered by a hard-earned Buddhist equanimity that contrasts strongly not only with Hill's righteous Anglican anger, but also with Carson's classical quasi-Catholic questioning. The tonal difference is only half the story, though, for Snyder's literary cosmos is more capacious than theirs. Plants and animals as well as people inhabit his moral world and time for him is cosmic and geological as well as historical. His eyes may not be quite so original as Carson's, but his eco-Buddhist vision is still sufficiently far from the Euro-american cultural norm that it often has a kind of poetic quality.
A quiet lyric in memory of the poet and Buddhist monk Philip Whalen, for example, focuses not on the gone friend, who is remembered only at a tangent, but on the transformation of 33 beetle-killed Ponderosa pine in their "moving on" to become "decking, shelving, siding, / stringers, studs, and joists." Not even a simple 2x4 is too unimportant for Snyder's poetic attention, since in his consciousness it was also once a wild tree and will one day be part of a human dwelling. One of Snyder's great strengths as a "nature poet" is his capacious sense of nature, which, as he wrote in his preface to No Nature, is not limited to "the physical universe, including the urban, industrial, and toxic." In the poem in question here, instead of the traditional lyric attempt to arrest time in a single ecstatic composition¨which is in effect an attempt to separate the human from the natural world of flux and death¨Snyder neatly uses the brief form to embed the human in the cosmic flow of material transformations and interdependencies. He will think of the trees, he says in closing and addressing them directly, "as you shelter people in the Valley / years to come" (Snyder's italics).
Another poem, "Icy Mountains Constantly Walking" (dedicated to Seamus Heaney, who admires Snyder's barehanded integrity), depicts Snyder reading his work in Ireland¨"just the chirp of a bug"¨and ends with a pair of images pondered on the flight home: "The rows of books / in the Long Hall at Trinity / The ranks of stony ranges / above the ice of Greenland." That the mountains get the last word is characteristic Snyder, but so is the trust in both the things depicted and the reader; for the poem contains no allegorising of its images, no editorialising, no Wordsworthian injunction to quit books for Nature, no verbal pyrotechnics, but rather accepts both books and mountains as there, each with their own claims on human attention.
Neither of these two poems is literarily exciting of course¨their matter is more compelling than their manner¨and yet their images stay with a reader once the book is put away, just like the quiet images in the quiet poems left by Snyder's East-Asian masters. Still, there are better poems (as poems) in Danger on Peaks, which in its six-part organization and its mix of verse and prose (some of it loosely modelled on Japanese forms like the poetic diary) is constantly shifting perspective between the close-up and the long view. The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980, the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddhas in the Bamiyan valley, the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center all find a place in this book, but so do the Pole Star's cosmic drift, bits of PVC pipe, parking metres, bigrig drivers, and the remains of a baby jackrabbit eaten by an owl. Almost nothing escapes Snyder's concern, and yet there's no it's-all-relative-dude flattening of values either. In a poem called "What to Tell, Still", Snyder depicts himself as divided between his various commitments as a friend, a husband, a father, a citizen, and a poet, yet accepting the legitimate claims that others have on him and trying to answer them all in turn, by taking his turn in the car pool or writing advocacy letters and so on. Whether he has answered all of these claims or not is another matter (he has been divorced three times, apparently), and not a reviewer's primary concern. The book in question can be recommended as an informative collection of small pleasures to anyone who appreciates clear-eyed eco-poetic perambulations or the sort of thing that Snyder wrote in response to northern lights seen in northern California in April 2001, a poem called "Flowers in the Night Sky":

I thought, forest fires burning to the north!
yellow nomex jacket thrown in the cab, hard-hat,
boots,
I gunned the truck up the dirt-road scrambling,
and came out on a flat stretch with a view:
shimmering blue-green streamers and a red glow
down the sky¨
Stop. Storms on the sun. Solar winds going by

Iain Higgins lives in Victoria. A collection of poems entitled Then Again (Oolichan) and another of translations entitled The Invention of Poetry (Salt) both appeared in 2005

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