“He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet”: Thus begins Anne Carson’s 1998 Autobiography of Red, a book by one of the best-known poets of our century inspired by one largely forgotten these last 2,600 years. That forgotten poet, the “he” to whom Carson is referring, is Stesichoros, born in Greece around 650 B.C. and revered by his contemporaries. Today he is remembered, if at all, for just two things. First, he insulted Helen of Troy. (He accused her of causing the Trojan War and also of enjoying too indiscriminately that other act with which we commonly associate Trojans.) Second, he inspired Anne Carson. One insult, two and a half thousand years of silence, a walk-on as a muse: Thus does time chop up our lives, throw the bulk away, and chuck a piece or two at some other poor sucker swept along in its stream.
Hold that thought; we will return. But in the meantime, Carson has returned, too. Her new book, Red Doc>, is a sequel of sorts to Autobiography of Red, which was a sequel of sorts to a poem by Stesichoros, which, it turns out, was a sequel of sorts, too. In Greek myth, a monster named Geryon lived on a red island and tended a herd of coveted red cattle; slaying the monster and stealing the cattle was the tenth of the twelve labors of Herakles. (Hercules, to Roman types.) That tale was set down by Hesiod and others almost 3,000 years ago. Then Stesichoros got his hands on it and turned it into a poem he called the Geryoneis. Only a few fragments survive, but we know that Stesichoros’s Geryon was winged and red. We also know that he flipped the tale, recasting the hero as a murderer by telling it from the monster’s point of view.
Time passed, a lot of it. Then Carson got hold of the Geryoneis and flipped it again. The Geryon we meet in Autobiography of Red is still winged and red; also, sensitive, artistic, and just entering kindergarten. At 14, he meets Herakles, age 16, who slays him only in the slangiest of senses: Geryon falls in love. The two hang out, listen to music, tag overpasses, have sex, explore a volcano, break up. Years later, they meet by chance in South America, where they visit another volcano. We leave Geryon there, on the glowing lip of the lava and the rocky edge of adulthood. So Autobiography of Red is a bildungsroman. But it is also a love story, a meditation on translation, a portrait of the artist as a young monster, very strange, very smart, intermittently funny, and ridiculously beautiful. It is the one book I would take with me to a desert island, if that island were volcanic, and on Mars.
Now, fifteen years going on three millennia later, Geryon and Herakles are back. Red Doc> is sadder than its predecessor, and stranger, too. The strangeness starts with its title: Doc> made me think this book originated as a file on Carson’s computer, created after Autobiography of Red was finished and she found herself discovering new fragments of a private Geryoneis.
Whether or not that’s true, fragments are, thematically and formally, the atomic unit of Carson’s work. They are also emotionally paradoxical entities—evidence of the inevitable breaking up of things, yet also evidence of those things, proof that once there was a story here. Like all survivors, they are both tragic and miraculous: scattered, lonesome, lucky, lighting their flares across the wreckage of time. And sometimes they burn back into fire: the myth of Geryon, the Geryoneis, Autobiography of Red, Red Doc>. “After a story is told,” Carson once wrote, “there are some moments of silence. Then words begin again.”
Anne Carson is a poet, a classics professor, a translator of ancient Greek, and a Canadian. With that résumé, she should be the most marginal figure in American letters. Instead, she’s widely read and massively lauded: the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, a Guggenheim, the Pushcart Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize—as they say in Latin, et cetera.
If Carson has succeeded from within such sidelined disciplines, it’s because within them is precisely where she refuses to stay. Her scholarship often sounds like poetry. (“So into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born.”) Her poetry often sounds like scholarship. (“Emily’s [Brontë] habitual spelling of this word, / has caused confusion.”) She can turn Greek to English like a pro; just as often, though, she deadpans her way through startlingly modern translations. Autobiography of Red includes ostensible English versions of the Geryoneis fragments, beginning with this one: “Geryon was a monster everything about him was red / put his snout out of the covers in the morning it was red.”
Lines like those knock us into the past; we wonder whether Stesichoros could have actually written that, or written like that. But they also knock the past into the present: Here is mythology, in all its weirdness, waking up in our bed. This kind of chronological porousness characterizes all of Carson’s work. Antigonick, her scare-quote translation of Sophocles’s Antigone, features cameos by Hegel and Brecht. In Nox, she mourns her brother, who died in 2000, alongside the brother of Catullus, who died before the birth of Christ. “After Homer and before Gertrude Stein”: Those 2,600 years are the measure of Carson’s temporal wingspan, the most formidable of any writer I know.
This intimacy with vanished civilizations brings with it certain existential perils. You can’t study the ancients without registering how wildly alive they felt, how many of them simply vanished, and how terribly short their time was compared to the coming oblivion. This isn’t to say that Carson’s work is dismal; for every line of hers that’s grave and pensive, another is funny, erotic, demotic, or dirty. But her characteristic tone includes a primeval sadness, the left hand playing a lament no matter what the right is doing. Like the work of A. E. Housman, another poet-classicist, her books are set on the river of time, never far from where it joins with the Styx.
A stream is the conventional metaphor, but for unconventional Anne Carson, time is a volcano: something ancient, quiet, beautiful, and life-threatening; something that obliterates colossally and preserves capriciously. We climb up the “terrible slopes of time” because we must—though we don’t know that yet; we think we’re doing it for the view. Next thing we know darkness is coming on, and the trip down seems so much shorter than the ascent.
In Autobiography of Red, Geryon was summiting. Red Doc> is the beginning of his descent. Older and now just called G, he spends his time reading Proust, visiting his ailing mother, and—in one of Carson’s sadder temporal disjunctures—tending his herd of musk oxen next to a highway overpass. But then he meets a free spirit named Ida (“Ida means idea,” she says; she herself might be one vowel shy of sane) and, through her, reunites with Herakles. Now known as Sad But Great (Sad, for short), he is freshly back from an unidentified war—one part Troy, five parts Fallujah—and nursing a bad case of PTSD.
Did I mention this book is strange? Leaving his herd in Ida’s care, G accompanies Sad on a journey through mysterious terrain, a kind of Mercator projection of Carson’s mind: rural Canada meets Ring of Fire meets the Mediterranean circa 600 B.C. Their destination is a psychiatric hospital in a remote and frozen land. Once there, they meet up again with Ida, who has abandoned G’s herd, robbed a Laundromat, and pleaded psychosis to avoid jail. Also present: a former combat buddy of Sad’s called 4NO; Hermes, the messenger of the gods; and an army CMO who moonlights as a mechanic. Things go badly, and soon G, Sad, 4NO, and Ida must flee. This adventure is intercut with scenes of G’s herd, and especially of Io, a pure-white musk ox from whose perspective some of the story is told. How does Carson reunite this herd with its herdsman and his ragtag band? “Don’t say you weren’t / expecting a volcano.”
Even committed Carson-heads might find Red Doc> rough going at first. Most of it is printed in a narrow column running in a continuous line down the center of each page. The effect is of being in free fall—uncomfortable but apt, since all the characters are in some form of fall as well: psychological, physiological, sometimes literal.
For readers, though, there is a parachute. Midway through, the lines come suddenly alive, your sinking heart flies skyward, and—oh my God, the view. G and Sad are driving along a desolate coastal road, the North Sea or something like it fanging salt into the air, when they reach a cave of ice. Sad sticks with the car, but G takes flight. (He has wings, remember?) A mistake, maybe: The exertion and cold soon threaten to overcome him. Just then, though, other wings fill the air: “Ice bats! They are blueblack. They are absolutely silent. They are the size of toasters.” Exhilarated, exhausted, G gives in to their eerie benevolence and drafts on their collective wings into a central cavern. He lands, looks up, and sees a sign on the opposite wall: BATCATRAZ. Below the sign is the CMO, monkeying with a car in an ice garage behind the psychiatric clinic. “Clever of you to come in the back way,” he says.
Holy imagination, Batman. Who else on earth could write this scene? Miyazaki? Murakami? Marvel Comics? Carson, for one, can do it again and again. Later in Red Doc>, Io eats fermented gorse grass, gets high, convinces herself she can fly, and runs headlong off a cliff. You could reasonably read the whole book just for that moment, and what happens after.
If Red Doc> was a series of dream sequences, it would drive me ice bats. (See e.g. Magritte.) But such scenes don’t read like dreams. They read like the moments of awe life occasionally grants us long after we have lost our innocence—respite from the difficult, disillusioning, everyday ticktock of being human. It’s telling that the book begins and ends in places as banal as Batcatraz is strange: a conversation at a kitchen table, another in a hospital. But even when the setting gets surreal, Carson never breaks faith with ordinary emotion. Listen to G talking to Ida: “Ida tell me this isn’t true / quit hollering / I’m not hollering.” Winged red monster confronting Laundromat stickup artist, or outtake from Oklahoma!?
That’s Carson with her ear to our minor moods, but she also finds the hinges that open us up to rapture or grief. Toward the end, in that hospital scene, G sits beside his dying mother, almost visibly hunched around the little boy Geryon of Autobiography of Red. Here is their final exchange: “I look awful don’t I. No you look like my Ma.” I put the book down then: partly because I could not bear it; partly to call home.
“How do you say it?” a friend asked, referring to the title. “‘Red Doc Greater Than’?” Oh man, I said, astounded. I had translated it from DOS. He had translated it from math. Red Doc> … What is on the other side of that symbol? This book is not greater than Autobiography of Red. It is, in fact, far from perfect. It can be frustrating in its elusiveness. It can’t be fully grasped without rereading. It is, at times, excruciating in its grief. Yet just when it threatens to become unbearable, just when you are hurling at terminal velocity toward the killing earth—just then everything that seemed broken comes together. Suddenly you are borne into the sky on words and stories, those human wings, up there with a thousand ice bats and a kindhearted monster and a stoner cow and a solid column of volcanic smoke, seamed with brilliant flame.
What Red Doc> is greater than is the sum of its parts. This is Carson’s obsession, and her gift: to make meaning from the fragments we get, which are also all we get—of time, of the past, of each other. It doesn’t last, of course; the arrow of gravity, like the arrow of time, points only one direction. Still, for a moment, she gets it all to hang together up there, the joy made keener by the coming fall. Sad but great: In the end, it seemed to me that Carson had found the proper name for everything—her character, this book, this life.
Red Doc> by Anne Carson. Knopf. 167 pages. $24.95.
*This article originally appeared in the March 11, 2013 issue of New York Magazine