Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Pollock

Anne Carson 
and the Sublime

Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera by Anne Carson. Vintage, 2006.

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          Anne Carson is widely considered an avant-garde writer because of her formal experiments and generic innovations. The label clearly makes some sense, at least superficially: think of her genre-bending first book of prose poems entitled Short Talks, for example, or the arbitrarily punctuated syntax in her early sequence The Life of Towns. But when we realize the formal method in the latter is evidently borrowed from Gertrude Stein’s “She Bowed to Her Brother” (1934), it seems more accurate to speak of its place in a certain kind of formal tradition. It is a modernist tradition, to be sure, and no one would deny that Carson feels modern. But it is clear to me that she is also a thoroughly traditional writer. 

          Carson has been for many years a professor of classics, she is a superb translator from ancient Greek, and in her own writing she returns again and again to the ancient roots, the classical and biblical origins of Western literature. These obsessions, self-consciously combined with her more fashionable interest in the new traditions of certain great innovators of the twentieth century like Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, enable her, at her best, to be truly original. Merely to rank her with “the triumphant march of the avant-garde,” in Zbigniew Herbert’s sardonic phrase—cultural amnesiacs endlessly shooting at the easy target of novelty—is to miss completely much of what is most interesting and valuable in her work. In fact, Carson has always been a writer in the Romantic tradition of the sublime, a tradition stretching back through Longinus to Sappho, Homer, and the Bible. And never more so than in her recent book, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera

The book explores, from a wide variety of perspectives, the theme of the sublime annihilation or decreation of the self. Carson borrows the term “decreation” from the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, for whom the purpose of such an act was to get out of the way of God, to let God’s will prevail over one’s one. Any student of religions will recognize this as a very old idea. But one way of understanding Carson’s focus on this theme is to think of her place in literary history: as a self-consciously post-confessional poet, she is concerned with finding ways to displace the self from the centre of the work. Not, mind you, in order to replace it with the cold, inhuman babble of Language, but rather to make way for “spiritual matters” . And this, as I say, places her squarely in the Romantic tradition of the sublime. “Not I,” writes D.H. Lawrence, in his “Song of the Man Who Has Come Through”: “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me.” The main difference is that where English Romantics like Shelley and Lawrence speak of “wind,” Carson often speaks of the still more traditional “God.” 

As its subtitle indicates, Decreation is not simply a collection of lyric poems, but rather a book of new writing in a wide variety of genres. Besides thirty-four short lyrics, four essays and an opera libretto, the book includes a screenplay, the text of an oratorio, a cinematic “shot list,” a longer ekphrastic poem, and something that reads like a series of study questions, with answers. But the book’s intellectual centers of gravity are its four essays, each of which takes a different perspective on sublime experience; and the subject of each essay is further explored in one or more other works that surround, or rather orbit, it in the book, like moons around a planet in the solar system of the sublime. For example, the essay entitled “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni,” is followed by a group of lyric poems called Sublimes, and then by another sequence of poems on sublime subjects called Gnosticisms. Similarly, the essay entitled “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God” is followed by a libretto, Decreation: An Opera in Three Parts, whose main characters include Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. The effect is rather like reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, or Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, or Yeats’s A Vision together with his poems of the same period; prose and verse illuminate one another, often brilliantly, from different perspectives. 

The essays themselves are erudite personal essays in the tradition of Montaigne, and, at the same time, incisive works of thematic literary criticism: they consist of surprising, associative arguments, supported by deft and wide-ranging quotation, acute readings of particular works of literature, and occasional incandescent descriptions of Carson’s childhood memories. Although Carson keeps her personal feelings on a tight leash, one always senses from the passion of the writing that the subjects of these essays are of urgent spiritual and aesthetic significance to her. 

The first essay in the book, “Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” is concerned with the therapeutic consolation of the uncanny, the sublime, or the supernatural, and especially with the power to be gained from the extraction of some secret, hidden content from sleep. By extension, it is also about gaining access to what is real, to Kant’s thing-in-itself, which is likewise secret or hidden. Carson clearly owes much to Freud here—whose book The Uncanny is one of the great contributions to the theory of the sublime—not to mention the whole Romantic tradition of the interior quest romance, but this is not a purely intellectual exercise for her. As an example from her own life of a “supremely consoling” contact with the uncanny secret content of sleep, she describes the following childhood experience:

My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room. That I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.

After giving an incisive and surprising interpretation of this dream-vision (“I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping”), Carson goes on to explain why she finds it so consoling, tracing her theme dazzlingly through the works and ideas of Plato, Aristotle, ancient Greek inscriptions, Kant, Keats, Lacan, Tom Stoppard, and, especially, Homer, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Bishop, elucidating certain works of these authors in ways that have the power to change one’s reading of them forever. 

The second essay, already mentioned, entitled “Foam (Essay with Rhapsody): On the Sublime in Longinus and Antonioni,” is about the “exciting,” “dangerous” and sublime act of . . . quotation. As she puts it, “the Sublime is a documentary technique.” After quoting Longinus’ discussion, in On the Sublime, of a passage from the Greek orator Demosthenes, Carson invites us to feel the power of quotation as something extraordinary:

Longinus’ point is that, by brutal juxtaposition of coordinate nouns or noun clauses, Demosthenes transposes violence of fists into violence of syntax. His facts spill over the frame of their original context and pummel the judges’ minds. Watch this spillage, which moves from the man who hits, to the words of Demosthenes describing him, to the judges hearing these words, to Longinus analyzing the whole process, to me recalling Longinus’ discussion of it and finally to you reading my account. The passionate moment echoes from soul to soul.

Carson is a classical scholar with the soul of a Romantic, and she writes with the passion of a master teacher, inciting, inflaming her students to experience the text with both heart and mind. (No surprise, then, to find Carson has dedicated her book to her actual students.) As this example demonstrates, Carson is a critic with a poet’s passion for technique, a quality she shares with the best poet-critics of our time. This is not her only theme here: the essay is also about the psychology, the joy, and the “structure” of the sublime (“Threat provides the Sublime with its essential structure, the alternation of danger and salvation,” she writes, recalling William Blake’s pithier sentence, “Fear and Hope are—Vision”), and, as well, the guiltiness or uncleanness of the sublime soul, who knows how to value the passionate moment, but for whom sublime threats may come from within as well as without. But readers familiar with Carson’s previous work will certainly recognize this essay as an apologia for one of her recurring stances in her writing, both prose and verse: that of the passionate professor of classics. 

Lest we forget that the sublime is a concept that was applied in the eighteenth century especially to certain aesthetic experiences of nature, Carson’s third essay, “Totality: The Colour of Eclipse,” considers the sublime experience of the total eclipse of the sun. She describes it as follows: “You are now inside the moon’s shadow, which is a hundred miles wide and moves at two thousand miles an hour. The sensation is stupendous.” Carson takes her literary examples this time from Archilochus, Pindar, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard. Surprisingly, she finds the experience is often associated in these writers with copulation, marriage, questions and doubts about marriage, and, less surprisingly, with a feeling of wrongness; in a metaphor borrowed from her own essay in praise of sleep, she compares seeing an eclipse to “waking from a dream in the wrong direction and finding yourself on the back side of your mind.” Taken by itself, this is the slightest of the four essays; however, when read together with the other three its images and ideas help to link all four in marvelously suggestive ways. For instance, although she never makes the link explicitly, the image of a total eclipse of the sun is perhaps her most powerful metaphor for her central notion of “decreation,” which may be understood as a kind of eclipse or annihilation of the self. 

Which brings me to the last and longest essay, the four-part “Decreation: How Women like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God,” which, even more than the other three essays, is the intellectual heartland of the book. She begins with a stunningly original and profound reading of Sappho’s famous fragment 31, the poem spoken by a jealous lover, beginning “He seems to me equal to gods that man . . . .” I urge you to read her analysis for yourself; I’ll just say that ultimately she reads the poem as an ecstatic lyric about the “theology of love,” one which asks a profound “spiritual question”: “What is it that love dares the self to do?” According to Carson, the answer in the poem is “all is to be dared . . . Love dares the self to leave the self behind,” Carson, whose brilliant translations of Sappho’s collected fragments, If Not, Winter, was published in 2002, and whose first book, Eros the Bittersweet, contained much passionate and insightful discussion of this ancient poet, deserves her growing reputation as one of the most exciting guides to Sappho’s work. 

Part two of the same essay considers the work of a thirteenth- and fourteenth-century French mystic named Marguerite Porete, whose Mirror of Simple Souls Carson describes as being “a book about the absolute daring of love,” or more straightforwardly, “a theological treatise and . . . handbook for people seeking God.” Porete’s central doctrine, as Carson describes it, is that “the soul can proceed through seven different stages of love, beginning with . . . ‘boiling desire,’” until she achieves “an ecstasy in which the soul is carried outside her own Being and leaves herself behind.” Like Sappho, she describes this experience in terms of a love triangle, although in her case the triangle consists of God the Spouse and the two parts of her divided self; as Carson explains, “she projects jealousy as a test of her ability to de-centre herself, to move out of the way, to clear her own heart and her own will off the path that leads to God.” 

In part three of the essay, Carson considers the work of Simone Weil, who also “wanted to get herself out of the way in order to arrive at God.” Weil called her program for doing this “decreation,” “to undo the creature in us.” She too imagines a love triangle, this time involving God, herself, and all of creation: she is the third wheel between two lovers, God and the earth, and wants to disappear; as she says, “If only I could see a landscape the way it is when I am not there.” The implication is that this would give her access to reality, to Kant’s thing-in-itself. Moreover, Porete and Weil agree that such a sublime experience of self-annihilation would be one of tremendous joy. 

Carson does an important service in this essay by restoring three important women to the Romantic tradition of the sublime, a tradition often thought of as dominated by men, and by reminding us that this tradition is not confined to recent centuries, but is rather a mode of writing that has had adherents in every age; her essay is a subtle but powerful rejoinder to glib critics who dismiss this tradition as outdated or inherently male. In this way, Carson is making a tradition for herself, and clearing a space for her own work as a poet. It occurs to me, moreover, that we can locate a central aspect of Carson’s elusive Canadianness in this project: her concern with the reform of this European tradition contrasts strikingly with, for example, the ultra-American Walt Whitman’s ostensible rejection of it; in other words, she adopts a rebellious, reformist Canadian attitude toward tradition very different from Whitman’s revolutionary American one. Of course, one might argue that Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot did much the same thing in their criticism, clearing a space for their own work by recovering European traditions that had been half-forgotten; and yet they were precisely the two American modernist poets who strove most ardently to leave America behind. 

The fourth part of this essay is especially interesting. There is a contradiction in Sappho, Porete, and Weil, Carson argues, that arises from the fact that they are writers: they create a “big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice” and yet they “claim to be intent on annihilating this self while continuing to write.” To resolve this contradiction, each one “feels moved to create a kind of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the center of the work and the teller disappears into the telling.” Here we have Carson the post-confessional poet, wondering how writers in her chosen tradition have managed to displace the self from the center of their work. In this fourth part of her essay, then, Carson goes on to describe and think about the “dream of distance” each of these writers creates. 

She reminds us that Simone Weil “arranged for her own disappearance on several levels,” including self-starvation; and this was related to the fact that Weil’s economic and spiritual diagnosis of the human condition was this: “Man’s great affliction,” she wrote, “is that looking and eating are two different operations.” Therefore her “dream of distance” is precisely a resolution of this affliction: “Eternal beatitude is a state where to look is to eat.” Because food reminds us so powerfully of our physicality, “she creates in her mind a dream of distance where food can be enjoyed perhaps from across the room merely by looking at it . . . where the lover can stay, at the same time, near to and far from the object of her love.” But as Carson reminds us, “eternal beatitude is not the only state where to look is to eat. The written page can also reify this paradox for us. A writer may tell what is near and far at once.” Certainly this is true of Carson’s own writing; while she gives us just one personal story in this essay devoted to the works of others—(“I remember a little book of The Lives of the Saints that was given to me about age five. In this book the various flowers composing the crowns of the martyrs were so lusciously rendered in words and paint that I had to be restrained from eating the pages”)—we are, nevertheless, always aware of her fervent personal stake in what she is writing. That is to say, she may be discussing figures distant from her in time and place, but in these essays she almost always seems to be writing about herself as a writer, and, moreover, whispering her discourse urgently in our ears. 

In Marguerite Porete the dream of distance seems to involve time as much as space, and moreover, for her “the writer’s dream of distance becomes an epithet of God.” She calls God “the divine Lover who feeds her soul with the food of truth,” and, more to the point, “the excellent FarNear.” In an act that Porete describes as both a kind of copulation and a kind of feeding, God “ravishes” the soul in the moment of its annihilation, and fills it, through an “aperture,” with a glimpse of its eternal “glory.” God must come “Near” to perform this act, but remains “Far” in time apparently because he only gives a glimpse; that is, eternity will have to wait. By contrast, Carson points out, Simone Weil considered prayer to be primarily an experience of spatial contradiction; nevertheless, its effect for her was similarly ecstatic. 

And finally, this brings Carson back to Sappho, whose prayer to Aphrodite, fragment 2, she reads as another dream of distance. The poem is a calling hymn, “an invocation to God to come from where she is to where we are”; as Carson says, such a hymn typically names both places, and then the invocation decreates the difference between them, “an impossible motion possible only in writing.” Moreover, Carson’s analysis of exactly how Sappho does this with her syntax is, as usual, superb. 

All four of these essays are, as I say, ultimately about decreation, about displacing the self to make way for the sublime. The subjects of the first two, sleep and quotation, are nothing if not ways of getting the self out of the way, and the subject of the third, the total eclipse of the sun by the moon, is the book’s great sublime natural metaphor for this act. The fourth essay, besides performing the important literary-historical services I have described above, illuminates the spiritual motivation for, and aesthetic consolation of, sublime writing in ways that have seldom been rivaled. After reading them three or four times, I believe these essays contain some of the most original and insightful critical writing about the sublime since Freud. 

What remains is to consider how well Carson puts her theory into practice. What I find, among other things, is that her theory teaches us how to read her poetry. When one re-reads the entire book after finishing her essays, the structure of the book as a whole becomes immediately clear. On the level of genre, the structure is this: the first hundred pages contain all the poems and the first two essays; this is followed by three experiments in other genres, namely the oratorio, the Q&A, and the screenplay; then the book finishes with the last two essays and the opera, and a brief cinematic “shot list” for coda. But on a spiritual and aesthetic level, the book’s structure is this: like Sappho, Porete, and Weil, Carson begins by consenting to love’s absolute dare and, in search of a sublime experience of decreation, progressively displaces herself from the centre of the writing, using every technique of depersonalization at her disposal, from quotation, imitation, parody, and critical analysis of others, to various kinds of dramatic technique, including experiments with screenplay and libretto. One is reminded of T. S. Eliot’s desire to “escape from personality,” and, accordingly, his deployment of some of these same methods, especially quotation, parody, criticism, dramatic poetry, and, ultimately, poetic drama. 

However, as Carson puts it, “to undo self one must move through self,” the self being “the parchment on which God writes his lessons, as Marguerite Porete says.” This is why Carson opens her book with a series of personal lyrics. Her subject is her response to the illness of her aging mother, whom she calls “the love of my life.” This is the love that ignites and instigates the book’s burning spiritual quest for decreation. The first item in the book is “Sleepchains,” a small, beautiful lyric about setting out on such a quest, which I quote here in its entirety:

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.

Notice how Carson begins her book, like her literary heroines Sappho, Porete, and Weil, with a dream of distance, and one, moreover, which includes its opposite, a dream of nearness: her anxious insomnia, “hundreds of miles away” from her sick mother, is interrupted—an interruption enacted in the syntax, which falls silent at the end of the first line—by the physical sensation of some “vast breath,” the breath of God, one supposes, “fan[ning]” the “restless decks” of her mother imagined as a ship, as if the mother were not far away at all, but indeed very near. And yet the breath and the rattling it produces serve by the end of the poem to call the speaker to travel, to close the distance between them, to begin the journey toward her mother-love and God, and this presupposes the great distance between them described in the first line of the poem. Nevertheless, whereas at the beginning of the poem the speaker uses two pronouns to indicate herself and her mother, “I” and “she,” by the end they are united by “us” and “we.” The mother and the “vast breath” are “FarNear” indeed. If the compound title of this poem reminds us of Paul Celan, it is no accident; such serious playing with spiritual paradoxes of nearness and distance, presence and absence, is central to the work of that European master, about whom Carson has written well and at length in her book Economy of the Unlost. But that is not all; the poem’s image of a vast breath moving over the ocean also echoes the beginning of the book of Genesis, in fact the very passage that Longinus quotes from that source as a supreme example of the sublime style. Such are the pleasures of reading Carson at her best. 

The poems that make up the rest of the opening sequence, entitled Stops, are, unfortunately, not always up to this standard. Of the fourteen lyrics in this part, I count just four or five that are as good as anything Carson has done in this mode, including, besides “Sleepchains,” the following poems: “That Strength,” “Nothing For It,” and “Her Beckett.” The others are decidedly less successful, though some of them are better than others. Here is one of the lesser poems, though not the worst, entitled “Beckett’s Theory of Comedy.” It is the last one in the sequence:

Picking gooseberries, she said.
O is shown moving to the window.
Should traps be not available.
Or they kneel throughout the play.
That lifelong adorer!
Same old coat.
No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Tomorrow noon?
Goes back up the path, no sign of you.


It isn’t that this is incomprehensible; the lines read like spliced passages from a Beckett play—they may in fact be quotations from his plays, I haven’t checked—and the point is clearly that the author’s life with and without her mother resembles such a play. (Anne Carson herself is clearly “That lifelong adorer!”) But the literary game here feels too clever, too derivative, too dependent on stylistic imitation to have much emotional impact, at least on this reader. It leaps ahead in its technique to a kind of false decreation of the self, without really moving through the self. By contrast, consider the moving poem entitled “Nothing For It,” which reads like a later episode of the spiritual quest romance begun in “Sleepchains.” Again, I quote it in full:

Your glassy wind breaks on a shoutless shore and stirs around the rose.
Lo how
before a great snow,
before the gliding emptiness of the night coming on us,
our lanterns throw
shapes of old companions
a cold pause after.
What knife skinned off
that hour.
Sank the buoys.
Blows on what was our house.
Nothing for it just row.

I admire Carson’s economy of language here, the surprises that result from her syntactical elisions and interruptions, her rhymes, her sharp enjambments, and especially her vivid and suggestive images. But what I admire most is the poem’s emotional force, its feeling of balancing on the edge of despair and stoical perseverance. The wind which in “Sleepchains” is a gentle “vast breath,” has now become an annihilating “glassy wind,” a “knife” that “skinned off ] / that hour” and “Sank the buoys” and now “Blows on what was our house”; and yet the speaker is determined to go on. One is reminded of Beckett’s line: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And how much more emotionally powerful this remembrance of Beckett is than the explicit imitation of the playwright’s language in “Beckett’s Theory of Comedy.” Having said this, I must say I find the form of this poem, with its centered lines a la Microsoft Word, and its melodramatic seventh line “and,” to be more or less arbitrary, and that is disappointing in a poem that is otherwise so good. 

The next sequence of lyrics, Sublimes, suffers from a similar unevenness. I count just three poems out of twelve as first-rate, namely “And Reason Remains Undaunted,” “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions,” and, with some hesitation, “Guillermo’s High Symphony.” “And Reason Remains Undaunted” begins casually with a conventionally Wordsworthian search for the sublime in nature, but then veers off surprisingly into a wild series of adjectives and adjectival phrases to describe “the many methods of moving green,” never to return to the poem’s original “walk”; it is a brilliant specimen of the list or catalogue poem, making full use of the catalogue’s disjunctive power, and, because it consists of adjectives instead of the usual nouns, it feels utterly fresh. “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions” is a witty and sad poem about sex and death: “Who does not end up / a female impersonator?” the poem asks wryly, only to wipe the smile off our faces in the next lines: “Drink all the sex there is. / Still die.” This poem is notable also for its summary of the aesthetic impulse behind the quest for decreation and sublime experience:

My personal poetry is a failure.

            I do not want to be a person.

                         I want to be unbearable.

When she puts it this way she reminds us of T.S. Eliot again. But she also raises the question of whether her personal poetry is in fact a failure. 

My sense is that some is and some isn’t. Certainly Carson’s early narrative poem from Glass, Irony and God, “The Glass Essay,” which is one of Carson’s most personal poems, and, as it happens, a poem about her relationship with her mother, is one of her very best. But restricting the question to the poems in the present volume, the picture is mixed. When her personal poetry is not successful it is generally because it overpowers the limits of the lyric in the name of formal or rhetorical experimentation. Carson’s continued playing around in this sequence with poems that blend lines from different voices, including quotations from other writers—a technique she has used many times before—fits intellectually into her program of displacing the self from the centre of her work, but just doesn’t seem to me, in her hands, to produce very good poems. Here is an example, from a poem called “Blended Text”:

You have captured:                                     pinned upon
my heart:                                                 the wall of my heart is your love
with one glance:                                     as one
with one bead:                                     as an exile of the kings of royalty 

And so on. That this cliché-ridden jumble is bad poetry I take to be self-evident, and so the less said about it the better. One has to wonder about any experimental technique that produces phrases as inane as “the kings of royalty.” Flannery O’Connor once wrote that a writer is free to try and get away with whatever he wants, but that it had been her experience that there wasn’t much one could get away with. The sooner Carson abandons this sort of thing, the better, though I won’t hold my breath.

The third sequence in the book, Gnosticisms, is, on the whole, much more successful. Take for example this fierce little ars poetica about writing the sublime called “Gnosticism III,” quoted here in its entirety:

First line has to make your brain race that’s how Homer does it,
that’s how Frank O’Hara does it, why
at such a pace
slam through the house—there goes one (fainting) up the rungs
of your strange BULLFIGHT, buttered
almost in a nearness
to skyblue
Thy pang—Pollock yourself!
Just to hang on to life is why

I find this exhilarating, both in the way the poem follows its own advice with onrushing syntax and headlong lineation, and in the way it deploys mythic imagery in contemporary language in a way that reminds me of certain poems by another Canadian poet, P.K. Page. And here is its companion poem, “Gnosticism VI,” about reading the sublime:

Walking the wild mountain in a storm I saw the great trees throw their arms.
Ruin! they cried and seemed aware

the sublime is called a “science of anxiety.”
What do men and women know of it?—at first

not even realizing they were naked!
The language knew.

Watch “naked” (arumim) slide into “cunning” (arum) snake in the next verse.
And suddenly a vacancy, a silence,

is somewhere inside the machine.
Veins pounding.

This, the culminating poem in the sequence and the last short lyric in the book, is the most powerful depiction of an experience of decreation among the book’s lyric poems. Notice how deftly Carson moves from a sublime Romantic landscape in the first couplet to Freudian analysis in the second, and then to Longinian quotation and explication of a biblical text in the third and fourth. It is the latter, the act of reading, which triggers the ecstatic moment of decreation, the displacement of the reader’s self, and leaves behind “a vacancy, a silence” where the ghost used to be inside the body’s “machine.” If only every short poem in Decreation were this good. 

At 245 pages, and with works in seven or eight distinct genres, Decreation is an impossible book to do justice to in a review. I regret that I must pass over Carson’s screenplay on the subject of Abelard and Heloise, her question-and-answer session on a film production of Samuel Beckett’s silent play (or dance) called “Quad,” the text of her oratorio in homage to Gertrude Stein, her cinematic shot list for a silent film, and her decidedly anaphoric poem on a picture by Betty Goodwin, all of which may be described as interesting experiments, though some are more interesting than others. I want to turn instead, however briefly, to the most ambitious work in the book, its grand finale, the sixty-five-page opera libretto entitled Decreation: An Opera in Three Parts. 

The libretto has three parts unified by theme but otherwise distinct; it may be best to think of it as a little trilogy. Part One dramatizes the story of the god Hephaistos who discovers his wife Aphrodite in the act of adultery with Ares, the god of war, and fails in his attempt to exact revenge. Part Two deals with the trial of Marguerite Porete by the Inquisition on charges of heresy, and her death by being burned at the stake. And Part Three concerns the life, thought, and death of Simone Weil. 

I have not seen the opera performed, although the 1999 production at the University of Michigan was apparently a success. But it must be said that it helps tremendously to understand the libretto if one has read the essay “Decreation” immediately beforehand, and indeed that essay appears directly before the libretto in the book. I can only imagine how mystified an audience might be without the benefit of this introduction. This is not to say they would not enjoy the production, but simply that they might well leave the theater scratching their heads about the relationship among the opera’s three parts. 

That said, the libretto is charming, moving, and profound. I was surprised at how funny it is, even on the page, and a good production would no doubt amplify this quality many times over. The scenes that deal with the thought of Porete and Weil are not at all static or dry, as one might fear, but superbly dramatized and emotionally engaging. And the scenes of Hephaistos’s failure, Porete’s immolation, and Weil’s life-ending stay in the hospital I found deeply affecting. 

As a dramatic form, the libretto is this book’s apotheosis of decreation, a fully realized “dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the center of the work and the teller disappears into the telling,” to quote Carson again. The unevenness of the lyrics at the beginning of the book, as I have said, arises from their straining to transcend the limits of the short lyric in ways—such as the use of multiple voices and blended texts—that are far more appropriate for drama, and so it is not surprising that this is the direction Carson is headed in as she comes to the end of her book. As far as I know, this libretto is her first original published and produced dramatic work, but I would not be surprised if Carson continues to write in dramatic forms in the future. (She has already published translations of plays by Sophocles and Euripides, in 2001 and 2006, respectively.) If she does, it would make Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera an important turning-point in her career.

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