On and Off of Parnassus

As Reviewed By: Ernest Hilbert

Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson. Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. USA $24.00, Canada $37.00

Anne Carson’s most recent collection, Men in the Off Hours, is a conspicuous departure from the uniform tone and patient psychological exploration of her previous book, Autobiography of Red, which, for all its intellectual elegance, was essentially a bildungsroman, a formational novel in verse. Against the elegantly balanced narrative configuration of Autobiography of RedMen in the Off Hours seems overgenerously protean. Carson introduces no regularity of style, subject, or form. This endless retreat from cohesion assumes the quality of a mad sonic or ocular polyphony, the stuff of wonder and headaches, resembling at times the aural experiments of Edgar Varèse or stormy visual language of Robert Rauschenberg. It is at times chatty, at others Sibylline, at others glaringly plain, still at others virtually impermeable, as she lays an adamantine lamina over certain impossible truths. This stylistic diversity is compelling, a lurid movement between the most open of lyrical insights and most impenetrable of semantic clusters. Carson’s readers will no doubt be familiar with her intellectual dexterity, but nothing in her earlier books, such as Plainwater or Eros the Bittersweet, prepares them for the decapodal evasiveness of Men in the Off Hours.

It seems at first odd that a 170 page book of poetry would begin with a slab of cerebral prose on historiography and the origins of war, as does Carson’s with “Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War.” Following this, however, there is a transition to a compact four-line epitaph and then another shift to a breezy lyric poem. It becomes clear that the book’s defining properties, and perhaps most valuable assets, are its versatility and range. Further reading reveals that these assets are by turns as broadly composite as Richard Wagner’s in his Ring and as disconcertingly overworked as Franz Liszt’s Etudes d’exècution transcendante. As with the magical-scholarly masterpieces of Jorge Luis Borges, Carson brings together texts by notoriously assured authors and thereby sets off magnetic reactions that repel and attract ideas with their own energy. At the start of the book, Thucydides, father of historians, is engaged in solemn disputation with Virginia Woolf, mother of Modernist literary feminism, the whole Peloponnesian War stalled between them as they quibble over terms and approaches. In the elusive and sometimes taunting manner of Borges, the language can be far from poetic (hardly a necessity in a post-experimental age lacking faith in a single beauty), but it prepares the reader for the expressive tonal plasticity to come:

Historiographical time is itself bound by the habits of nature. Thucydides decided military history should be dated as to campaigning seasons. “The events of the war have been recorded in the order of their occurrence, summer by summer and winter by winter,” he says at the beginning of Book II (2.1.1). Naturally he locates the affair of the Thebans who entered Plataea, which triggered the war and so came just before the first summer, “at the opening of spring . . .” (2.1.2).

The following piece, “Epitaph: Zion,” is the first of many epitaphs interspersed throughout the book. “Epitaph,” which derives from the ancient Greek for “writing on a tomb,” is fitting. Hers are portals through which none may pass and return to tell, yet fragments of hope and humor are projected onto them from those living who have anticipated death. Carson would, of course, be familiar with the possibilities provided by previous authors of the epitaph, such as Simonides of Ceos and John Dryden, who composed a flippant epitaph on his wife: “Here lies my wife: here let her lie / Now she’s at rest and so am I.” But whatever may be known of epitaphs, readers are still unprepared for the slippery solidity of Carson’s. It is difficult to determine the exact weight and measure of something like “Epitaph: Zion.”

Murderous little world once our objects had gazes. Our lives
Were fragile, the wind
Could dash them away. Here lies the refugee breather
Who drank a bowl of elsewhere.

This could be a lament on the Babylonian captivity, as its title might suggest and the word “refugee” maintain, but what is to be made of “once our objects had gazes”? Is this an implication that the speaker is in a world populated by graven images or even animistic pursuits? Is one to elevate this small poem into a vortex of post-structuralist literary theory in order to derive significance or deny the same? What objects had gazes? And what is to be made of the historically disjunctive speaker of the epitaph, one of a chorus that greets the reader throughout? Perhaps it is an elaborate joke, as is common in Carson’s writing. Perhaps it is the wandering in the wilderness; perhaps it is an expressive poetic scintilla meant to mirror the breadth of Jewish history, Tennyson’s God and man congenitally sealed in his flower in a crannied wall. Little is written, and so one assumes that much is being implied. This analytical tangle is multiplied repeatedly with each new example. The epitaphs resemble the alternately dazzling and tedious feats of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Concrete poets, though Carson’s do not necessarily follow any theoretical program that may have informed the efforts of either. Nonetheless, after the cool lucidity and woven allusiveness of the other poems that they cleave, the epitaphs emerge as panes of smoked glass. One can discern irregular forms and movement on the other side but no color or diagrammatic detail.

Once live X-rays stalked the hills as if they were
Trees. Bones stay now
And their Lent stays with them, black on the nail
Tattering on the daywall.

They deny entry. The reader can be drawn into a muddle of over-qualification and over-reading. The epitaphs easily remain as mysterious as the tombs on which they could be engraved.

As the collection proceeds, one finds lyric poems that, to be fair, could have come from the hand of any number of accomplished contemporary poets:

A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.
High on the frozen branches I saw a squirrel jump and skid.
Is this scary? he seemed to say and glanced

down at me, clutching his branch as it bobbed
in stiff recoil or is it that everything sounds wrong today?

If this seemingly effortless example is a thrust at postmodern irony, it is a successful one, aligned with Roy Lichtenstein’s painting the word ART in his 1962 painting Art, or, more precisely, painting oversize brushstrokes in his 1967 Yellow and Green Brushstrokes. Put more simply, Carson may be saying “I am being a poet, and look, ma, no hands.” She could also be attempting to work out a more personal grief with the most direct language at her disposal, tilling the soft soil of the garden rather than tumbling overhead as a skywriter. The collection advances beyond this to poems such as “Sumptuous Destitution’, in which Carson not only publicizes her willingness to borrow as freely as a Baroque composer or jazz soloist, but assembles a collage consisting of letters between Emily Dickinson to Thomas Higginson, Greek mythology (Ariadne’s thread used for herself in the guise of Emily Dickinson rather than for the ungrateful playboy Theseus), and her own poetry about the problematic scholarly term “Sumptuous destitution.”

“Sumptuous destitution”
Your opinion gives me a serious feeling: I would like to be what you deem me.
(Emily Dickinson letter 319 to Thomas Higginson)

is a phrase
You see my position is benighted.
(Emily Dickinson letter 268 to Thomas Higginson)

scholars use
She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview.
(Thomas Higginson letter 342a to Emily Dickison)

of female
God made me [Sir] Master-I didn’t be-myself.
(Emily Dickinson letter 233 to Thomas Higginson)

Rushing among my small heart-and pushing aside the blood-
(Emily Dickinson letter 248 to Thomas Higginson)

Carson’s lines, never more than a few tight words each, are eclipsed by Emily Dickinson’s (if hers is flirtation of a sort, it is of quite an elevated order), perhaps exemplifying an anxiety of influence: but both are encumbered by the invasive scholarly citations, which bear down on the harmonic flow of the two female voices-one, whispering in private correspondence, the other declaiming from the pages of the published book. Rather than anchoring the poem or serving any more purpose than a bicycle would a fish, the dullness of the citations muddies the finer notes of the other voices. Carson makes great use of personal letters in other parts of the collection as well. Letters, particularly in an era before the lassitude of electronic mail, were carefully-considered private conduits of communication that often provided their authors with an informal aperture through which to express nascent or otherwise unacknowledged beliefs and opinions. Protracting the macabre sensation provoked by the epitaphs, this usage of personal letters feels like the work of a Resurrection Man. Dissected and splayed on the page, the fragments of personal letters, whatever else they may designate, remind the reader that graves have been exhumed, tombs wrenched open.

The poems in this lengthy and bizarre collection resemble those of Ezra Pound in the early Cantos. Her expansive range of subjects and allusions is familiar from the High Modernism of David Jones and James Joyce, yet she lacks the grand architecture of the epic through which to establish larger thematic presences (Ivan Argüelles, for instance, another contemporary poet classicist, allows his bewildering succession of allusion to be ordered against the scaffolding of an ongoing multibook epic, Pantograph). Nearly every poem in Men in the Off Hours-excepting the cryptic epitaphs-is moored to something outside of itself: historic events, iconic figures, methodologies, technologies, other poets. Despite given themes, such as the diminution of complexity in the television’s gaze and the act of writing itself, the many poems fail to hang together without considerable exertion. The themes that do continue to appear do so in different guises. The intricate recurring lines of the poems resemble the fugal passages of J.S. Bach’s St. John’s Passion. A fragment of a line from Emily Dickinson, previously embedded in another poem, can re-emerge in another to reinforce its propulsion. Though the poems may be marked as “Freud (1st draft),” and “Freud (2nd draft),” the poems are different, perhaps precariously poised on the same thematic base, but different all the same. The book begins to work like a kaleidoscope and as such is prone to bestow, again, both wonder and headaches if one stares too long into its colors. This is Moby Dick over Portrait of a LadyThe Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even over Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, extravagant multiplicity over cool harmony. Ranging from chalked graffiti to Catullus’s Latin, the collection quickly becomes a dissertation on poetic possibilities. This can be invigorating but also a bit overpowering. There is, for instance, the grating shift, more or less typical of the collection, from the staid poetic material of “Audubon understands light as an absence of darkness, / truth as an absence of unknowing” to a once-radical Concrete gesture (common to the repertoire of Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose works, it should be noted, now appear almost exclusively in galleries rather than on paper) a few pages later

River river river river river river river

Certainly, the word “river” is made optically to form the bend in a river and also give the paradoxical sensation of recurrence and similitude that Heraklitus pointed to, but there is no clear reason for it to appear where it does or anywhere else for that matter. Of course, this could well be the point, endless flux in the fixed linear body of language, the individual motes of reality making up an experiential whole of a universe, and so on, but it still feels like more of a series of bumps than an incline.

Carson also includes her trademark interviews, moments of surrealism and psychological analysis, which in reality are nearer to antiphony than interview. These work very well. There is also an unadorned poetic reminiscence of her father, built around a memory of his blue cardigan: “Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair / where I always sit, as it did / on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.” This disarming simplicity is succeeded by a sequence of imagined confessions by the American painter Edward Hopper (each poem titled after a painting); although the confessions convey the sad stillness of his paintings, they are paired roughly against excerpts of Book XI of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Unity, long since banished from the garden, has been forgotten, and a literary pileup of sorts has begun.

It is only midway through the book that the reader comes upon the heart of the adventure, “TV Men,” a series of scripts and production notes formed around, among others, Antonin Artaud, Leo Tolstoy, Sappho, Giotto, Lazarus, Antigone, Oslip Mandelstam, and Catherine Deneuve. It is as though someone standing in a room cluttered with papers and books suddenly opened a door on a windstorm. So much comes together in this central part of the book that, for a moment at least, all previous offenses are forgiven. The poems that begin here are of exceptional charm, noble capacity, and a genuine if sad humor. The life and death of Antonin Artaud is a persistent concern.


He died at dawn on 4th March.
With Spring snow on the ground.
Alone in his pavilion. Seated at the foot of his bed.
Holding his shoe.
His body did not burst into unforgettable fragments at his death, no.

That summer was throughout Europe remarkable for its tempests.
Here I am! What lightning! was what people said
as they strolled along.

“TV Men” is a fracturing of cultural history in the camera lens, a strike at soundbite culture, with its simplification and thus distortion of ideas intended for mass consumption. This is a valid project, but one wonders if it is necessary to be so obscure and academic about it. As with all higher arts, one is aware that the means of transmitting the information is as susceptible to interpretation, perhaps more so, than what is actually being transmitted, the medium being its own message, and so maybe “TV Men” requires the thorny topography of Modernism in order to be successful.

The final portion of the collection is interpolated by an essay entitled “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity,” replete with endnotes. The exhaustive compass of Men in the Off Hours recalls William Carlos Williams’s failed epic Paterson and Charles Olson’s highly-influential if little-read postmodern epic Maximus. There is a very fragile border between the exhaustive and the exhausting in all arts. Often, motivating ideas are transported above the actuating materials of expression. One may be captivated by John Cage’s compositional theoretics but lack the energy to sit through a performance of, say, The Freeman Etudes, just as one may be in full intuitive agreement with Andy Warhol’s exaggerated icons and logos but lack the spirit to stand in examination before every soup can and Marilyn. Anne Carson repeatedly runs this risk with her ecstatic overplay, which seems sometimes forced and too clever for even most bright readers.

As if to seek some claim to elevated difficulty after the highly accessibleAutobiography of Red, Carson has published a book filled with astounding intellectual gymnastics, glinting fractiousness, and assuredly sinuous themes on the one hand; and with irresolution, gratuitously challenging ciphers, dry humor, and seeming lack of pitch on the other. It is a magnificent catastrophe. As for the unanswered allegation that readers may not be clever enough to accommodate her poetic pyrotechnics or be allowed in on her erudite jokes, it is sufficient to note that while a sixteenth-century carillon clock may be a fine and delicate instrument, it is as blunt as any other when swung overhead. In other words, allusions, though possessing elegant internal workings, can bludgeon when used without caution. Despite its nimbleness, there is something a bit musty and even Laodicean about her poetry. She leans heavily on her background as a classicist (much as did Ezra Pound). To infringe upon the Intentional Fallacy for a moment, it must be said that if her intention was to transcend the miscellaneous epochal styles that intermingle in her work (and therefore transcend the very aesthetic weight of history), she is only partly successful.

Much as T.S. Eliot remarked upon seeing Upper Paleolithic cave-paintings that “art never improves,” the aim of a genuine high modernism (she is a postmodernist for many reasons and not by mere dint of the age in which she writes) would be to shuck off any tangible archaizing in favor of a timeless air, a sense that historical ligatures can be collapsed against a single creative field much as Pablo Picasso compressed multiple perspectives into a single plane. Although she avoids archaizing her material with her deep allusional soundings, she does allow their individual realities to become somewhat diluted. This transcendental quality could be one of the triumphs of Men in the Off Hours, but, for all its brilliance, it lacks the successes (and, one should add, excesses) of either Pound’s Cantos or Eliot’s The Four Quartets (although it should be pointed out that these are hardly indisputable touchstones against which to measure a contemporary poet). Still, amid the fractured House of Fun cum House of Horrors, amid the ruins of an intermittently overtaxed poetic language and its linguistic spasms, there lie moments of what may possibly be genius. Still, the feeling that one takes away from this collection is one of unevenness and even a bit of contempt on the part of its author.

Any detailed explication of Men in the Off Hours would necessarily occupy the whole of a book three times its size. It begs the question: what now? What lands left to conquer? For moments of scintillating beauty and rousing perceptiveness, there are others of inescapable boredom and disappointment. It is impossible to tell how history will judge this latest enterprise by one of the most widely-admired and intimidating of contemporary poets, but one wonders whether a book as intellectually incendiary to trained readers and wholly perplexing to general readers wouldn’t be more at home a half century ago with David Jones’s Anathèmata and James Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake than in the sprightly if feeble-witted TV world it attempts so ardently to assault.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in Pleiades.[/private]

About Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert edited the Contemporary Poetry Review from 2005 until 2010. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review. His debut collection is Sixty Sonnets (2009). He graduated from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He hosts the popular blog and video show www.everseradio.com and is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
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