Anne Carson's highly original verse novel sends its hero on a poetic journey taking in everything from Len Deighton to flying cows
Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, published in 1998, caused a sensation, a verse novel that reconstituted mythical Geryon – a red-winged monster – and Heracles and invented a modern narrative for them. A Canadian-born classicist (she has taught Greek at Princeton and elsewhere), Carson has a pile-up of awards to her name, from the TS Eliot prize to the MacArthur "genius grant". And she has pulled in an audience who would not ordinarily read poetry. Even non-fans would have to concede that she is an original. Her writing is wayward, entertaining and testing.
Red Doc> follows Geryon into manhood. He abandons his day job as herdsman of muskoxen and sets off on a picaresque journey that takes in a glacier, a psychiatric clinic, a volcano and ice bats "the size of toasters". With him on the icy road are Sad – his lover and a war veteran – and Ida, an artist, irresistibly described as looking like "a very tough experimental baby". Throughout, Carson disregards convention in a way that only a demob-happy classicist could.
Red Doc> carries this dedication: "for the randomizer". And a randomiser is what every Carson reader needs to be. She excels at departure from context. In the opening piece (not sure "poem" is the word), she shows how conversation (broken up by oblique dashes to indicate speakers) exists in free fall, has truant drive, need not be stapled to circumstance:
… could be too late for me to appreciate Proust on the other hand I'm at a loss
I've read all the Len
Deightons in the library/ hundreds of people visit his home every year some just
burst into tears/ Len
Deighton/ no Proust/
There is no telling what will turn up in the conversational dragnet next. "Lizard pants", Christina Rossetti, an ornamental deer, forthcoming surgery – along with Len Deighton and Proust – are all blowing in the same wind. And minimal punctuation suggests anything further would be a bossy imposition.
Conversation makes its own context. Yet Carson is equally good at situating people in rooms without talk. At one point, she writes: "Alive in a room as usual." At another: "Quiet ticking kitchen. It was the middle of the day." Or: "Ida is watching the room/ itself. It looks lonely a/ room needs its work." The poems themselves are situated in centred vertical columns – a computer accident. When the margins leapt to attention, Carson approved. The > after Red Doc was another computer contribution. The embracing of these quirks – just on the safe side of pretentiousness – is characteristic of Carson's playful lack of self importance.
And I have never read a poet where there was such a sense that the material was so unruly it might overwhelm its creator. It is this that makes Carson exciting. In a recent interview in the New York Times, she spoke of it being important for the mind to "move somewhere it has never moved before". This is what she achieves. She writes with spendthrift ease, shrugging off beautiful lines such as "the entire/ cold sorrow acre of human history".
Occasionally, the lyrical zaniness is suggestive of a more erudite Joni Mitchell. The book is filled with strange sightings – a man in a silver tuxedo who turns out to be Hermes, Ida pretending to be bipolar in a laundromat, a magnificent flying ox. If cows could fly… and in Carson's poetry, they do. But this is no fancy-dress party. And when it eventually comes, the death of G's mother is moving because of its casualness. Death, it is imagined, will "stroll" and the old crow is merely "shuffling" – the sadness is unmomentous.