Posts tagged Anne Carson
Leslie Jamison on Commonness

In this craft/inspiration anthology, I also found and loved "On Commonness," Leslie Jamison's ode to Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay." In this essay, Jamison discusses simplicity — which I must admit I've never thought about in relation to Carson's books. Jamison points out that:

"Carson's mode of self-awareness doesn't apologize for its emotion She simply acknowledges that, whenever we feel, we do so in a way that anticipates the gaze of others — as well as anticipates the empathy or lack of empathy we'll encounter there. I feel some version of this happening when she writes:

When Law left I felt so bad I thought I would die. 
This is not uncommon. 

"These lines feel willfully melodramatic. [. . .] Carson's language is so surprising — you already know she can take any feeling and give it to you in some crazy, stylized way. Instead, she says, 'I thought I would die.' It's so willfully plain."

I love this: you already know she can take any feeling and give it to you in some crazy, stylized way. Yes. But Jamison's extended focus on some of Carson's most direct lines is exactly what I needed to read right now. I love both of these writers, so to get them together, one writing about the other, is like a double dose of medicine.

Earlier, I wrote about Lev Grossman's essay on fantasy in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I've only seen the TV and film versions of their books, so the experience of reading Jamison's essay on Carson is entirely different. She's writing about one of my favorite writers, and showing me something new, something I hadn't considered, something that, now that I see it too, makes me shout, Yes! This!

"I really believe that there are extraordinary things to be said about deeply ordinary experiences. When I teach nonfiction, the biggest student conundrum around personal writing is: Why would anybody care about what happened to me? There's shame around just having lived an ordinary life. And it's not like they're wrong — it is going to be harder for them to get a book deal, say, for their memoir of living in the suburbs. But the paralyzing anxiety I hear students articulate, and also feel in myself, is what 'this is not uncommon' speaks to. The experience of trying to find words for an emotion that mattered so much, even while recognizing it's the most common thing in the world." 

Pine Torch, Revisited

About a month ago, I tried to write here about "pine torch." Today, in my attempt to try again, it was only by searching for and failing to find a pretty photograph of a pine torch that I landed on a solution: instead of pine torches, the tea house woman can light the bal masqué another way. Maybe with little candles hanging from tree branches with satin ribbons. Or maybe like this or this or this or this or this or even this with candles or fairy lights. I don't think it matters, exactly, but what I figured out is that part of her problem can be that the tea house's traditions should of course be updated — not just to make business more efficient but to make her own life somewhat easier. So instead of lighting the annual ball with torches, like her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother did, which she would have to chop and set aflame herself, worrying about party guests knocking into them and catching fire, she can opt instead for, say, hanging lanterns with battery powered flameless flickering candles. 

OK, so, the backstory about "pine torch"? It has to do with my process. I'm a writer who fears the blank page/blinking cursor. I'm far better at editing and shaping existing words than I am coming up with new ones. So nearly a decade ago, under a rapidly approaching deadline to complete We Take Me Apart, I acted out of desperation and cut up Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. I made hundreds of lists of ten random words from her text, and then I wrote a page of my own — I had to use one list per page. Often, this meant using one word per line. And this resulted in my having lines like: "gratitude is cousin to the squeezing of a heart." Anyway, the method worked and I had enough pages to prove to my publisher that I was making steady progress and I was able to ask for an extended deadline, which I met. This method worked so well for me that I tried it again for Desire: A Haunting. And, again, it worked. The words I used as prompts for this book come from John Ratti's A Remembered DarknessAnd then, for Fit Into Me, I started again with another new list, this time from Anne Carson's translation of Sappho's fragments (If Not, Winter). Somewhere in this book is "pine torch," which I then came upon in one of my ten-word lists, and I got stuck. I researched the pine torch and learned it's the kind of torch Bilbo Baggins used in LOTR, and then I learned how to make one and why one might want to make one: they're impervious to wind and rain. But for my purposes, why would the tea house woman need wind- and rain-proof torches? So I landed on the bal masqué. Garden party. Nighttime. Torches. Of course. But I just couldn't ever write that scene. Now, three years after that failure, a month after the failure of my attempted blog post about that failure, I think I've got it. Or, at least, for the first time I have an avenue to explore. 

I am a slow writer. People are surprised to hear this, most recently one of my favorite former professors, Richard Preiss (why favorite? bc this, for example, or, you know, his book on early modern clowns, or his book-in-progress on sewage, need I go on?). I wasn't always a slow writer. A decade ago, you could say, "Go!" and I'd be off to the races. Now? You say "Go!" and I raise an eyebrow at you and LOL and look for my reading glasses and put a Pop Tart in the toaster that I'll forget about and see tomorrow sticking up looking sad, still chuckling about how badly you misjudged my ability to go when you said, "Go!" LOLOL. But really, I'm just slower, more patient and careful now. I wait. I'll wait and wait until the answer appears. In this case, three years and a month. 

P.S. If you're curious, the other words in this particular list are: night, greatly, desires, darling, reproach, harmless, face, son, and throat. And if you don't know the tea house woman, who appears first as a minor character in We Take Me Apart, then as a main character in Desire: A Haunting, you can meet her now in her own right in Fit Into Me. A few of the fragments from Fit were published here, four years ago when they first came into being.  

Virtue, and the Doctor's Wife, Revisited

Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Gothic, Victorian, and Decadent readings behind me, I'm just now diving into the Modernists. Over the next few days, I'll be thinking about Death In Venice, Swann's Way, Ulysses, Orlando, As I Lay Dying, Nightwood, and Ficciones; but because these texts mark such a huge shift from the thousands of pages of (French/Russian) realism and (Gothic/Decadent) psychological realism I've been lost in recently, I want to sort of gather my thoughts here with a post on where I've been and where I think I might be going.

(Also, having copied and pasted this entire blog into a Word doc earlier today, for fear of losing my only record of exam "notes," I horrifiedly share that I've written about 38,000 words, close to 200 double-spaced pages. Yikes, right? I know. Anyway. . . )

One of the most obvious lines of inquiry to develop over the course of my historical reading, from The Odyssey to Anna Karenina, has dealt with representations in literature of wives, mistresses, and whores. Conveniently, these correlate respectively to liminal, marginal, and inferior subject positions of female characters; and common to all three is the significance of their so-called "virtue." Thanks to Mary Wollstonecraft, who often noted that "virtue" comes from the Latin word for "strength," I offer that wives, mistresses, and whores are equally virtuous — equally strong — women: 

Penelope (un)weaves. 

Job's wife stays. 

Sappho rewrites (Homer). 

Nelly Dean orates. 

The Wife of Bath divorces but the Princess of Cleves does not. 

Griselda endures.

Pamela resists but Shamela cons the system. 

Minerva represents us all, especially Maria, Jemima, all three Madame Bovarys, and the Minyades.

Anne Carson eulogizes and Gertrude Stein makes objects subjects.

Tristram's mother labors, Grete joins the labor force.

Emma believes, and Anna leaves.

Emily Brontë punches. 

And the doctor's wife takes charge. In my earlier post, I worried that I'd fooled myself, that she wasn't the strong female figure I'd always thought her to be. I wondered if more than anything else she had resigned herself to 24/7 mothering her husband and a band of strangers. While I am not abandoning those concerns, I acknowledge here that she is an incredible woman. Recognizing that I read Blindness way out of order, and that there are still several decades of history and writers and female characters and speakers ahead of me before she actually appears, I consider her now a tower of a character, a Minerva endowed with the wisdom and strength of all the women in literature who precede her. I've always loved her. I love her still. And not least of all because, in what I am sure is one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any of my exam texts, she takes sewing shears and stabs a serial rapist in the throat, while he is raping another woman, after he and his crew have systematically raped every other woman, healthy or infirm — every young woman, every single woman, every sister, every mother, every wife, every widow — in the building. 

A few days ago, I said, we can't look away from the characters we don't like or whom we fear, for instance, rapists and murderers, because they are in the world and we shouldn't ignore (or encourage) evil by turning a blind eye. We shouldn't gawk, curiously, either (like God in the Book of Job). If we need a model for how to proceed, we might look no further than Saramago's Blindness, in which the doctor's wife becomes more than a rape victim and more than a witness; the doctor's wife becomes jury, judge, and executioner. Yes, she becomes a murderer, and whether or not she is acting in self defense and/or to protect the helpless, are her actions justified? Should anyone, ever, under any circumstances, take the law into her own hands? Where do we draw the line for premeditated exceptions? And how does Saramago utilize the third-person narrator's distance to portray the event? Like a defense lawyer's, is his version of events intended to sway us? If yes, how? If no, is he objective and how and why would he have chosen to remain so for this? The ambiguity and the nuances are up to us, the readers, to consider.

And, as writers, if we have any interest in furthering the tradition of those great big sweeping epic social novels of the past, and if we wish to write them for our time, then like them we cannot look away. As Saramago's epigraph commands (from the Book of Exhortations): "If you can see, look. If you can look, observe." We must — we writers — like the doctor's wife who is graced and cursed with sight in a country of blindness, see, look, observe, acknowledge, assist, and, when necessary, with our words, avenge. We must attend. And we would do well to remember, too, what Annie Dillard once said: "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?"