There was no sign outside of Wheeler Hall, but the Colloquium Room was packed, with standing room only (it seats 150). People had turned out for a Canadian woman, born in 1950, who teaches ancient Greek. Her poetry and prose are an ineffable blend, like one of those fresh streams with an unknown source, which may or may not be located in Canada or Greece.
“prose / is a house poetry a man in flames running / quite fast through it”
(Red Doc) That may be overestimating a fair amount of modern poetry, which is more like a man walking through the house with a flashlight and bumping into things.
Red Doc (2013) is the sequel to Autobiography of Red (1998), which features a winged monster from the time of Herakles. The character has morphed into a modern person. There is the occasional commentary by Wife of Brain.
A woman read from a list of impressions of Anne Carson with quotes and biographical notes. She noted that AC was chewing on a book called The Lives of Saints when she was five, and that she translates Sappho, Euripides, and others. She has a flair for anachronism. “Antigone quotes Hegel.” It reminds me of the film “Titus” which is based on a brutal Shakespearean play set in Roman times, but which managed to incorporate elements of fascist Italy in the 1930’s, including motorcycles. I like that sort of thing — it makes the past come alive, and gives the present an historical reverb which is disconcerting, as if to say some things are always with us.
Then Anne Carson was with us. She walked to the mic with a humble air that people with a certain intelligence have from being constantly reminded by their mind of how much they don’t know. She noted that the introduction would be hard to live up to, but she would try.
She began with a recent piece, a meditation on some aspects of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. It was an idiosyncratic numbered list of observations. It resonated with me, having read the first and last volumes of his seven volume work when I was 20 and internalized the notion that the past is not dead and gone. It is stored in our brains by a sensory means and that is how the memories are unlocked. She referred to those who read Proust and have to weather the withdrawal of “after Proust” when there is nothing else to read because that’s all he wrote. It is a kind of desert.
There was much ado about Albertine, a love interest in the book. There are some lesbian ambiguities. Proust wonders what women do together, imagining a “palpitating specificity of female pleasure.” That differs from Nabokov, who said that being jealous of a woman with another woman is like being jealous of the woman’s hand.
What options does Albertine have in order to avoid being possessed by her suitor? Sleeping. Lying. Becoming a lesbian. Dying. Albertine is compared to Ophelia. There is the likelihood that Albertine was in fact the male chauffeur of Proust. I want to say he drove him crazy.
She read from another part of Red Doc, referring to how a woman becomes like a plant when sleeping, and “plants display their genitalia… he possessed her when she sleeps.” This brought to mind a line from Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a writer who was known to prefer the company of women: “Even in her sleep I’ll pronounce that her feet twitch and her orifices expand and contract like the iris of her suspicious eye.”
There was something about the mindless nature of human cruelty, when much of it is accidental and unnecessary. “You can take the common sense of humans and put it in the palm of your hand and still have room for your dick.” That doesn’t leave much room for argument.
She ran through a list of eccentric variations on a theme of “time passes.” It left me thinking of a line in The Order of Things by Michel Foucault. He refers to a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that
animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
It has that kind of off-the-wall originality. She wrote a similar treatment of mothers, who can be hard to categorize when seen through the warp of one’s own subjectivity.
After reading for half an hour it was over. The entire event had lasted barely an hour. When the crowded thinned out, I wandered over to the table where she was signing books. I looked through several, including Glass, Irony, and God (1995), while observing her more closely. A woman with long gray hair held back with a clip and wearing a cream-colored cowboy shirt with red trim, which I would have worn if it was mine.
I told her I had been ruined at a young age by reading Proust and she agreed with the concept. Both of us have arrived at an age when the remembrance of things past is threatening to take over our lives. Fortunately, she has found a transcendental refuge in an ancient language.
She has a long poem called The Glass Essay which begins like this:
I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking
of the man who
left in September.
It brought to mind a variation on “cogito ergo sum.” I think there, 4 a.m. The poem is long and meandering. It shows how things appear to a woman who has been abandoned by a man and is visiting her mother. It conveys the inner workings of a woman’s mind, a harrowing experience for some of us, but getting inside anyone’s mind can be daunting. At times the poem feels like the soliloquy in Ulysses (speaking of the ancient overlapping on the modern) if Molly Bloom were educated.
Those women! says my mother with an exasperated rasp.
Mother has chosen random channel.
Complaining about rape all the time.
I see she is tapping one furious finger on yesterday’s newspaper
lying beside the grape jam.
The front page has a small feature
about a rally for International Women’s Day –
have you had a look at the Sears Summer Catalogue?
Why, it’s a disgrace! Those bathing suits –
cut way up to here! (she points) No wonder!
You’re saying women deserve to get raped
because Sears bathing suit ads
have high-cut legs? Ma, are you serious?
Well someone has to be responsible.
Why should women be responsible for male desire? My voice is high.
Oh I see you’re one of Them.
It was twilight when I left the building, caught up in a slipstream of the sublime.
- Full video of this performance will soon be up on UC Berkeley’s YouTube channel (here’s the Holloway playlist).
- Click here to read an excerpt of Red Doc
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).