Bloomsbury (2022) h/b 298pp £85 (ISBN 9781350174757)
Anne Carson, classical scholar, poet, essayist, translator, artist, is here the subject of 20 commissioned essays which focus on her long and close relationship with classical literature, from her translation of Sappho (IF NOT,WINTER 2002) or her unconventional 1986 work (likened by Yopie Prins in ch.10 to a prose poem) Eros the Bittersweet, An Essay to such a radical ‘creative and aesthetic experiment’ as Nox (2010), a box with a multimedia fold-out response to Catullus 101 (multas per gentes…) that Nicolaci (ch.18) calls a ‘mysterious accordion’. A list of her poetry, plays and translations up to 2019 appears on p. xv, followed by an equally long list of prizes etc. Too late for this volume are the text for the TROJAN WOMEN, a comic by Rosanna Bruno (2021) and H of H Playbook, an adaptation of Euripides’ Heracles with her own art work (2021). In her introduction J. reveals little of Carson’s life but reveals her desire for remaining private and off centre. J. sums her up in one embracing notion that she is ‘poikilos [sic], scintillat[ing] with change and ambiguity’.
The ‘/’ of the title serves to keep the two categories (Carson and Antiquity vel sim.) ‘deliberately separate, yet potentially open to constructive dialogue’. The collection, as J. states ‘should not be viewed as a study of Carson’s classical receptions per se, but, rather, as an interdisciplinary exploration of antiquity and modernity (and vice-versa) in Carson’s oeuvre.’ A central concern is ‘to highlight … the erudite indiscipline [author’s italics] and that indiscipline ‘refers to Carson’s non-conformist, resistant-to-definition approach to the traditional methodologies and forms of exegesis.’ J. quotes Carson’s description of her mode of work with three desks (academic, writerly, art) that she erratically visits so that ‘they cross-pollinate one another.’
One of the most lucid essays is that of Patrick Finglass (ch.11 The Stesichorean Ethos) who begins ‘Stesichorus was hardly an obvious choice.’ His approach is to examine ‘why Stesichorus—no knowledge of whom is assumed on the reader’s part—makes such an effective intertext for Carson, and how familiarity with his poetry can enhance our appreciation of her work.’ Finglass looks at Stesichorus’ treatment of myth: for example Helen going to Egypt, not Troy, the Wooden Horse built by Epeius ‘a lowly water-carrier’ and the fragmentary glimpses of Geryon’s mother. The main focus of attention is Autobiography of Red (1998) where the three-headed monster Geryon of myth is translated by Carson into an adolescent boy with wings who is in love with Hercules. This ‘novel in verse’ disturbs expectations from the beginning with three appendices presented before the ‘romance’ and after ‘Red Meat: Fragments of Stesichorus’. Finglass points out that none of the 16 fragments ‘translated’ is actually by Stesichorus—one of the many helpful observations for those not familiar with the Greek poet.
In the concluding chapter Elena Theodorakopoulos (ch. 20 There it Lies Untranslatable) quotes Carson from a 2003 interview: ‘I like the space between languages because it’s a place of error or mistakenness’. Catullus’ obscene poem 97 is turned by Carson into a simple list of words for ‘anus’ thus removing ‘the violence and misogyny’ of the poem in Theodorakopoulos’ view. Poem 85 odi et amo is turned into a cross formed by repeating the words ‘hate, love, why, I’ to suggest, as Theodorakopoulos observes, the poem’s final word: excrucior. Grace Zanotti sums up Carson’ aesthetic: ‘Carson thinks across media, working through classical texts in a way that transforms what might be familiar—a myth, a line, a metre—into a list of further possibilities.’ Her dictum, ‘Here. Shake’ asserts an active response to antiquity and a more dynamic relationship with fragments than shoring them against ruins.