Book reviews: Borderlands

Anne Carson, Float, Cape, £16.99, ISBN 9781910702574
Sharon Olds, Odes, Cape, £12, ISBN 9781911214069
Reviewed by Kate Potts

Anne Carson FloatFloat is a collection of twenty-two chapbooks without designated order or page numbers. The collection includes lectures, performance pieces and poems, all of which tend to blur and refuse the boundaries of categorisation. “Reading can be freefall”, the back cover informs us. As if drawing on Gertrude Stein’s imperative to “Act so that there is no use in a centre”, the collection determinedly avoids more conventional narrative. Instead, Carson opts for playful disruption and disquiet. Is Float a construction that encourages us to engage with poetry in a new way, or a clever means of publishing the disparate results of small projects? It’s both of these. For Carson fans, all of her trademarks are here: the mixing of genre, form, and register; heightened colloquial language; myth erupting into the everyday; humour and irony. The chapbooks are not ‘free-floating’, in the sense that, like the parts of a machine, they’re most effective when they work together. The reader must read and re-read to work out the matrix of associations between the pieces, as well as their broader relationship to the supporting cast of literary, philosophical, historical and artistic characters she assembles. This cast includes Hegel, Hölderlin, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Yves Klein, Roni Horn and an entire chorus of Gertrude Steins. Despite the breadth of her references and allusions, Carson constructs herself as a sort of passionately curious lifelong student rather than an intimidating authority. “You will forgive me if you are someone who knows a lot of Hegel. I do not, and will paraphrase badly,” begins Merry Christmas from Hegel. There are chapbooks that deal with Carson’s relationships with her partner, her father, her brother, her “Uncle Harry”. There are chapbooks that suggest, Frank O’Hara-style, engagement in a coterie of artists (The Designated Mourner by Wally Shawn, L.A.), and chapbooks whose contents are constructed through formal or procedural constraints, such as Stacks, Maintenance and 108 (flotage). Like Claudia Rankine, Carson is fond of merging the lyric with the academic essay or lecture. In Powerless Structures Fig II (Sanne), for example:

she got
in the ambulance went to the hospital there insisted on washing the body
       who else should do it she said

the gerundive
is a verb form expressing obligation necessity three steps down

Carson’s pointing at and problematising of language here, and her mixing of registers, has the effect of shifting the focus back and forth. But rather than dampening the poetry’s emotional impact, the juxtaposition heightens it, highlighting language’s power as well as its inadequacy.

In the pieces of Float that engage with Ancient Greece, or with the reconsideration of historical or artistic figures, there’s often a strong sense of manifesto-making. Cassandra Float Can, which considers the prophet Cassandra, functions as justification, and instruction for the reading of Float as a whole. Cassandra is “like spacetime […] nonlinear, nonnarrative”.  Drawing on the “anarchitecture” of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, she describes Cassandra’s impact in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: “She splits open our idea of what it is to know Greek. She removes the walls and floorboards and suddenly we are in a site slated for demolition.” Carson, it seems, is attempting a similar reappraisal of our language’s processes, politics, and power. The experience of translation is essential to this: “Whenever I am engaged on a translation project I experience continually, offside my vision, a sensation of veils flying up” (Cassandra Float Can). In Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, she discusses the power of language and silence both to constrain, and to set free:

[…] something without a name is commonly thought not to exist. And here is where we may be able to discern the benevolence of the untranslatable. Translation is a practice […] that does seem to give us a third place to be. In the presence of a word that stops itself, in that silence, one has the feeling that something has passed us and kept going, some possibility has got free.

This floating, borderland space outside or beyond language and definition, in between translations, is a space of creative potential. In a 2004 interview in The Paris Review, referring to gender, Carson said “You don’t know how to be yourself as part of a category, so you just have to be yourself as a completely strange individual and fight off any attempts to define you.” Float is a work in which she stridently makes clear – through the “Cracks, cuts, breaks, gashes, splittings, slicings, rips, tears, conical intersects, disruptions, etymologies” she describes in Cassandra Float Can – her own poetic project.

Sharon Olds OdesSharon Olds’s brand of forthright confession might seem, at first glance, very distinct from Carson’s often laconic, analytical mode, and yet there’s a similar playful testing of boundaries at work in Olds’s Odes. Within the space of sixty-four odes, in a feat that resembles Don Paterson’s 40 Sonnets, Olds creates a virtuoso display of variation, particularly in her inventive use of metaphor. Many of her poems are concerned with making public what has traditionally been private, a kind of liberating transgression that follows in the footsteps of Whitman and Ginsberg. Olds’s use of the ode to celebrate the everyday also recalls Pablo Neruda’s radical and ecstatic celebration in his Elemental Odes. Olds’s Odes begins with ‘Ode to the Hymen’: “[…] dear stile, dear Dutch door, not a / cat-flap not a swinging door / but a one-time piñata”. There are odes involving taboo body parts and processes: the penis, the vagina, the glans, the tampon, menstrual blood, the blow job. Perhaps more radically, there are odes that celebrate the ageing female body: ‘Hip Replacement Ode’, ‘Ode of Withered Cleavage’, ‘Ode to Wattles’, ‘Ode to my Fat’, ‘Ode to Stretch Marks’. Olds often revels in Chaucerian grotesqueness in her descriptions of the body. In ‘Ode to Wattles’, for example, she tells us “[…] I love to be a little / disgusting, to go as far as I can / into the thrilling unloveliness / of an elderly woman’s ageing.” All of which searing self-analysis is tempered, somewhat, by odes that find their subject outside the body – in friendship, landscape, and memory – and by a wry humour that enjoys and acknowledges the risks and excesses of the enterprise. ‘Wild Ode’, for example, sends up her style and obsessions: “I was thinking about women’s farts, / and men’s farts. Whether or not / a woman’s fart is legally hers”. “Have I gone as far as I can / go, on these lines pulled out of my ass?” she asks. ‘Second Ode to the Hymen’ begins with the line “My partner says that what I write / about women is self-involved”.

Despite the humour and self-deprecation, there’s a serious project underway in Odes: that of a broader valuing and celebrating of female experience of the body and sexuality. As Olds explains in ‘Second Ode to the Hymen’, “it isn’t just my hymen”. Like Carson, she is concerned with the politics and power of language, and many of her odes function as personal etymologies: histories of the word, the thing, and its naming, in the context of a particular life. ‘Ode to the Word Vulva’, for example, employs etymology in its exploration of meaning. ‘Ode with a Silence in It’ considers our understanding of rape through multiple qualifying adjectives: “[…] ‘Legitimate / rape,’ the politician said – born to rape’s / legal parents […] Is consent the sweetest word / on earth?” In ‘Ode to My Whiteness’ Olds explores the body itself as signifier: “You went without saying. / You were my secret from myself.” In ‘Ode of Broken Loyalty’, Olds describes a moment of being “cut free” from loyalty to her nuclear family:

[…] I was insane. Was I insane? I thought
that someone driven out beyond the silence
of normal reticence could speak
for the normal.

In this space “beyond the silence” Olds returns, again and again, to familial bonds. Her poetry, with its melding of ‘poetic’ and conversational style speaks, of course, out of very particular experience. Yet in doing so it opens up broader spaces for discussion, re-evaluation, and celebration.

The Poetry Review 1064 Winter 2016Kate Potts is completing a practice-based PhD on the poetic radio play. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 106:4, Winter 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author.