Almost everything about Anne Carson’s collection of prose poems, Short Talks (originally published in 1992), is, as its title suggests, short: the poems themselves, the length of the collection, the new afterword by the author (with textual brevity to rival that of her beautiful book-object Nox (New Directions, 2010). This book is even short on illustrations, of which there is only one. Thankfully, however, the gorgeously written and elucidating introduction by poet Margaret Christakos takes almost ten pages—it deserves all ten; and the poetry itself is long on knowledge, art, history, mastery, and is pregnant with crystal-clear insight (along with its refractions). As an homage to these small, brick-shaped poems, I will keep these words to a minimum: a short talk on Short Talks.
Christakos writes, “[ … ] the silence around thought is part of its sculpture” (11). Molding each piece to create a whole that fits together, Carson, as always, employs her superlative erudition and scholarship in conjunction with her keen understanding of the banal exclamations of daily life. However, she also understands the compulsion to de-create. About Camille Claudel, who was abandoned by her family and her lover Auguste Rodin in an insane asylum for 30 years, Carson writes: “She refused to sculpt. Although they gave her sleep stones—marble and granite and porphyry—she broke them, then collected the pieces and buried these outside the walls at night” (48). Here Carson writes of accrual, though it comprises a collection composed of a whole thing in pieces and then laid to rest.
For to bury something is to hide, separate, and in its invisibility and incompleteness, to render unknown. In “Short Talk on the Total Collection,” Carson invokes the ultimate collector, Noah, who unlike Claudel, brings things together because there is no other way to save (read: salvation) than to gather together: the positivity of existence, meaning the presence of existence, with no absence: “He denied lack, oblivion or even the likelihood of a missing piece” (57). But missing pieces are, after all, still pieces; lack identifies for us what is there. Apophasis is a subtle and sultry way to emerge a thing, be it lost or found, visible or invisible (see also Carson’s glittering prose study, Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan, Princeton University Press, 2002).
Like Claudell, who didn’t suffer merely for her art, Van Gogh’s torment is made visible and fleetingly sublime at Carson’s hand: “When he looked at the world he saw the nails that attach colours to things and he saw that the nails were in pain”(47). With this anthropomorphizing of the very objects that crucify, I immediately connected with the Van Gogh painting “The Red Vineyards,” where the figures in the vineyard appear to be staking the very red of the grapes onto the ground, first making sanguine what will eventually bleed out. The instrument of death now understands its own complicity in the suffering.
Night is where much of this poetry takes place, takes us, places us. For in this world, “the most famous experimental prison of its time,” (69), we are dreamers and sleepers, and oft times these things coincide, and oft times these things occur separately. In one of the most accurate poems I’ve ever read on dreams, Carson’s “A Short Talk on the Truth to be Had from Dreams” offers this final line: “We are the half and half again, we are the language stump” (64). In our attempt to build worlds by communicating through waking space, we are always only a piece of the whole we are striving for. And in our sleeping dreams, answers tap our shoulders, they approach as the Other we must acknowledge and accept. But in our need to keep hold of these near and seemingly full revelations, at the crossover—the awakening—connections are lost. Perhaps the truth to be had here is that we are all of us in Zeno’s race, and that all our words and telling will not get us to the end, ever.
Carson is a bricklayer nonpareil. Just as she knows the wiles of diction and syntax, she knows how important the white of the paper itself is to mortar (or nail even) each word and punctuation mark together to make a house for her thought. In “Short Talk on Housing,” Carson writes, “Rituals function chiefly to differentiate horizontal from vertical. To begin the day in your house is to ‘get up.’ At night you will ‘lie down’” (33). Somewhere and -time between these two, hopefully you, reader, will bend your body, so that the lower and upper parts of you are vertical and the middle is horizontal. In this sitting position, hopefully, you will hold a book on your lap, and it will be this book, Short Talks. Let this image serve as a prelude to the being between that Carson always so precisely captures, even in her emulations of imprecision.
Mullin resides in Des Moines, Iowa, with her husband, Bill, and her dog, Beatrice (no, not named after Dante’s Beatrice, but the divine French actress Dalle). Mullin is currently a media and communications doctoral candidate at European Graduate School, Saas-Fee, Switzerland.