In very different ways, the tension between poetic form and narrative is the driving force behind these volumes. An intertextual quasi-mythical “epic poem”, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red is created out of the few remaining fragments of Geryoneis, by the Greek lyric poet Stesichoros (born around 650BC ), told from the point of view of the monster Geryon rather than the hero Herakles who slew him – “[Stesichoros] came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult period for a poet”, Carson tells us. It’s there too in the self-referential personal narratives of Paul Durcan’s new volume, confronting national and literary identity; through the sassy, Ally McBeal-style dealings with city, work, and the ironies of a gendered world in Deborah Garrison’s A Working Girl Can’t Win. and the compacted, almost explosive, fragmented narratives of Adam Thorpe’s From the Neanderthal. Thorpe seems not to have lost his poetic voice after his increasingly large-scale narrative prose works of recent years. He is a powerful lyric poet, able to evoke place in the manner of Geoffrey Hill. Making connections between a variety of pasts – from the primal through to a recent past that is already, in some sense, “mythical” – he demystifies the processes of time. The past and the present are actively interwoven for Thorpe, and even when he writes of his son asking “Why aren’t our footprints there in front?”, eliciting the reply “Because we’re not there yet. Footprints come from us”, there is a sense of cyclical inevitability about movement – that the footprints will come. Thorpe has great control, and at times when the poems risk preciousness, he has the skill to pull them back. There are many about family relationships, and the voice of the focal father always runs the risk of paternalism. But Thorpe always gently withdraws at the crucial moment. It’s tempting to call him a nature poet, so strong is his connection with place, but his sense of history maintains a philisophical distance that prevents us from simply labelling him. We see this in “Pickings”, a modus operandi poem for the book that concisely examines layers of the past –
Tins, the tines of forks,
light francs from the war,
each worth what we find
to say about it…
as children pick fragments of things from over the grave of an “old dame”. The real skill in this poem is the blending of the materialism of the poem with the dark humour of “‘She’s much too deep,’ I say”, regarding the prospect of unearthing her. We see it too in the title sequence, which actually concludes the book, “From the Neanderthal” – a strong, meditative poem on place and inheritance, where the subject “fades” with the inevitability of the landscape, history, being:
In the upside-down bit of the lake
the plovers are just as good at swimming
as their aerial partners: they imitate
that they might be the same, that a being
can occupy two places without splitting
and roar to scare the weakness away.
A subtext of the Thorpe volume is the movement between the earth of England and the earth of France. Paul Durcan, in Greetings to Our Friends in Brazil, also travels but his journeys are of Paul Durcan. Whether he’s in Brazil, Chicago, or Ireland, he is primarily concerned with giving us (his “readers”), a view of the real Durcan, the “fictional” – media? – Durcan, the negotiated-through-others Durcan, the political Durcan, and so on. Reading the volume of epistles to the self I was reminded of an episode of Seinfeld where Jimmy talks of himself in the third person. From “Karamazov in Ringsend”: “Not the least the poet Durcan. Watch him/ As he drives up…” Most of Durcan’s poems are in the first person, but a few stand back and examine the phenomenon that is the man himnself. While Durcan has a clear gift for the colloquial and narrative – these are stories of his engagement with place and “characters” primarily – the poems are weighed down with a sincerity that could do with a good dose of self-irony. Durcan is capable of irony, but it’s always backed by a sense of self that undoes it for me. The poems set in Brazil are often patronising and words like “mulatto” are used apparently without question. His praise of presidents and poets, his damnations of others, are emotional and off-the-cuff. We get the sense he feels everything, but thinks little. Durcan has written some brilliant narrative poems in the past, but they are short on supply in this overlong and tedious volume.
Deborah Garrison’s A Working Girl Can’t Win is intentionally light in tone. It’s un-p.c., it’s argumentative, does manage to self-ironise, and is very much the quick read that the fast New York culture that engendered it would produce. There’s a sense of the Warholian factory about it, with dashes of Ultra Violet, but more the ‘I’ll have a good time regardless of what you all think about it’. Garrison has a sense of line length and knows about closure. It’s not a volume that’s going to change the world, but maybe that’s the point.
Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red may be one of the finest volumes of English-language poetry, or maybe “p(r)oetry”, of the last decade. Its intertextual weaving of popular culture, myth, sexual comment, theory and narrative, is greatly accomplished. It’s a verse novel in effect, though some might call it prose. It operates on tensions in the process of “translation” and mythology, narrative and the moment in time. The interplay between the red-winged Geryon and his nemesis Herakles is dynamic and alluring – it’s hard to put down. The reader is constantly asked, and asks, what’s the truth behind what we’re informed about the self, the writer. Autobiography is a selective process. This is a metatext in which Geryon analyses his own life, his own “being written”. The poet, the translator, mediates for us – tells the story, builds the narrative, but only insofar as Geryon allows it. Photography plays a big part in the text – the truth of the moment, the possible manipulation of the “seen”. Carson tells us that Stesichoros put the bite back into the adjective – in the late twentieth century, Carson has brought relevance to the prose line as line of poetry. To be red and re-red (sic)!