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Getting off-campus with poet Anne Carson

I’m not usually the biggest fan of poetry readings. Perhaps I’ve been to three; it’s just not usually my scene. But I make an exception for Anne Carson, the Canadian poet and essayist (and current NYU professor) who read from her new book Red Doc> at Cambridge’s First Parish on Monday, March 11.

(A brief aside: This was not a Harvard event. Cambridge, one of the best-read cities in the U.S., serves Harvard well by attracting a vibrant intellectual and art culture of its own, and one of the biggest failings of many Harvard students is limiting themselves to the artistic offerings on-campus while failing to explore all that happens off-campus. Note to classmates: Get out there!)

Carson’s best known work, the 1998 novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red, is a brilliant and stylized take on the Greek myth of Geryon and Heracles restaged as a gay love story between the red-winged monster and his mythic conqueror. Red Doc> (“Short for ‘Document,’” she told us matter-of-factly) is something of a sequel, but in “a very different style and with changed names.”

Carson’s poetic style is varied—mixing complete sentences and cogent narration with sections of word-strings absent of grammatical structure. As such, it lends itself to being read aloud: The contrasts shine, the rhythms dance, and the beautiful words ring—and rang throughout the church on Monday.

Particularly fascinating, as Carson alternatively read through bits of her book and commented on it and on us (“I think I’ll stop there so you have reason to buy the book,” she said), was the freedom with which she read her own text. Reading aloud, Carson would skip some words, change some tenses, and even add in new words on occasion.

It seemed like Carson was giving us implicit permission to read her text as we saw fit—to experience it whatever way we like. There is just as much meaning to be gleaned and pleasure to be had from what is on the page as there is from what was is tantalizingly and blissfully omitted.

In addition to the copy of Red Doc> that I purchased, I had Carson sign my favorite page from Autobiography of Red, a page that ends with the following verse:

The photograph is titled “If He Sleep He Shall Do Well.”

It shows a fly floating in a pail of water—

drowned but with a strange agitation of light around the wings. Geryon used

a fifteen-minute exposure.

When he first opened the shutter the fly seemed to still be alive.

In capturing the “agitation of light around the wings,” Geryon succeeds at unifying life and death—issues with which he wrestles in his quest for self-understanding—through the immortalizing act of photography. In the same way, we are invited with Red Doc> to capture the “agitation of light” in this text: to fill the spaces around Carson’s text with our own meaning and experience, to glean from them what we will but also what we need. It’s worth pointing out that there are literal spaces in Red Doc>: The text is mostly printed in a thin column centered on a page that is otherwise completely, invitingly blank.

“It seems you have a favorite page,” Carson said to me as I handed her my copy of Autobiography. I replied that I did. Scanning it over, she said: “Ah, yes, that’s a good one,” and then signed her name.

Perhaps she didn’t mean it—it might have been her least favorite page in the entire book. But it didn’t matter, because I had chosen this page. I had that power, and she acknowledged it and welcomed it. And that was an amazing feeling.

All of this is to say: Maybe I’ll go to more poetry readings. And maybe you should too.

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