Book review

‘Red Doc>’ by Anne Carson

Dreams don’t lend themselves to paraphrase. What generally survives into waking are disconnected bits that seem to have no coherent relation to each other; it’s the dream that connects them.

The same is true of Anne Carson’s prose poem “Red Doc>,” a sequel of sorts to “Autobiography of Red.’’ It brings the story of Geryon, a boy-sprite, or sometimes just a sprite, or just a boy, up into the present; sending him, now called G, on a northward journey with Sad, his lover, and Ida, his friend and mercurial helper.

The events in “Red Doc>,’’ not so much recounted as erupting, have an instability suggestive of “Alice in Wonderland’’; their narration could be the tossing and turning of H.C. Earwicker from “Finnegans Wake.’’ Their sequence belongs to no earthly clock but to one marking comet time.


It is not easy reading. “Red Doc>” doesn’t address us. It talks to itself and permits us to eavesdrop while giving us no particular assistance in making out what we raggedly hear about our times, about art, and about being human. It could be frustrating, and it is, in fact, except that what seeps out from a partly closed door is a sign that it is supremely worth hearing, and we should try to listen better. Every little while a phrase emerges of such poetic force that it hooks us and pulls us in, getting us to disregard stretches of “where are we?” — well not always, and that is a flaw; could you open that door a little wider, Carson? — out of hunger for the next one.

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The framing situation here is the fact that G’s mother is dying; and here he is no sprite but a boy, now middle age. The unlinked chain of what then happens, or doesn’t happen, or happens twice and out of order, suggests what a child may do when crushed by unbearable grief: fantasize a story of consolatory wonders. This on one level — more profoundly, Carson suggests that such wonders are more real than what we take for grief.

G and Sad drive into the frozen north country, explore an ice cave, and before they reach their destination, briefly separate. Using the wings that grow from his back, G is led by a flock of bats to a garage. Soon Sad pulls in for car repairs. The garage man runs the adjoining mental institution (Carson plainly regards psychiatry as no loftier than motor mechanics.); Sad, a war veteran unhinged by the memory of having shot and killed a woman villager, is hospitalized.

G, joined by Ida, keeps him company, as does 4NO, a shrewd and philosophical fellow veteran. After a series of riotous events the four escape in the car, joined by a hitchhiker, the god Hermes. (Carson is a classicist as well as one of our foremost poets.) At the end G’s mother, “a handful of twigs under/ the sheet,” dies. G first feels relief and a lightening; then he weeps every seven minutes; then knows “[i]n the days to/ come it will grow less.”

G as sprite shares the gentle innocence of G as human. He is devoted to Proust and to an imprisoned Russian writer. He keeps a herd of musk oxen, worries about them when he’s away, recalls Io, who would slip her huge head under his arm and nuzzle him. He recalls suddenly coming to terms with his homosexuality “the year he/ decided to be a lion of/ himself not just a bad/ influence.”


4NO, Sad’s fellow veteran is comically scathing about the army. He reels off a list of field rations (the opposite of food even as the army is the opposite of life). And concludes with the packet of Lucky Charms that is thrown in. “[I]f the army is issuing your/ luck in the form of/ Charms it’s already gone.” He can be graver: “what/ you/ people call the present/ world is just Remainder/ just a failure of/ Invisibility’s flames to/ disappear.”

What shines in “Red Doc>’’ is Carson’s lines. G on flying: “like/ glimpsing a lake through/ trees or that first steep/ velvet moment the opera/ curtains part.” G on a sprite’s aging: “Am I/ turning into one of those/ old guys in a ponytail and/ wings.” On Cézanne: “[H]ow naked the/ apples got in his hands.” Of the horrendous commander of the mental hospital: “[A] minotaur who swallows/ other people’s labyrinths.” And, simply: “[A] hole’s made of itself.”

The difficulties of Carson’s prose poem are indeed considerable, though we have no sense that they are gratuitous: Something very worthwhile is going on even if obscurely. But as with a roller coaster the transitions make us look forward to the next splendid plunge. And we plunge.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at