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Anne Carson’s poem overlooks Boston Harbor alongside the ICA

First Chaldic Oracle

There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.

Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
that thing

as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red

with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.

No. Scorch is not the way
to know
that thing you must know.

But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything

right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it

is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled,
keeping Praguing the eye

of your soul and reach—
mind empty
towards that thing you should know

until you get it.
that thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your
and, it is

–Anne Carson

This poem has been mounted outside the ICA, overlooking Boston Harbor. What a setting for an unforgettable poem.

While the poem stands extraordinarily on its own, here are a few comments about it that feather Carson’s nest ever so gently.

From a piece by Catherine Joyce in Arc Poetry Magazine:

In “First Chaldaic Oracle”, a poetic manifesto, Anne Carson examines the relentless pursuit of what remains forever out of reach. Her questing but playful voice, sounding through the architectural layering of tercets, captures the continual striving toward meaning, the poet’s elusive, shape-shifting art.

The images proliferate, tantalize, elude definition—and yet we sense there is something vital here, something passionate yet annihilating, overlooked yet liminal, even preconscious—so essential it trumps your mind, possessing, ruling, dissolving any subjective state. Carson drives deep to planes of reality one intuits but cannot name—beyond self, beyond world, hypnotic.

Only by going beyond our prescriptive borders of ‘self’ and ‘other’ can the rare, the mysterious, the unnamed—beyond all our definitions—be found.

And from On Rationalizing and Oranges, an essay by Kea Trevett published in Mercer Street:

So much of real life lies between the lines of rational thought. The bigger questions are not the ones that can be answered on paper. They are what we tend to overlook or leave out—ideas that life suggests, hints at…The facts are word-bound, but the deeper truth, the confusion, the sticky messiness lies in the grey areas between the words…By trusting our intuition, by accepting the absurd, sometimes inexplicable reality of reality, we might find that the conventional boundaries of logic and reason only take us so far: sometimes they stifle true understanding. This is not to say that rational analysis never leads to truth…Carson urges us to see that sometimes, in pursuit of knowing a thing, a “cherrying” of the mind prepares us most.


Anne Carson and Rashaun Mitchell: Ms. Carson, a poet, and Mr. Mitchell, a dancer and choreographer, collaborated on “Nox” and “Bracko” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. From left, Marcie Munnerlyn, Mr. Mitchell, Carol Dougherty,Ms. Carson, Robert Currie and Kate Gilhuly in “Bracko.” (Photo: Liza Voll)

My admiration for the poet Anne Carson has been intact for some time. (I’ve written about her work here.) But with the recent publication of Nox and her extraordinarily successful category bleed from text only into text and images, I’m even more agog.

But clearly Carson isn’t stopping for too long at that achievement, and she is moving on to cohabit with yet another métier, dance. On Tuesday night at the ICA in Boston, Carson participated in a performance with dancer and choreographer Rashaun Mitchell that is in many ways unable to be categorized. It felt like the fine art equivalent of a mashup, calling up bits and pieces from the traditions of dance, recitation, poetry, incantation, theater, art installation/performance and mystery school.

From a review of the performance by Alastair Macaulay at the New York Times who, like me, was very moved by the event:

Since the poet and critic Anne Carson and the dancer-choreographer Rashaun Mitchell are each exceptional artists, their occasional collaborations — which began in 2004 — would be historically remarkable even if they were artistically barren. But “Bracko” and “Nox,” the two main works in which they have come together, are events where different kinds of poetry become layered upon one another with extraordinary eloquence. Words, dance, translation, cultural commentary, lighting, music — all add discrete but overlapping zones of beauty, meaning, drama.

On Tuesday, in a performance presented by Summer Stages Dance and the Institute of Contemporary Art here, a further layer came from the museum’s harborside setting. During “Bracko” (2008), transparent curtains allowed the audience to see yachts, water, seagulls, reflections, buildings and evening sky behind dancers and speakers. Then the blinds rose, so that “Nox” (Ms. Carson’s most recently published book, here receiving its stage premiere in what was described as “a new work in progress”) began, with the background view now brighter.

Yet those blinds soon lowered again, shutting off the luminous harborscape altogether. It’s a tribute to these artists that “Nox” then grew all the more engrossing. The older “Bracko” is fascinating, varied and full of promise, but the new “Nox” is a work of rare theatrical power: a sign that the Carson-Mitchell collaboration is gathering in imagination.

Several friends, also Carson fans, have asked me to describe the evening. I have found that difficult to do. It is easier for me to highlight a few peripheral observances as an alternative into the core and feel of the evening. Like Carson and Mitchell saying in the QandA that followed that they think of their collaboration as a work in progress and that they have no ulterior intentions as to where it will go and what it will become. That they assembled the various pieces—text, dance, music, setting, staging—just two days prior to the actual performance. That, when asked by an audience member to offer up one verb to describe the piece, Carson took some time to ponder this and then finally offered up, “thinging.” That Carson participates on stage alongside these consummate performers/dancers while possessing no theatricity or self consciousness herself, wearing a simple shift and her hair pulled back in a casual, offhanded manner. And that this juxtaposition of extraordinary body-based artists with an extraordinary cerebral poet seemed weirdly perfect.

Words or phrases I would use to describe it? Taut and yet wildly open. A celebration as well as a ritual of human sorrow and loss. Wisdom that lives in the interstices.

That’s vague, I know, but it is hard to get any closer. Macaulay is primarily a dance critic, so his approach leans more into that aspect. But for me, being more poetry-centric, I just can’t find a way to move this event out of its hermetic experientiality and into a more shared sense.

Nox, by Anne Carson (Photo: Tony Cenicola)

I’ve followed Anne Carson’s work for many years. She’s a complex persona—part professor of classics, poet, novelist, essayist, critic and all around category buster—exploring a wide range of topics, approaches and methodologies. Meghan O’Rourke’s description is apt: “Anne Carson has somehow become a culture hero—the ‘anti-bourgeois’ variety of icon that, as Susan Sontag once noted, appeals by being ‘repetitive, obsessive, and impolite.'” But this is repetition, obsessiveness and impoliteness I can’t get enough of.

One of the most memorable Carson pieces for me is a short essay she wrote about one of my favorite all time plays, The Invention of Love*, Tom Stoppard’s extraordinarily erudite play that deals with the life of poet A. E. Houseman. (Carson’s piece was included in a handout and audience “aid” written by classicists and dramaturges when Stoppard’s play was performed in New York City a few years back. It is in my bookshelves, somewhere…) One of her earliest books, Eros the Bittersweet, is a fascinating treatise on the role of eros in Ancient Greek culture and has developed a kind of cult following. Her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, permanently reframed my relationship with the Heraklean myth cycle.

So of course I would be interested in her latest conception. This is how Ben Ratliff begins his New York Times review of her most recent book, Nox:

Anne Carson’s new book comes in a box the color of a rainy day, with a sliver of a family snapshot on the front. Inside is a Xerox-quality reproduction of a notebook, made after the death of her brother, including text and photographs and letters, pasted-in inkjet printouts, handwriting, paintings and collage. “Nox” has no page numbers, and it’s accordion-folded. It carries a whiff of visual art multiple or gift shop souvenir or “Griffin & Sabine.” But trust me: it’s an Anne Carson book. Maybe her best.

Carson, a university classics professor by trade, is usually described as a poet, though that’s not her problem. None of her books contain all verse in any traditional sense — not counting her translations — and some contain none. There’s not much poetry in this one, yet the whole thing is poetry of a kind you’re not used to. Her words are often not very melodious. Even on the hot subjects of desire and impermanence (sex and death and all their implications), she’s analytical, pedagogical, privately plain-spoken, stonily amused. In “Nox,” the linkage of ideas approaches a kind of music; the language works only in their service, without much extra show.

Carson’s book is wrapped around the story of her real life brother Michael, a man who struggled with drugs and with staying out of jail, a drifter with whom Carson was never close. It doesn’t sound like a strong foundational start for a project of this scope. And yet based on Ratcliff’s review, it succeeds.

More from Ratliff’s review:

Every thought runs together in “Nox.” Elegy and history are cousins, she explains, because they’re both forms of autopsy. She describes translating as being in “a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch”; it’s her own nox. But Michael, whom she still does not understand, is her night as well, her dark room whose light will never go on. (“A brother never ends,” she writes.) Of course, her subject’s life was full of night, too: he traveled on a false passport. Even the dictionary entries are rolled into the big theme: the discussion about the metaphorical dark room leads her to talk of “entries” as endless ways into “a room I can never leave.” The book is totally recherché and weirdly clear, lingered over and neatly boxed, precious in the word’s best sense.

Her risk taking, her unpredictability, her exploratory mashing up of forms and functions, all part of what makes Carson’s work so compelling and inspiring. I love Ratliff’s phrase to describe this book—“weirdly clear”. It seems a fitting description of her work in general.

* If I could find my copy of that handout I’d quote from Anne Carson herself. But since I can’t, here’s a memorable description of Stoppard’s play by the old lion of the American Repertory Theater himself, Robert Brustein: “The Invention of Love (…) may well be the showiest of all of Stoppard’s intellectual exercises. (…) There is not enough plot here for twenty minutes of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight.” Oh yeah. Bring it on.