The first poem in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony & God is called “The Glass Essay,” and if you’re anything like me, the title might seem odd. Essay? As Guy Davenport’s introduction to the collection explains, though, Carson’s poems can seem like verse essays: “She writes in a kind of mathematics of the emotions, with daring equations and recurring sets and subsets of images. As with Matthew Arnold, truth and observation are more important than lyric effect or coloring. If a good line happens, it happens.” This seems just slightly unfair since good lines happen more often than not, but it’s accurate.
“The Glass Essay” is, roughly, the story of the aftermath of a breakup between the narrator and her partner Law, after which she goes back home to spend time with her mother (her father is in an elder care home). There is a fair amount of narrative about her activities with her mother, her walks on the moor, and her dreams, many of which are disturbing and features “nudes” that she uses to help guide her on her way to recovery. All this is mixed in with anecdotes and musings on Emily Brontë, a woman with powerful emotions and plenty of sexual energy in her work, though she apparently knew nothing of men and hardly anything even of people outside her own family.
The poem is lovely, but emotional content runs high. I wouldn’t say it was “difficult to read,” but it’s not exactly an upper. A representative passage about Law:
Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is
to watch the year repeat its days.
It is as if I could dip my hand down
into time and scoop up
blue and green lozenges of April heat
a year ago in another country.
I can feel that other day running underneath this one
like an old videotape—here we go fast around the last corner
up the hill to his house, shadows
of limes and roses blowing in the car window
and music spraying from the radio and him
singing and touching my left hand to his lips.
One of my favorite things about Carson is how she describes so much sensory experience so quickly, in a way that seems so effortless it must not be, and becomes slippery when you look at it hard but feels just right as you read it. Shadows blow into the car; music sprays from the radio. But that corner feels fast and the singing and touching feel real.
The “lozenges” are particularly apt, I thought—like pieces of stained glass to look through at the past, small physical things you could grab to get that past back.
Later in the poem, Carson writes, “My questions were not original./Nor did I answer them.” This tone—perhaps this is what Davenport means by “mathematics of the emotions,” it does seem cold though also feeling—was one of my favorite things. Still not equipped to write about it very well I suppose! But, I have to say, breathtaking.
“The Glass Essay” was far and away my favorite poem in the collection, though the others were mostly good as well. There is also, though, a “real” essay in the book, which I did not much care for at all. I hope to get around to writing about why later this week.