“The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson

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.

8 comments to “The Glass Essay” by Anne Carson

  • This tone—perhaps this is what Davenport means by “mathematics of the emotions,” it does seem cold though also feeling

    It’s an interesting question, whether Carson is an emotional writer or not. I was very surprised at the commentary on Nox during the last Tournament of Books, in which many commenters (well, a majority of the minority who had read it in the first place) found it cold or felt that the unusual format and references to classical poetry, dictionaries, etc., were off-putting and distancing. To me, if anything, the book is over-saturated in personal emotion, to the point where language breaks down in the face of grief. (Which is a major theme of the poem, so this is not really a criticism.) Although at the same time, once I read their comments I could see where those commenters were coming from. Anyway, I like that dissonance or rawness between Carson’s seeming intellectualism and the emotion in her work. I guess it’s a reminder that even people who live in their brains much of the time still struggle with deep feeling. Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story struck me the same way.

    I like the lozenges too. As usual I’m intrigued by the one negative thing in your post, and want to hear more about the essay you didn’t like. :-)

  • I guess it’s a reminder that even people who live in their brains much of the time still struggle with deep feeling.

    Yes, totally–so I hope no readers of this blog are too surprised that this is exactly my thing, haha. Interesting about the TOB–Nox is now high on my list, so I’ll have to go back and check it out after.

    I’ll definitely make sure to get to the “real” essay. I have a couple rather specific quibbles, so don’t totally dislike. But yeah.

  • I hope no readers of this blog are too surprised that this is exactly my thing

    Nor that it’s mine. :-)

  • Heh, or mine.

    The Glass Essay is by far my favourite of the book, raw and incredibly powerful. I’ve tackled NOX in two sessions because I was not in the mood for the visceral emotion. I plan to read and reread Carson thoroughly in 2012.

  • Wow, I can’t believe that anyone would think Carson unemotional; it’s as though the mere presence of intellectual content tags someone as cold or cerebral (particularly if it is a female writer). If anything, I find that Carson sometimes runs the risk of being histrionic (something that I have less of a problem with than many people, since I go for the visceral), but usually she turns this to her advantage. Carson’s longstanding interest in Emily Bronte fits perfectly with my perception of her emotional tenor.

    The degree of success of her works for me usually varies with how much I feel she’s able to connect that overpowering emotional content with the particular materials she’s chosen for a piece. Sometimes I get the feeling that particular cultural references could almost be interchangeable because Carson has fixed on an emotion and is going to wrangle whatever material she touches into that shape regardless.

    I must sound like a broken record, but her Euripides translations, Grief Lessons, are still stunning examples of her marshaling emotional force in the service of modernizing Greek tragedies.

    One other note…this particular poem reminded me a bit of Anne Stevenson, who ought to be better known.

  • I’m compiling a short list of poets to read next year and have put Anne Carson on the list. Your post convinced me first, but these comments seal the deal.

  • it’s as though the mere presence of intellectual content tags someone as cold or cerebral (particularly if it is a female writer)

    YES INDEED. Especially ironic as venturing too far into emotionalism gets female writers dismissed as well.

    I own the Euripides translations and they’re moving up the queue for 2012.

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