Autobiography of Red

Poem: Autobiography of Red
Poet: Anne Carson


Let me begin, not with Carson, not even with poetry, but with the visual arts. When I walk through the contemporary section of the local art museum, I come away dissatisfied, and I think I am coming to know why. For too many of the works, their meaning (as indicated by the the short blurb hanging on the wall beside them) rests on certain symbols or techniques of creation that are said to have a certain resonance, that are to be read in a particular way. The trouble I run into comes when, as so often, these preferred interpretations get their privilege by stipulation, and not by earning it. But if the meaning must be stipulated to be grasped, it is not present at all within the work. It is merely externally, arbitrarily imposed.

The great work of art—in any medium—creates a network of significances that primes its perceiver to react in appropriate ways. It makes its meanings manifest. If some symbol is to be associated with a particular mood, that association must be established diligently before it can be drawn upon. It is possible, of course, that this significance could be established generally in a manner external to the poem (I think of the “talent” in Milton’s sonnet on his blindness), but if significances that do not predate the work are needed, they must be brought out from within the work.

Now we have arrived at Carson’s book, for it excels at precisely this. Beginning with the Stesichoros fragments (translated loosely—to put it mildly—by Carson herself) and their associated “critical apparatus,” which together a partial, gappy network, a string of images connected by fine gossamer, almost invisible, Carson goes on to flesh these out in a novel context, building new connections as she goes. This shapes the subsequent reading, so that when crucial images arise I know how to respond without being told.

Many examples might be given; I will give just one. The color red plays a central role in the book, being closely associated with Geryon’s perception of the world, and perhaps his world itself (the world itself?). This is worked out for some time before other colors enter (as indeed they must, for Geryon, despite carefully separating internal from external beginning at an early age, still loves in a world with more colors than just red). So, too, is the theme of wrongness, as when the babysitter reads Geryon a book with her “wrong voice”—that is, her voice that is not that of Geryon’s mother.

These two themes—the primacy of red, and the issue of wrongness—come together when Herakles (Geryon’s lover-killer) dreams of Geryon:

…the reason I called is to tell you
about my dream I had a dream of you last night. Did you. Yes you were this
old Indian guy standing on the back porch
and there was a pail of water there on the step with a drowned bird in it—
big yellow bird really huge you know
floating with its wings out and you leaned over and said,
Come on now
get out of there—and you took it
by one wing and just flung it right up into the air whoosh it came alive
and then it was gone.

Geryon’s response to being told of this dream:

Yellow? said Geryon and he was thinking Yellow! Yellow! Even in dreams
he doesn’t know me at all! Yellow!

Had Herakles known Geryon, the bird would, of course, have been red. So the color yellow has now been associated with wrongness. It has also, somewhat more implicitly, been associated with the impasse that exists between human minds, the difficulty (impossibility) of truly communicating oneself to another and thus of truly knowing and being known by another.

So when, a few chapters later, Geryon meets a philosopher (who studies the skeptics), and this philosopher is first identified as “yellowbeard,” we should be alert. In all likelihood, there is something “wrong” about him. In some way or another he and Geryon will fail to connect, as is indeed the case. To give just one instance of his wrongness, consider his treatment of Pascal in a lecture that he gives and which Geryon attends:

Un poco misterioso, the yellowbeard
was saying. From the ceiling glared seventeen neon tubes. I see the terrifying
spaces of the universe hemming me in. . . .

the yellowbeard quoted Pascal and then began to pile words up all around the terror
of Pascal until it could scarcely be seen—
Geryon paused in his listening and saw the slopes of time spin backwards and stop.

Carson, having carefully established the resonances of the color yellow earlier in the book, can freely draw upon them here, and does so to tremendous effect. It is also worth noting that the issue of sight and blindness, though I have not discussed them, been of major issue in the book, starting, again, with Stesichoros, who reputedly was struck blind by Helen upon slandering her in a poem, then had his sight restored upon taking it back. It is these layers of meaning that give the poem its unity and its life.

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