Early summer in Heidelberg. A coldness unusual for the time. While my girlfriend finishes her exams I spend the afternoon reading Anne Carson's Decreation. The collection is vivid with thoughts of the sublime. Antonioni, Sappho, Simone Weil, Monica Vitti, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and good old Kant all make their appearances. Who wouldn't love such a motley ensemble? Carson the classicist, following Longinus, calls the sublime a "documentary technique", and her poems can be read as reports on awe and silence, sacrifice and absence; they are whimsical, strange, sad, moving, and sometimes so hermetically private as to be unintelligible. But the title betrays their final concern. What powers can unmake us? And how (literally) can the writer tell us anything about the experience of self-transcendence? Carson says that "to be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny, center of self from which the writing is given voice"—in other words, the writer constructs precisely what the sublime wipes out. To experience the sublime is to be rendered mute. What kind of documentation can we then expect? By pushing the objectivity of what overwhelms the self, Carson is in effect doing her own personal kind of theology. I love that she's a Catholic. In an interview with the Paris Review she moves gracefully from the personal—resurrecting early memories of going to Mass with her mother, resting her head on her mother's fake fur coat, the snow falling outside—to finer points of theory: God, she says, is not the kind of being who can fit into our structure of availability, but that's not the same thing as nonexistence. Quite. To believe is to take up a position, to cry out. We have a hard time doing this. In a poem called "Gnosticism VI", she writes:
Walking the wild mountain in a storm I saw the great trees throw their arms.
Ruin! they cried and seemed aware
the sublime is called a "science of anxiety."
What do men and women know of it?—at first
not even realizing they were naked!
The language knew.
Watch "naked" (arumim) flesh slide into "cunning" (arum) snake in the next
And suddenly a vacancy, a silence,
is somewhere inside the machine.
Anxiety, if you believe Lacan, is the only emotion that tells the truth. Perhaps the Genesis story is here to frame the idea that our anxiety, properly exposed, tells us that despite the darkness of our self-entrapment, the language knows where and what we are. If we can follow the snaking crawl of language we can find an emptiness within it, where the bottom drops out of the self and there is only the sound of a pounding heart. We can see where Carson's going by skipping ahead, to the essay from which the collection takes its title. "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God" is actually the preface to an opera (don't ask), and is more or less what it announces itself to be: an investigation into the tension between the dissolution of self (in love, in the love God) and the attempt to write about that experience, to help others along the way, to make an image of it…or whatever it is we do with words. Carson quotes Simone Weil on the desire to overcome oneself, to make the person perfectly transparent, so that the order of God and world is restored: "If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart." (the quote is taken from Weil's Gravity and Grace, p. 89 in the Wills translation) Carson celebrates Sappho for being able to record the beating of the heart—one's presence to oneself—by dreaming up its disappearance. This is no small thing. But Carson's own constructions, at their coldest and most venturesome, do something equally interesting: they capture what it's like to awaken from that dream, with the clarity still sharp but fading, the heartbeat returning. This is what makes some of the poems so personal, I think. Especially the ones in which her mother figures prominently. Some of the best mother (engenderer) poems around. If you haven't read them try them out, especially those from her earlier collection Glass, Irony and God. Even in her most obscure lines she sounds like nobody else. This one's called "Sleepchains", from Decreation:
Who can sleep when she—
hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath
fan her restless decks.
Cicatrice by cicatrice
all the links
rattle at once.
Here we go mother on the shipless ocean.
Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.