Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse by Anne Carson

Continuing in the vein of poetry collections that re-imagine fables or myths, I just finished Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. I'd been wanting to read Nox, but don't have $35 at the moment to shell out on fun things.  Usually, I can order the books I want to read for my library, but after talking to one of our cataloguers, I'm thinking this wouldn't last too long in the collection. There's no good way to circulate a box of fragile ephemera to the same masses who can barely handle your average paperback without returning it thrashed and full of donut crumbs.  There is always the "patron request" loophole, though.  Maybe I need to have my hubby act as a shill and fill out a request form.

So, it is Autobiography of Red, instead of Nox, that marks my first foray into Carson's poetry and all I can say is. . .wow.

First of all, to understand the subtext you need to dig out good old Edith Hamilton and brush up on your mythology.  Geryon is the red monster guarding his herd of cows who Hercules has to kill as part of his tenth labor.

Carson takes these characters and sets them in modern times, but bookends their stories with a look at the fictional translator of the myth, Stesichoros.  These Stesichoros chapters show just how much we are missing of the true story, of any true story, and how much we must readjust and fabricate the details we do have to form a cohesive retelling of a tale.

I secretly have dragon
wings tucked beneath
my overcoat, too.
No. Not really.
And in Carson's retelling Geryon is a young, red monster with wings that he shoves underneath his overcoat who is raised by a loving, chain-smoking mother, a mostly absent father and an abusive older brother.  He falls in love with Herakles and after a time is dumped by his fickle lover.  Geryon then takes up photography and we see what he captures through his lens.  We also see how he is changed by the things he photographs.

Let me give you a sample of her writing:


His mother stood at the ironing board lighting a cigarette and regarding Geryon.
Outside the dark pink air
was already hot and alive with cries. Time to go to school, she said for the third time.
Her cool voice floated over a pile of fresh tea towels and across the shadowy kitchen to where Geryon stood
at the screen door.
He would remember when he was past forty the dusty almost medieval smell
of the screen itself as it pressed its grid onto his face. She was behind him now. This would be hard
for you if you were weak.
but you're not weak, she said and neatened his little red wings and pushed him
out the door.
I've smelled that "dusty almost medieval smell of the screen" haven't you?  Throughout this entire piece, Carson constantly juxtaposes the common experiences with the surreal, i.e. "she neatened his little red wings."

I wish this were illustrated or had a graphic novel as a companion edition.  She really paints pictures with her words and I'd love to see Geryon and his mom (the chain-smoking calls to mind a dragon as she exhales smoke through her nose) and the volcanoes mentioned throughout.

Argh. I need to cough up the money for Nox. Anne Carson is too cool to miss out on.

<I checked this book out from my library.>


  1. So good, right? This was one of the best books I've read this year. I thought it was wonderfully creative and unique and those descriptions...

  2. I know! I loved every bit of it. I loved his childhood and his time in Buenos Aires. And the description of the man with a mouth that looked like a nipple cracked me up. Plus, it was impressive how many texts Carson draws in, from the ancients to Walt Whitman, without it it feeling supercilious. Just an awesome book.

    Where did you hear about it? I found it on accident when I was shelving books.

  3. I have a girl-crush on Anne Carson. She is just so cool. I bought Nox and it was totally worth it even though I am poor and cannot customarily be running around spending $35 on a book in a box.

  4. Glad to hear it's worth the $35, from one poor person to another. I'm giving in and ordering it. I'll tell my husband it's his anniversary gift to me. =)