Review by Alexa Winik
Fractured, prismatic, and amorphous, Float (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) embodies the best of what any reader can expect when picking up Anne Carson’s poetry – that is, of course, the unexpected. With the acclaim Carson has earned for her genre-bending collections, such as the lyrical essay The Beauty of the Husband and the novel-length prose poem The Autobiography of Red, the Canadian classicist has already established herself as a looming figure in the arena of postmodern poetry for her playful unconventionality and inventive hybrid constructions of poetry and prose.
Carson’s relentless inventiveness sings from every particle of Float – her bewildering and exquisite most recent collection – even at the level of its materiality. Encompassing a wide breadth of typical Carsonian forms, from fragmented free verse to lyrical essays to collaborative performance pieces, Float comprises twenty-two individually-bound chapbooks, all printed on various shades of blue cardstock and contained in a transparent plastic case. No pagination, prescribed order, or opening poem exists to anchor the reader in a specific emotional register. As Carson explains in a short preface, ‘Reading can be freefall’ – an action she describes, in an interview with The Guardian, as akin to playing digital music on shuffle.
Unlike a digitised playlist, however, Float is a cultural artefact that unapologetically takes up space. Shuffling through twenty-two chapbooks of varying lengths requires time and patience, not to mention more physical space than most coffee shop tables can provide. But Float’s poetry is itself a hefty intellectual and emotional endeavour. With its fragmented syntax, reliance on white space for punctuation, and deluge of re-presented artistic, literary and classical figures, Float’s kaleidoscope of subjects generates an utterly immersive, often destabilising, readerly experience.
In the chapbook, ‘Contempts’, Carson enlists the film Le Mépris as a conceit that teases out the anxieties such destabilisation can induce. ‘Are you an innately unbounded thing?’ the film queries of its transgressive leading actress, Brigitte Bardot, to which the sphinx-like and self-possessed Bardot refuses an answer. Instead, she ‘wraps herself in boundlessness and exits’—a brilliant self-reflexive, meta-textual moment that is evocative of Carson’s enigmatic collection itself.
Self-reflexivity is one key device worth mentioning when discussing the merits of this collection. In many ways, this approach safeguards Float’s push for originality from devolving into what could otherwise be a monotonous parade of novelties. Carson turns up the volume of this reflexive tone in the lyrical essay ‘Cassandra Float Can’, wherein she invokes the ancient prophet Cassandra to voice the questions that haunt any poet who desires to challenge inherited conventions: ‘Where is the edge of the new?’ she asks, ‘Where is the edge of belief?’
In Float, the instability of language problematises the prophet-poet’s struggle to negotiate this ‘edge of the new’. Carson often turns to the act of translation as a metaphor for this difficulty, depicting words in translation as: ‘veils flying up’ (‘Cassandra Float Can’) to reveal only new layers of silenced and hidden meaning. Silence in Float is an absence that must be listened to, not filled. Origin stories, even the nascent poetic forms proposed in Float itself, are not to be trusted. As Carson quips in a more autobiographical moment, recounting her lunchtime tutoring sessions in high school with a bored Greek teacher: ‘My entire career as a Classicist is a sort of preposterous etymology of the word lunch.’
Such a self-reflexive comment gives a nod to Carson’s own ‘preposterous act’ of dismantling and resetting the parameters of poetic conventions, which eases readers into submitting to her varied tactics for achieving these goals. One of the tactics she wields particularly well is adapting traditional formal conventions. ‘Possessive Used as Drink (Me)’, for example, presents a ‘lecture on pronouns’ in the form of fifteen experimental sonnets. Here, Carson again adopts a self-reflexive tone with startling freshness. Using the rhyme scheme of a conventional English sonnet, she enlists the form’s limitations and flexibilities as an extended metaphor for the unstable borders of the self:
you are alone. Whatever idea here rises from its knees
to turn and face you quicker than a kiss
or a hyphen or the very first moment you felt the breeze
of being a creature who will die—one day, not this—
will ask of you most of your cunning and a deep blue release like a sigh
while using only two pronouns, I and not-I.
But Carson’s inventiveness also thrives outside of established conventions, as evidenced in the moments she uses self-imposed limitations on new poetic forms. In ‘Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’, for example, she discursively weaves together the narratives of Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon, and Friedrich Hölderlin into a disarming portrait of how to listen to silence. Multiplicity is a central tenet of this paradoxical act, which Carson emphasises with a series of Hölderlin’s fragmentary shorthand scribbles translated into English.
In one of the most arresting moments of the entire collection, Carson rewrites Hölderlin in English using a set of arbitrary constraints, such as limiting her translation to words found only on London Underground signs, or the pages of a Beckett play. Taken together, these poems imply the possibility of endless outcomes, each as equally valid as the next. More broadly, they illuminate the ‘moving locus of ambiguity’ (‘Contempts’) that ultimately propels the reader through Float’s hybrid, transmuted forms.
For all of Float’s fragmentation, this shifting between externally and internally imposed constraints provides a balance to the collection, a contradictory sense of controlled chaos that allows key thematic strands to rise to the surface. One of the most haunting themes that Carson develops, in my view, is the fragility of human existence—its inevitable illnesses, doubts, deaths, and irrevocable losses. ‘Our hearts are deep and void as a crater—/ my dear’ reads Carson’s translation of Émile Nelligan, a virtually unknown Québécois poet, ‘you suffer, / I suffer, / let’s go’ (‘Nelligan’).
‘Uncle Falling’, arguably the most moving chapbook, is a prime example of this theme. Written in the form of a Greek tragedy, complete with a Chorus, this ‘pair of lyrical lectures’ narrates a story about an uncle and a father who descend into the lonely throes of aging and dementia. Its lines brim with striking visual metaphors, such as Streb choreography and parachuting soldiers, that charge otherwise familiar themes with new immediacy and corporeality. ‘They fall like stars, and look like gods for an instant,’ Carson writes of the Streb dancers’ death-defying stunts. Throughout Float, this leitmotif of falling into empty space reverberates as a graceful surrender and antidote to uncertainty in its many manifestations – in the anxieties of life’s unavoidable griefs and, at the meta-textual level, of poetry’s own wilful manipulations of language.
If Float evinces any weaknesses, they may be in the critique that some of its wilful manipulations of language – how its words ‘drift in gentle and mutual redefinition of one another’ (‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’) – are far more compelling than others. In ‘Pinplay’, for example, the reader encounters a series of litanies that cast a wide net of sonorous details without clarifying their broader associations (apart from their ability to ‘pin’), as in the lines: ‘clecko / clip / circlip / paper clip / . . . frog / grommet / masonry anchor’.
Such extreme syntactic fragmentation risks alienating readers, and thus potentially undermining Float’s ‘free-fall’ premise. But more generally speaking, ‘Pinplay’ is simply less memorable than some of Carson’s other experimental litanies, such as ‘The Eras of Yves Klein’, which depicts the tragic life of the famous French artist. Over-reliance on glib diction and gimmicks, as ‘Pinplay’ evinces, strikes the reader as all-too easy for a poet like Carson who can otherwise construct three pages of darkly humorous anaphora, such as: ‘The Era of Filling Pages of One’s Notebook with the Word ‘Humility’. . . The Era of Being Eulogized by People Who All Quote Mallarmé’.
Even so, Float’s capaciousness gives the impression that Carson is self-aware and embracing of her collection’s foibles and untethered associations. Language, like humans or love, is portrayed in Float’s fragmentary world as simultaneously fragile and powerful, corrupt and wondrous. The successful navigation of harnessing language at ‘the edge of the new’ depends on reciprocal trust between poet and reader, not the attainment of some perfect and elusive utterance.
To return once more to Cassandra, Carson envisions that the poet, like the prophet, must ‘prove to you that she is a prophet by telling you unbelievable news, which you will only believe if you already regard her as a prophet’ (‘Cassandra Float Can’). Such a tautology, as Carson calls it, could invite allegations of pushing a ‘low-stakes’ approach to writing poetry. And yet my experience of reading Carson’s immersive experimental creations is just the opposite. The new forms that emerge from Float’s flotsam pulse with urgency alongside their open-endedness; to borrow Carson’s own words from the chapbook ‘L.A.’, these ambitious poems are ‘empty, clear, and without fear’.
Whether readers come to Float as devotees of Carson’s work or not, recognising the more moving moments of this collection requires an assent to her intentionally difficult and unconventional terms. But for readers of poetry who desire to catch a glimpse of that edge of the new, surrendering to Float’s free-fall is more than justified. As Float’s amorphous composition foregrounds, there are just as many ways to enjoy its breadth of subjects as there are ways to shuffle through its sea of pages.
Alexa Winik grew up in the Canadian border city of Windsor and earned her BA in English Literature at Cedarville University. Before relocating to the east coast of Scotland in 2015, she worked in Michigan as an editor at a non-profit that provided educational and mentoring resources for people in prison. She holds an MLitt in Women, Writing and Gender from the University of St Andrews, where she is now completing an MFA in Creative Writing – Poetry. Despite living as an expat for almost a decade, she still thinks the most beautiful place on earth is Clearwater Lake in northwestern Ontario.