DECEMBER 5, 2016
ON AN EARLY MORNING last February, I fell down on the street. A short walk before full light, and the day before had been warm, a thick melty warmth; ice was not on my mind. I strode along, bombing down a hill on a quiet side street. I rounded a corner, a slick of black ice, and went down. No time to flail or try to catch myself. Upright one moment, smashed onto the ground the next. A car slowed beside me as I righted myself. A man rolled down his window and asked if I was okay. “Yes,” I said, feeling blood rise to my face, not from injury but from blush — how embarrassing, how humbling it is to fall — “I just slipped on some ice,” I said, making sure he knew the reason I’d ended up on the ground. “I’m fine. Thank you.” “You sure?” he asked, leaning across the front seat of his car. “Yes, thank you.” He drove on. I continued my walk, feeling a sting at my knee and a throb at my elbow. And I asked my own self, am I okay? Am I sure?
Iris Murdoch puts it this way:
Falling, what the child fears, what the man dreads, is itself the image of death, of the defenselessness of the body, of its frailty and mortality […] Even in a harmless fall in the road there is a little moment of horror when the faller realizes that he cannot help himself […] “There is nothing more I can do.” How long […] a second is when it contains this thought, which is an effigy of death.
All of us plunge one direction. A fall, a flesh-on-ground colliding, reminds us, confused and hip-bruised, that we’re at the mercy of forces we’re otherwise geniuses at ignoring. “Old gravity owns everybody,” writes the poet William Meredith. Old time, too.
In one memorable passage from Anne Carson’s latest work Float, she writes of the choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and how she teaches her dancers to fall from heights of 30 feet or more, falling straight for their faces, or spines, or sides. “They look like gods for an instant,” Carson writes. “They redeem the shame of falling, an act we usually associate with being very young or very old or very lost or not the master of oneself.” They are able, amid the fall, to continue to help themselves, exert control while at the mercy of the force. They defy the mortal condition of there being, at some point, nothing more one can do. Here, in this “gravitational scene,” as Carson terms it, there are all sorts of fallings. Of empires, countries, bodies, from grace, in love. It’s “our earliest motion,” she writes. We begin by falling “to the ground. We fall again at the end; what starts on the ground will end up soaking into the ground forever.”
“We bury our dead in the ground,” writes Mary Ruefle, finishing the thought in her new book, My Private Property, a collection of short essays and prose poems. She is likewise concerned with ends, with what accumulates, what soaks in and seeps out. In books out this month, both writers grapple with falling, with absence and longing, losses and lasts. Carson and Ruefle are both poets and more than poets: they are essayists, experimenters; they teach; they are mind-movers and prize-winners. Both concern themselves with what’s to be found in texts from before, Carson as a translator of ancient Greek, Ruefle in her erasure projects, in which she takes old texts and whites-out or eclipses all but a few words, making new meaning from what’s already there. They share a vigor, a sanguine, impassioned engagement with language, the results of which are, in turn, knavish, breathtaking, totally thrilling.
Float is a collection of 22 chapbooks, slim slips that come inside a plastic sleeve “whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various,” as noted on the cardboard sheet that serves as the collection’s back cover. Various topics: Pronouns, Lou Reed, silence, the Cycladic people’s invention of handbags and frying pans, Christmas, rage. Writers and artists and thinkers mentioned: Picasso, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, Joan of Arc, Wallace Shawn, Merce Cunningham. “Reading,” suggests the cardboard back cover, “can be freefall.” One pours out the pamphlets and takes part in the tumbling.
My Private Property is, like Float, a miscellany. It includes short essays, brief lectures, paragraph poems, and blurred pieces that float somewhere in between. There’s a reflection on Christmas trees, a wondering about the art and practice of shrinking heads, a moment on salt-and-peppering a milkshake. Sheathed within is a taxonomy of the colors of different sorts of sadnesses — “Yellow sadness […] is the sadness of naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist towelettes.” “Black sadness […] is the calorific sadness of bombs.” And there is freefall here, too: in an author’s note that ends the book, Ruefle admits that in the color pieces, “if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.” Choose your own adventure. It’s all the same in the end, but there’s nothing nihilistic about it. We’re all of us falling, that’s for sure, but how we do so is up to us.
In their short essays, over the span of a page or three or five, Ruefle and Carson guide the reader or the listener on a path of thought; we stay with them in part for the startling detonations of words. Carson: “They say there is a moment at life’s end when the soul leaves the body. I don’t know if it has a sound. Or a sort of duration that is the sound of sound cocking itself.” Ruefle: Orange sadness “speaks the same antlered language of phantoms and dead batteries.” And in part because they are conscious of their role as guides. “But let’s return for a moment to…” Carson writes, grabbing our hand, pulling us on. “But wait,” Ruefle interjects in a lecture in Madness, Rack, and Honey (2012), guiding us as her thought unfolds.
And so, captive, captivated, we are drawn along as Ruefle moves us from being mesmerized by blinking Christmas lights to considering sleighs and how they’re similar to cradles, and how a man in the 19th century had a cradle built for himself, and how death forestalls confusion about the way things change, and how if your family never moves, it never has to think about changing the length of the strings of Christmas lights hanging outside. Then we are led back to cradles and how similar they are to coffins. She brings us from one idea to the next, and as we ride along we wonder, how will they connect? What’s to be made of these leaps? Likewise Carson. In “Contempts,” Carson connects selling out, the economics of Homeric bard-life, Odysseus as a player in that system, an Italian novel by Alberto Moravia and Godard’s film adaptation of it, the power of Penelope, and Brigitte Bardot wrapping herself in a robe and what that says about boundaries, secrets, meaning, and profit. Astonishing! Carson and Ruefle pull the strings ahead of us, and make the strings glow between points, and we follow the light.
The result is an increased sense of intimacy, a different sort of union with the work, because what’s being displayed, at the core, what’s being offered, laid bare, is nothing less than the workings of a mind itself. Poet Tony Hoagland, in an essay on fragment, juxtaposition, and completeness in the Cortland Review, points to the work of critic Roger Shattuck, who argued that “juxtaposition, with its surprises and intimacy of form, brings the spectator closer than ever before to the abruptness of creative process.” Such is what these two writers reveal to us. Their work thrills not just for the pleasure and surprise of their language, but for how they allow us in on something otherwise so secret, so private, the very leaps and dances and stumbles of their own actual thrumming minds.
Both women were born in the middle of the last century, Ruefle in Pennsylvania in 1952, Carson in Toronto in 1950. Ruefle’s father was a military officer; they traveled and moved, a new house every year. Carson’s dad was a banker, and in Canada, “bankers are circulated like coins” (as Sam Anderson put it in his 2013 profile of Carson for the New York Times Magazine). Both were gusted around by the shifting winds of the adult world. If you are the reading type and face moves and new starts, books become your allies, your friends before you make them, companions constant and reliable in the face of unknowns and loneliness.
But a sense of isolation is where these two collections veer. My Private Property is suffused by an atmosphere of solitude. The book possesses the energy of a woman alone, isolated, tending to the daily tasks of living and moving words around. “In a typical poem by myself, a woman is sitting alone doing absolutely nothing,” she writes. Even when other people appear in the pieces, it’s as though they are being observed from a ghostly distance. Click the “contact” button on her website and find this note: “Surprise! I do not actually own a computer.” The only way to contact her, she explains, is through her press “or by running into someone I know personally on the street.”
Float, in contrast, feels saturated in collaboration, a sense of interaction and conversation, not only with the reader, but with writers, thinkers, and artists from before and from now. A pamphlet detailing “Performance Notes” explains the origins of certain pieces. The poem “L Is For Lou An Alphabet,” for example, was performed by Carson and her partner Robert Currie at Lou Reed’s 70th birthday party. “Lou’s Grace” was performed by all the guests at Thanksgiving at Laurie Anderson’s house the year Reed died. “Stacks” was set to a dance choreographed by Jonah Bokaer. Another piece discusses a conversation about lipstick with Wallace Shawn. Artist Roni Horn commissioned “Wildly Constant” with original music composed by Sigur Rós’s Kjartan Sveinsson. “It’s not really about the project,” Carson said in an interview with Asymptote Journal, “it’s about the people.” Her description of a collaboration with performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson speaks to the nature of her work more broadly:
It’s a collaboration with him, this house, and of course the viewers, as all the people in the room gradually come to understand what’s happening because there is no explanation, and they are carried into this emotion together until it goes dark and starts over.
Carson and Ruefle, approaching 70, direct their attention at the moment when it goes dark. Time’s press is on their minds. Carson writes of a mission to make an art installation on Governor’s Island, how the place is “aswarm with artists” who are “mostly 22 […] We were them once. / Figure this out.” And in one of the most striking and richly felt pieces of My Private Property, Ruefle writes with ferocity about menopause. “You have on some days the desire to fuck a tree, or a dog, whichever is closest […] A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.” It is terrifying, the way she describes the “change.” You become “invisible to them, you have become a ghost.” Gone before you’re gone for good. There is horror in that, and, it turns out, power. “You have discovered that being invisible is the biggest secret on earth, the most wondrous gift anyone could ever have given you.”
This idea of invisibility whispers at Ruefle’s erasure poems, in which she takes a text, say a novel called Melody: The Story of a Child written in the 19th century, and makes a new text by invisiblizing most of the text around all but a few select words. In “Remarks on the Erasures” that appeared in Gulf Coast, she describes the process this way:
In the erasures I can only choose words out of all the words on a given page, while writing regularly, I can choose from all the words in existence […] Once, while working on an all-white erasure, I had the sense I was somehow blinding the words — blindfolding the ones I whited out, and those that were left had to become, I don’t know, extra-sensory or something. Then I thought no, I am bandaging the words, and the ones left were those that seeped out.
There is blood and blindness and what seeps through in Carson’s conception of the writing act as well. She warns the reader in Plainwater (1995):
Be careful of this storyteller’s tendency to replace precise separate lines with fast daubs of ink. I know how to fool your mind so that your eye accepts what it did not see. A curtain of wash is not a desert. Where ink bleeds into paper is not an act of love, and yet it is. See.
See? What seeps through, and what’s lost and left behind, invisible, brings us to Carson’s translations of the fragments of Sappho. Much is lost and we’re left with bits. In If Not, Winter (2002), the collection of her translations, she uses brackets to highlight absence, says they “imply a free space of imaginal adventure.” What’s not there cannot be translated, but it was once there, present in its absence, like the text that Ruefle erases, and so these writers wade into a silence that holds in it a secret, a certain sort of potential.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle’s acclaimed collection of lectures, she writes of the “sacred word”; it’s “a secret and cannot be spoken without consequence, be it blessing or curse. There is simply too much power in certain words, and the unnerving force of naming casts a great spell over language.” Carson knows the spell of naming, too. “Adam long ago named all the creatures,” she writes in “Variations on the Right To Remain Silent.” This act of naming is “our human history, our edifice of thought, our answer to chaos.” And then Eve comes along and her “instinct was to bite this answer in half.” But there is a third place to be between naming and chaos, argues Carson, and that place is translation, where one inevitably comes up against the untranslatable, “a word that stops itself.” She uses the word moly as an example, from The Odyssey. It’s a plant with powers, sacred; it’s for the gods who are no different than us except for their immortality. “They know how not to die. And who can say but the four untranslatable letters of moly might be the place where that knowledge is hidden.” That’s what’s at stake in this space between naming and chaos, a great secret. That word, certain words, bring “a whiff of immortality” with them. When the gods fall, they rise off the ground. For them, it goes dark and always starts again. There’s a secret in certain words, in the silences of a torn piece of papyrus, in the space between brackets, in the ink that seeps through a spread of white paint. “When I am alone I make a sound / the lord does not understand,” Ruefle writes in her poetry collection Trances of the Blast (2013). The sounds and silences of the untranslatables lead us beyond what we know in an endless echoing that registers, for a moment, as a hum in the blood. Ruefle and Carson don’t tell us the secrets, but they remind us they exist. Carson, in her first book, Eros the Bittersweet, writes how Eros “folds the beloved object out of sight into a mystery, into a blind point where it can float known and unknown, actual and possible, near and far, desired and drawing you on.”
And so we float, and fall, and with the aid of certain words, we are drawn on.