Monday, March 7, 2011

On the line : movement in Anne Carson's poem “Water”

Any line of poetry is a risk. As in painting or dance, there is no room for a movement to be separated from intentionality. Poetry and dance are inherently linked, as beneath an articulation of a physical movement, and beneath the articulation of the content of a poem, there lies energy in the form of sound and rhythm, and, at a further depth, the unteachable -- impulse and instinct. Each poetic line depends on the “success” of the line before – if the line prior has energy, if it draws in the reader, if it moves the poem, we read on. When given the assignment to consider the poetic line, I thought immediately of the poet Anne Carson, who has habitually (and successfully) pushed form in both line and margin. The entire form of her novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, is composed of very long lines and rather short lines knit together. Part of why this alteration works is that the book swings between conversation, omnipotent narrative, and lyric. The movement of her lines frequently embodies the consciousness of the protagonist, Geryon, and the emotional or physical action of the present. This is clearly seen, for example, in the opening lines of “Water”:

It was raining on his face. He forgot for a moment that he was a brokenheart
then he remembered. Sick lurch
downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple. Each morning a shock
to return to the cut soul. (70)

Part of the success of Carson’s narrative is her sensitivity to where punctuation is and is not needed within her lines; the only punctuation in the four lines I’ve quoted, composed of four heavily enjambed sentences, is the period. For the second sentence of the above section, “He forgot for moment that he was a brokenheart / then he remembered,” to be grammatically proper, a comma should be inserted between “brokenheart” and “then.” Carson decides to put grammatical rules aside, punctuating with a line break instead of a comma. Additionally, the emotional content of the sentence is mirrored by the line break. In the sentence there are two types of past temporal awareness – “forgot” and “remembered”. Geryon only remains in forgetting until the description of his emotional state (“ a brokenheart”) arrives, and immediately, the line breaks. The next line, beginning with “then,” is a movement through time into consciousness, into the present, and physically, on the page, has been a move into the next narrative space. The long, somewhat loose, scenic line is followed by a sharp five-word line in which a difficult emotional state is not only “remembered,” but, snapped into, by the syntax that the line breaks. This sharp line -- “then he remembered. Sick lurch”-- also pushes forward emotionally. After the snap into the present with “then”, immediately followed by knowledge -- “he remembered” – Carson chooses to end the sentence. She has already told us that Geryon is “a brokenheart” in the previous line, and instead of expanding upon how, or further describing the emotions, Carson both keeps us at a momentary linguistic distance from the inner life of Geryon, and allows our imaginations to move towards the him with a sense of catharsis.

In the second part of second line, we arrive at one of the more obvious places in Carson’s work where physicality, sound and rhythm are inextricably intertwined. Following the moment of memory, in the first half of the line, there is a “sick lurch” – these two stressed, monosyllabic words, a one-two punch. This “sick lurch” presents an uncomfortable, immediately understandable image – we might imagine someone physically ill, drunk, or less than fully in control, as lurching. Again, Carson breaks the line where emotion and consciousness change. The full third sentence of this section – “Sick lurch / downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple” – has a type of unnerving placelessness, a heavy metaphor, a interiority that the omnipotent narrator chooses to translate in the most raw way possible. This language, as before, does not follow the rules of grammar, nor of sense. Placing “downward” as the beginning of the fourth line, Carson repeats the device of using emotion or knowledge to move her lines physicality, as we see in lines 1-2, when Geryon moved from a state of hooded consciousness into a state of knowing the present.

In the third line, reading “downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple. Each morning a shock”, there is the embedded cliché of a “bad apple”. Carson re-energizes this cliché by using maneuvers based on physical space, sound and emotional reasoning. Firstly, Carson places “bad apple” directly in the middle of the line, at the end of a sentence. The phrase is physically confined; there is a sense of the phrase “bad apple” being landed upon with a thump, partially because the line begins with the directive “downward”. This sense of a thump, of bumpiness, is assisted sonically by being embodied in the long ‘A’ vowel sound that is repeated in “trapped”, “bad”, and “apple”. Aside from these sounds, on a more surface level (it’s debatable, I suppose, if sound or reason is the surface), Geryon is described as being “trapped”. A lesser writer might have come up with something like the phrase, “Geryon was trapped in the feeling that he was a bad apple”. However, Carson complicates the “bad apple” cliché; Carson doesn’t make Geryon a bad apple, she puts one inside of him. This decision turns the cliché from a derogatory label towards someone thought to be a source of moral corruption, into a more abstract, condensed idea that indicates something like a psychic wound.

Another fragmented sentence ends the selection from “Water”, again engaging and balancing sound, emotional movement, and physical space. In the sentence “Each morning a shock / to return to the cut soul”, sound is doing much of what we would colloquially call “the heavy lifting”. Alliteration appears between “Each”, “shock” and “cut”, as well as between “shock” and “soul”, and also quietly between “morning” and “return”. The overlapped alliteration on “shock” directs the reader purely by sound to the emotional heart of the four lines I’ve selected from “Water”. At the point when this particular poem appears in Autobiography of Red, Geryon, our protagonist, has just been pushed away Herakles, his first love. The relationship itself – as all first loves are – has been a shock into delight, and so the sudden and cool truncation of the relationship creates a full inversion of that joyful shock into a previously unknown type of pain. By starting with the directive of “downward”, the third line has built momentum towards “shock” as its last word, despite the period appearing in the middle of the line. In a sense, Carson inverts the usual way we might imagine the passage of sleep into wakefulness; instead of using images or language surrounding rousing oneself from sleep (for example, “get up” “wake up” “arise”), Carson envisions Geryon’s gradual wakefulness “each morning” as a descent. “Shock” is left hanging at the end of the third line, as the rest of the sentence – “to return to the cut soul” – is enjambed to create the fourth line. By splitting this last sentence, Carson sets up a question: What is a shock each morning? The answer is: “to return to the cut soul”. Carson gives this phrase its own short line, leaving the image to resonate. The idea of “cut soul” is not alone, however, it has, gathered into it, the verb-noun constructs that have appeared before it. The syntactical echoes of “brokenheart”, “sick lurch” and “bad apple” inevitably rattle within “cut soul”.

These four lines from “Water” function like gears interlocked, moving through emotion, through syntax and enjambment. A mentor once asked if I’d rather that my poems be animals with mechanical hearts, or machines with animal hearts. Reading Carson’s work, it strikes me that perhaps when poets are most successful, the poems they create are equal parts machine and animal, equally invested in music, emotional truth, and structure.

[meditation written for a course in Poetic Forms, 5 March 2011]


Robby said...

What I loved so much about reading this is that you took the four lines and ran with them, and explained and elaborated on them for people like me who still don't completely understand poetry. Have I mentioned I loved this?

A Synonym for Living said...

Glad you got something out of the meditation, Robby. I'm taking a really interesting course where most of what we talk about is the nitty gritty of poetry & its possibilities - syntax, form, meter, etc. You are a smart enough reader & writer to be able to start thinking about lines and how they work or why they don't. Maybe a good place to begin is with a book on form - try Strand & Boland The Making of a Poem or, (though I hate to recommend an Oliver book) Mary Oliver's Rules of the Dance. Both appropriate for you. :)