Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera

Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera

By Jon Paul Fiorentino

A review of Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera by Anne Carson

Published on October 1, 2006

Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera
Anne Carson

Knopf Canada
$21
paper
272pp
0-6769786-1-4

Wallace Stevens says that “poetry is the scholar’s art.” No truer does this sentiment ring than in the work of Anne Carson. From Short Talks to Autobiography of Red to The Beauty of the Husband, Carson has always managed to negotiate the scholarly and the artistic. Her new text, Decreation, is a peculiar and rigorous body of work that somehow manages to be emotionally available and at times even heartbreaking. The title is a reference to Simone Weil’s notion of “uncreating” ourselves, of becoming less creation and more creator, if you will. Decreation begins with “Stops” – a series of lyric poems that express the poetic voice’s intimate connection to her mother. They are tethered together with “Sleepchains”: “Who can sleep when she – / hundreds of miles away I feel that vast breath.” These are poems of economy and intimacy.

But it’s not that simple. After this initial series we move directly into a poetic essay in celebration of sleep. Here Carson the classicist emerges and, in a sense, undoes the work of her imagist poetic voice, with a meditation on canonical instances of sleep and the philosophical implications of sleep. For instance, the notion of incognito is explored. The essayist finds herself wishing to praise the hidden aspects of sleep, of memory and uncovering memory. It becomes apparent that the essay is a poem of sorts; its rhetoric is entirely different from the short lyric, but its argument is equally persuasive. And so it goes for the entirety of Decreation. It is not your typical collection of poetry. It’s a fragmented whole, offering up poems, essays, screenplays, and even an opera in an attempt to unwrite a coherent poetic mandate.

A later essay is “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simon Weil Tell God.” This text is startling in its ability to bring a sense of precision to abstraction – “Jealousy is a dance in which everyone moves” – and in its ability to argue in favour of a kind of annihilation that is at the heart of the creative process, that allows one to channel that which is beyond her. Unlike Northrop Frye, who asserts that there is an essential difference between the artist and the neurotic, Carson sees the wisdom in neuroses, the potential in pathology. In the opera that follows, also entitled “Decreation,” we see the perfect collision of theory and practice, of narrative and poetry.

Carson has always been one of our most unique poets, and here she is at the height of her powers. What strikes me most about Decreation is not its vast scholarly knowledge, or its philosophical acuteness, but the ability of these texts to be as lyrically naked as they wish. Consider this from a poem called “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions”:

It’s good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
These are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die.

For all of the acrobatics of intellect and classical name-dropping, Carson is still capable of being emotionally resonant and shockingly human. And she even takes the time to let us in on the secret. The notion of decreation refers to the kind of annihilation of self that allows the self to make art. In this sense, the book is not only a work of art, it is also a call to write. It’s no wonder she dedicates this book to her students. We would all be wise to enrol in her class. mRb

Jon Paul Fiorentino's latest book is "The Theory of the Loser Class."

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