Float by Anne Carson
Let’s consider floating a transitional state, stuck between flying and falling. It’s the top of an arc, a beautiful moment of momentary weightlessness before crashing back to earth. Mathematically speaking, there’s a brief instant when a trajectory shifts from rising to falling, and that split-second can indeed be calculated, pinpointed and even cherished as proof that there’s a moment between two opposite concepts, between action and reaction.
Composed of twenty-two staple-bound chapbooks that can be read in any order (each in a spectrum of blue covers depicting a blurry bit of string), Anne Carson’s Float is an exercise in finding that moment of transition between ideas. When does a poem become an essay? And when does a translation become an original composition? Carson is a classics expert and translator, well-versed in major Greek works like those of Sophokles, Sappho and Homer, but also a modern feminist poet dialed into contemporary arts, dance and theater. In “Uncle Falling: A Pair of Lyric Lectures with Shared Chorus,” Carson’s Greek chorus is composed of “four seated Gertrude Steins who resemble Picasso’s portrait of her. Each holds up a Gertrude Stein mask on a stick…”. Her playful blend of classics and modernism makes for a dizzying read but also reinforces her interest in the space between the two, adrift between the past and today.
Much of Carson’s interstitial investigation revolves around pronouns and the problematic “binary system” “which regards masculine as the / unmarked gender.” In the stunning poem “Pronoun Envy” (bound in its own blue pamphlet), she writes of former Harvard Divinity School Linguistics professor Cal Watkins and his attempts to usher in progressive gender theory:
As if all
the creatures in the world
were either zippers
way back in the Indus Valley
in 5000 BC we decided
to call them zippers
Ideas in Float are never introduced and developed to completion in a single pamphlet and instead rely on a curious reader to connect a poem in one book to an essay or short abstract play in another. For example, the idea of zippers and non-zippers re-appears and is developed further throughout “Possessive Used as Drink (Me): A Lecture on Pronouns in the Form of 15 Sonnets”, with “I and not-I” appearing at the end of the Marcel Duchamp-citing “Sonnet Isolate.”
Anne Carson is a translator, and, to get theoretical, couldn’t one consider the use of “zippers and non-zippers” and “I and not-I” a way of naming something that cannot be described by using the vocabulary of what is definitively known? If one knows what man is, but is at a loss for words to translate woman into a communicable idea, isn’t “not-man” a translation of sorts that uses one’s limited alphabet of experience?
“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” fascinatingly delves into the history of the untranslatable:
English falls silent. This kind of linguistic decision is simply a measure of foreignness, an acknowledgment of the fact that languages are not algorithms of one another, you cannot match them item for item. But what if, within this silence, you discover a deeper one – a word that does not intend to be translatable. A word that stops itself.
Carson cites a moment in Homer’s Odyssey when Hermes gives Odysseus an herbal concoction to use against Kirke’s magic: “Moly is what the gods call it. And it is very hard to dig up for mortal men. But gods can do such things.”
It is fascinating to consider a word that exists solely in the language of the gods. “What does this word hide?” Carson posits, before launching into a head-spinning essay about other instances of words “that go silent in transit,” stuck between stations.
To read Float is to dance around the shadow of a grand, almost-inconceivable idea and find new ways in each chapbook to stay connected to its concepts. It’s almost as if Carson expects her readers to use the string printed on the covers of each chapbook to tie them all together. Whether it’s a piece about Merce Cunningham, or a commissioned poem to accompany a dance performance, or the text of a play originally staged somewhere in Brooklyn, each booklet reinforces an abstract thesis that Carson and her readers can’t quite find the words to describe.
In the opening of “Cassandra Float Can,” Carson writes:
Sometimes I feel I spend my whole life rewriting the same page. It is a page with “Essay on Translation” at the top and then quite a few paragraphs of good strong prose. These begin to break down toward the middle of the page. Syntax decays. Perforations appear. By the end there is not much left but a few flakes of language roaming near the margins, looking as if they want to become an art of pure shape.
Reading Float, one can prominently see these flakes, but they’re not sinking into decay. Carson’s work dissipates into a delicious fog of poetry and classics and ideas and wonderment. It is a marvel to linger within that mist, afloat somewhere so intellectually stimulating that has yet to be named.