A Review of Anne Carson's Float
Reviewed by Autumn Getty
Anne Carson’s Float is a collection of twenty-two colorful chapbooks gathered into a blue cover jacket which will ship in a clear acetate slip case. The chapbooks each contain a completed work, either an essay or collection of thematically connected poems with some combining both of these elements. The chapbooks are meant to be read in any order, and are listed alphabetically in the table of contents. As detailed in the collection’s “Performance Notes,” many of the chapbooks were originally created for or presented in a variety of venues, usually as dramatic performances, lectures or art exhibits.
Given the occasional nature of roughly half the chapbooks, there seems to be a startling coherence to much of the material. The problems of translation, central to Carson’s career as a classicist, seem to form an extended metaphor most clearly explicated in the essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent.” The word cliché, for instance, has entered English in its original form partly because its sound, a key to its meaning, is not reproducible in our language: “This kind of linguistic decision is simply a measure of foreignness, an acknowledgement of the fact that languages are not algorithms of one another, you cannot match them item for item.” To illustrate this point, the essay concludes with an English translation of a fragment by the Greek poet Ibykos, and then with five further translations of the same poem which limit themselves to the words used in particular texts including, hilariously, Bertolt Brecht’s FBI file. The body of the essay explores this theme in the trial of Joan of Arc, the paintings of Francis Bacon, and the translations from the Greek by Friedrich Holderlin. This technique of exploring a concept with reference to several disparate sources is a strategy Carson uses throughout the collection and seems to be a way of “translating” one context into another.
The poetry in Float is characterized by fragmentation and a high degree of post-modern free play. The practice of such fragmentation can reflect a chaotic view of the universe, and yet it seems here to extend the translation theme, since Carson often talks about “truth” and “reality” but is somewhat ambivalent about attempts to attach narrative to them. Her discussion of Bacon’s work testifies to the necessity to recognize facts without stringing them together to form a “translation” that explains our experience. In “Wildly Constant,” the narrator reports events that occur during a walk in Iceland while she thinks about the American artist Roni Horn, and contemplates icebergs as a kind of library she has no access to, which summons the spectre of psychoanalytic theory. In the midst of it: “I have no theory/of why we are here/or what any of us is a sign of.” Again, in the poem “Reticent Sonnet”:
I used to think I would grow up to be a person whose reasoning was deep,
instead I became a kind of brush.
I brush words against words. So do we follow ourselves out of youth,
brushing, brushing, brushing wild grapes onto truth.
So often in fragmentary and deconstructive approaches we sense the writer is only intellectual, only driven by an obsessive drive to illustrate the inability to speak truth, and yet in the midst of the lists, tabulations, random bits of facts and history lessons of a chapbook like “Stacks,” Carson interrupts her own project to convey the fragmentation she herself feels.
That sense of alienation from reality leads Carson to ask whether there is a connection between translation and mental instability, particularly in the case of Holderlin, who seemed to want to not translate at all. There are several different figures throughout Float who seem touched by madness, not least of them the author’s uncle and father; their struggles with dementia are catalogued in the chapbook “Uncle Falling.” This concern seems to find its culmination in “Nelligan,” a translation of eight poems and fragments of the Québécois poet Émile Nelligan who spent the majority of his life in hospital care due to his dementia.
Familiar with only the translations of Fred Cogswell and a few from a forthcoming book by Hamilton poet Marc di Saverio, I found Carson’s translations an energizing splash of cold water in their utter disregard for the forms and formal language of the originals. When I compared the poems closely to those other translations, however, I began to see that for Carson translation is done on every front, not for a group necessarily, but for an individual: that is, for Carson herself. To choose a different structure, to say that another form is better for the communication of a range of desperate emotions such as Nelligan expresses in these poems, is to bring in models (I would suggest Carson is drawing on Rilke) that have meaning only for a certain few in a particular context.
The point is driven home further in some of the word choices Carson makes. In “Hospital night dream,” she chooses “one of those paintings” where Cogswell uses “those oils of hers”; Cogswell’s “mysterious blaze of chandeliers” becomes “sudden mystic flare of big lamps.” Of course they are both translating from the French originals, Cogswell in the early eighties and Carson, presumably, thirty years later. Cogswell’s language seems to me to maintain more fidelity to the original, where Carson seems to have as her principal objective the rendering of the poems fully into her own idiom, thus destroying the original altogether. This is interesting in view of her essay, “Cassandra Float Can,” in which she sets translation side by side with prophecy as depicted in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and invokes the etymology of the name Apollo, god of prophecy: “Apollo’s name is cognate with the Greek verb apollesthai, ‘to destroy utterly, kill, slay, demolish, lay waste.’”
To tie this back to Holderlin and madness, there seems something in translation which demands a standing in-between, a possessing of no space, so structures one normally inhabits in culture don’t necessarily have any more reality than structures which exist in the culture which produced the source material. To be cut adrift from your own context, surely that is a definition of madness? And yet to insist on one’s own context as the foundation of understanding seems to run counter to Carson’s project. There is a kind of sanity to be found in delusion; this artist seems to prefer the madness of reality.
Autumn Getty is the trans female author of two books of poetry published by Nightwood Editions. Reconciliation won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Hamilton and Area Arts Council Award for poetry and was nominated for the Trillium Award for Poetry. The Winnipeg Free Press named her second book, Repose, one of the top ten books of poetry published in Canada in 2008. She has also received the Hamilton Arts Award for Literature and been nominated for the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts as an Emerging Writer in the Literature category. Autumn is currently at work on a novel, a book of poetry, and a collection of essays.