I found Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red while decorating my first apartment. I had decided that I would cover the walls in the words that have stuck with me – quotes from novels, short stories, magazines, award speeches, movies. I wanted to live within the contours of language, feel the constant weight of a phrase that had lodged itself in my chest and could not be removed. While looking through my books, I found a writing magazine with a gorgeous hand-drawn cover. It was not a quote, but I wanted it on my wall. I hoped that the feature article would have a version of the picture unobstructed by cover lines.
I didn’t find the picture, but I decided to read the article anyway. It was an exploration of alternative depictions of heroism in literature. Example one: Herakles and Geryon in Autobiography of Red. I didn’t even finish the whole article. I just needed to know that Autobiography of Red reshaped the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus’ prologue to Herakles’ tenth labour as a torpid love affair between Herakles and Geryon and that the book was a ‘novel in verse’. I bought it the next day.
I wasn’t afraid of poetry. I owned a book by Mark Doty, a collection by Elizabeth Bishop. I had a basic understanding of rhythmic structure and verse form. I had read poetry, but I don’t know that I ever understood it. It never clicked with me in the same way a particularly touching piece of prose did. A poem had never sent shivers up my spine or made me stop reading completely. A poem had never made me think about the boundaries of literature. Even if a poem had seemed eloquent or beautiful or insightful, it would never nudge me in the middle of the night, never demand attention or a second read-through.
The subject of poetry was often so ephemeral and my reading style was so literal that, even though I tried to like poetry, I had ultimately resigned it to the pedestal of ‘thing I want to be around but will never understand on a level deeper than appreciation’. This book felt like a bridge– I was drawn to both queer literature and mythology, and I enjoyed stories the way that others tasted whiskey. If there was a book that would show me how to read poetry, it would be this one.
Why does Autobiography of Red work? It is a collection of forty seven poems, or chapters, or however you want to describe it, in addition to three appendices, two introductory sections, and a fictionalized interview with Stesichorus. It mixes classical studies with elements of contemporary poetry and contemporary prose. How does it not collapse under its own weight?
For me, it was the language. I typed up the entirety of the twelfth poem, ‘Lava’, and taped it on my wall. The poem begins plainly, simply, with a declarative: “He did not know how long he had been asleep.” And, like its namesake, the poem slowly yet inevitably approaches its conclusion, Geryon’s brother sexually abusing him.
What begins as Geryon taking in the sounds of his house at night turns into a thought experiment: “What is it like to be a woman/listening in the dark?” The poem shifts between vivid metaphorical imagery (“motion/was a memory he could not recover/(among others) from the bottom of/the vast blind kitchen where he was buried”) and unadorned statements (“Lava can move as slow as/nine hours per inch”). The contrast between the two draw out Geryon’s anxiety in a way that is more emotionally evocative than a simple statement or metaphor. In this poem, we are given an intimate look into Geryon’s mind – the connections he makes between thoughts, the pure terror of uncertainty, and the futile attempts to overcome anxiety with logic and facts. While I knew the rule of “show, don’t tell,” there are few other times I have so deeply understood it. .
To be clear, Autobiography of Red is not purely poetry. Instead, Carson toes the line between prose and poetry, or, perhaps, teases out the similarities between them. This idea of contradictory identity is central to the work. Carson lays this out clearly in the first section of the novel, which illustrates how “[Adjectives] are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being”. Sex is seen by Geryon as an act of both love (of Herakles) and fear (of his older brother). Herakles is not just a hero, but also boorish and emotionally distant to the point of cruelty. Geryon is reimagined as both real and mythical, demon and human. What is identity in a world where adjectives, the tools we use to ascribe identity, persistently contradict?
I read the whole book in two hours. I wanted to immediately re-read it, but I also wanted to sit and digest it. I felt changed in some way – not enlightened, but shifted. Autobiography of Red didn’t teach me poetry. I still don’t understand a lot of poetry, though I’d like people to believe otherwise. But I’m unafraid to seek it out now. I go out of my way to buy poetry books. I read poems that are longer than ten lines. I have actual opinions - ill-informed opinions but opinions still - on what it means for poetry to be ‘good’.
I’ve read Autobiography of Red several times now, and am still deeply enamoured with it. Despite appearing inaccessible, it’s one of the first books I suggest to friends who want to explore poetry. The rich language, the malleable form, the well-defined characters – any consumer of American media is already familiar with the most admirable qualities of Autobiography of Red. In shows like Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, and Mad Men, we are invited to confront the dual natures of humanity through myth – the myth of the drug kingpin, the myth of the Mafioso, the myth of the self-made man.
In Autobiography of Red we again see this invitation to explore human nature through myth – in this case, through the lens of classical myth. Carson’s language combines the solidity of prose with the brevity and lyric of poetry. It is perfect for readers who enjoy poring over each word, as well as casual readers who would rather read through its entirety in one sitting. It is the kind of book that fits in your chest cavity and will never be displaced.
Matthew Mastricova is a freelance writer and editor from Caldwell, New Jersey. He has had work published in Stereo Stories, WhiskeyPaper, and Tincture Journal. He tweets from @mattmastricova and reviews electronic music at www.thudsandrumbles.com.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.