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Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001

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The Beautiful and the Damned
Anne Carson does her sums

By Toh Hsien Min

The Beauty of the Husband
Anne Carson
Albert A. Knopf (2001) / 147 pages / S$36.49

Ian McMillan used to do all his review reading while riding on trains between London and the North, and he got to a point where one of his reviews was virtually about the relative suitability of five books to reading on a train. Without the benefit of hours of rail, I try to make up by reading on the bus (which, as we know, takes hours to make no distance at all in Singapore).

I wouldn’t advise doing so with Anne Carson’s latest book, The Beauty of the Husband, though. I’d wanted to – the book was a beautiful, seductive one, with its rough cut pages, perfectly weighted hardcover and detail from an Ingres at a Musée des Beaux-Arts, and I could hardly wait – but the three sentences on the inside dustcover shot out like a warning or a riddle. They announced the book as

...an essay on Keats’s idea that beauty is truth and [...] also the story of a marriage [...] told in twenty-nine tangos.

A tango (like a marriage) is something you have to dance to the end.

The individual poems are not long, but it was the convergence of three ideas, each engaging with a different partner in each sentence with all the fluidity of dance, that provoked an uncertainty that perhaps the poet meant the book to be read through in one session. So I held the book over until I had three hours spare.

Once I started, I never wanted to stop.

It’s not easy to determine where the start is, however. Besides the conductor’s three-sentence tap of his baton, the reader sees a second announcement of the book: “a fictional essay in 29 tangos” and then an epigraph by John Keats. Then the first poem sets out as a dedication to Keats, saliently in its title. A second Keats epigraph appears, and a turning back on the dedication. It takes a third poem to conclude the category of dedication, and the allusions to Keats draws up Romantic indistinction on the integrity of dedication, so that one is never sure where the book actually begins. Moreover, an early comment on the husband “dislik[ing] having to start each thought himself” not only flashes on the nature of some writing, but is metafictional in that the poems may be read to take off from Keats’s epigraphs, or, perhaps more accurately, that the poems force Keats’s epigraphs onto themselves. We are the husband, in a variation on Christian ideology – we are forced to start each thought from Keats.

The dedications contain the infidelities, and the book has to be danced to the end because it shapes up as a pathology of a crumbling marriage: the husband’s admission of adultery to the wife is over in an eager flash, as he “with shy pride / slid out a photograph”. In a way akin to the switch in pace in a tango, and with all the bursting melancholy of an Astor Piazzolla, The Beauty of the Husband switches to analysis.

And Carson’s is a calculating, almost cold analysis, where “his thrust – analytic” is a projective proxy for her thrust – analytic. Carson has always been noted for her intellectual, perhaps academic, poetics, but The Beauty of the Husband is a tour de force, even by her standards. It astonishes not for the breadth and depth of classical and historical reference we have come to expect from her, but for her scintillating interweaving of mathematics and semiotics. Much of The Beauty of the Husband takes the form of mathematical equations, sometimes in the equation of metaphor (say, in the early equation of marriage to a wound), but often in the form of a metaphor of mathematics.

The meshing of categories in the title of the third poem is an example. In her first poem, Carson cites ‘The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even’ and Duchamp’s substitution of picture or painting for “a delay in glass”. We then encounter the title of the third poem as “And Finally A Good Dedication Is Indirect (Overheard, Etc.) As If Verdi’s ‘La Donna E Mobile’ Had Been A Poem Scratched On Glass”. Written in more abstract terms it could look something like this: A is B as if C is D, but we have established that E prefigures D, so therefore A // C = E, even if A has already been defined elsewhere and E already reaches out to another variable. Taken in isolation, this may seem like an unnecessarily complex way of analysing the metaphorical structure of the book, but the backbone of the book is exactly this structure of metaphor, predicated on the empowering regular expressions (and some of the indeterminacy) of algebra.

When poem VII touches on the two-faced character of myth, it demonstrates an instance of lie as empowering, effective and containing elements of truth. The equation is made, and then the transformative process is introduced: “All human words are known to the gods but have for them entirely other meanings alongside our meanings. / They flip the switch at will.” Yet the second statement/ equation is that the husband lies, thus compromising the element of essential truth in lies. The compactness of the lines draws out the first hurt of the first betrayal, yet the lines are stunningly beautiful. So what we take away from this poem is that Keats’s switch is the wrong switch – beauty isn’t truth, beauty is lies; because we have flipped the switch, the referential has become the processual, and the same two variables remain. More simply, beauty is the switch between truth and lies, and therefore, mathematically, The Beauty of the Husband implies The Truth of the Husband traded for The Lies of the Husband, which is as admirably compact and elegant a statement for adultery as may be found. It hardly even needs the reinforcement of poem VIII: “Poets... prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony / because this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive”, and the reference to man as machine (switch) “that pulls libidinal devices into a new transparence”. Through such structuring, Carson achieves tremendous symbolic compression, for instance when, in poem IX, Persephone accepting Hades’s rules is explained as telling the lie as truth.

If mathematics aims to make a consistent sense of complex processes, it may come as no surprise how strong the pull of mathematics is. “How do people / get power over one another? is an algebraic question”, says Carson, explaining that marriage is madness doubled, as madness is love doubled and love is desire doubled, complementing an earlier question on the mathematical equation of the helplessness of sex in both its meanings. When Ray, the dry aesthete friend, nudges the husband to “Double your fun”, mathematics is made earthy and metaphor is made idiom, where even recognition is equation and equates to metaphor. When Ray explains to the wife about not letting on the husband’s adultery, he says: “It’s a gap in a series the series is you.” When Carson deals with association in poem XX, she concludes with a neat use of an old Keatsian phrase:

so ingenious are the arrangements of the state of flux we call
our moral history are they not almost as neat as mathematical
propositions except written on water –

The beauty of these lines resides as much in the fact that she has already constructed these elaborate structures, almost as neat as mathematical propositions, in the history of this adultery, and has the restraint not to belabour the aporectics of semiotics. There is only the merest hint in her allusion to Parmenides (useful also for his opposition of Truth and Belief): “well-rounded Truth you can follow / around in a circle and always end up where you began”, and when she writes of “an important cultural function of games. / To test the will of the gods”, so that for all the recurrence of “rules”, Carson’s mathematics does not attempt to be deterministic. “To ask // would break some rule”, and the suspension in between stanzas accentuates the distance and accentuates the irrationality within the mathematical allusion.

Yet this book does not so much have the cool rigidity of a steel superstructure as the predatory passion of a tango. “Beauty convinces” could be an epigraph to the book – as noted, even the physical book sets out to be beautiful. There is a strong awareness of the intense sexuality of the beautiful; for instance, poem VI, about an encounter in a shed behind a vineyard, is pure sex. When this beauty co-exists with analysis, we drill through strata of irony. As early as poem IV, the analysis (or perhaps in the context of this book, the micro-analysis) is shown up: the wife is right, but so clinically right she is being deliberately wrong. Symmetry, casuistry and the lack of a return address are cited as noteworthy in her husband's letter, but these also collaborate to deny a fourth truth, which nonetheless erupts because, as we find out in poem XXIX after wading through the slightly less compelling Persephone / Demeter / spring topos and seeing it there denied, that the beautiful is already within. “Not... with God”, as had been guessed earlier: “Inside. He was already me. / Condition of me.” The logical term does not mask the question: whose regret is so final? After the military imagery – Epipolai, Borodino and the field exercises – after feeling the unfaithfulness as loss (in martial terms): “Her starts! My ends.” Carson takes us back to the beginning, à la Parmenides, but we now know that both have lost:

It was like a beautiful boiling dance where your partner
and stabs you to death

and the speech of the past imposes itself on a present reality.

So, too, does the poetry of the past, not only in the numerous classical references, but also in the narrative and dialogic modes of Autobiography of Red and the arguments of the essay on dirt and boundaries for Greek women in Men in the Off Hours. Yet because it keeps all its ambitions aloft like an accomplished juggler, The Beauty of the Husband is arguably Anne Carson’s most admirable book to date. All the reader has to do is get off the bus and concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Review of Hanif Kureishi's Gabriel's Gift.

The Emperor's New Book
Review of Seamus Heaney's Electric Light.

Related Links

Anne Carson wins the Griffin Poetry Prize
External link.

The Life of Towns
External link to Carson poems.

Carol LaForet reviews The Beauty of the Husband
External link.

Kate Moses reviews Men in the Off Hours
External link to Salon.

Geraldine McKenzie reviews Autobiography of Red
External link to Jacket.


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