Edited by Vicki Madden
Art: Ottelien Huckin http://www.ottelienhuckin.co.uk/
‘Are there many little boys who think they are a
Monster? But in my case I am right…’ (Carson 12)
It is an onerous task to write about a book that you love. Harder still to write about one that so vigorously resists definition – and which seems to attack the idea that anything can have a single meaning. Anne Carson, a Macarthur ‘Genius’ who taught Greek at McGill University in Montréal, has adapted the Classical poet Stesichoros’s fragments into her own epic poem. This is perhaps the simplest way to describe a book which, in less than two-hundred pages, covers an almost absurd amount of ground –a text which offers me new interpretations each time I come back to it, and which manages to rock me, as a queer man, to my very core.
Indeed, Autobiography of Red, first published in North America in 1998, is one of the few books that I can safely say, to borrow from Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, contains multitudes. In the process of reading it, one moves from invented interviews with a mythologized Gertrude Stein, to painful scenes of childhood trauma, to romantic excursions across Argentinian mountain ranges, with male characters who are anthropomorphic representations of both legend and landscape. Carson writes poetry, but the text is close to a novel in its size and scope, and there is a clear narrative to follow. It’s Greek mythology, but seemingly set in the late twentieth century. Autobiography of Red is, like Stesichoros’s fragments, about a giant, Geryon, with terrible red wings, but the narrative tells us that the very same monster is our protagonist – a small, introverted gay kid, overcoming trauma. It’s a quest narrative, but despite the epic journeys across land and sea, the quest seems to be far more personal and interior: Geryon wants to be loved, and feel whole. His life has not taught him that people like him deserve such things. Sexually abused by his brother, emotionally smothered by his mother, ostracised from his social surroundings: he is so lonesome that it chokes him.
Autobiography of Red is a story that many queer people will relate to; the mood Carson conjures is so heady and familiar. We have all sat at the kitchen table, staring down our loved ones, and felt ourselves gagged, to the point of being unable to communicate. Our eyes have parsed the crowds for danger, as we’ve sunk into ourselves, repressing imagined weaknesses. Indeed, so many of us have endured such pain, from those who hate us, and from those who proclaim only to love us. Love is a capricious god behind the scenes of Carson’s poem: this is a queer story, but significantly, it is a queer romance. The young Geryon falls for the handsome Herakles, who the myths tell us will come to kill him. In a way, Herakles does. This monster-slaying, though, manifests as a heartbreak rather than a murder – though of course, Carson muddies the distinction between the two. Being hurt by a loved one, in this text, is close to being killed.
Labouring on Autobiography must have been a Herculean endeavour in its own right. Carson, however, pulls it off with incredible finesse: one is sucked into the poetic stylings of her epic. To have the audacity to question her project once one gets a few pages in would be ridiculous; she clearly marks herself out as an authority, on poetry itself, and on the legends she’s reworking. In spite of her poetic might, Carson is surprisingly unfamous in the UK and Europe, given her incredible range of success and plaudits in the American literary context. She easily deserves our attention – Ondaatje, in my edition, for example, acclaims her as ‘the most exciting poet writing in English today’ (back page, Autobiography).
This book could be taught in a variety of classes, and it ought to be – partly for its sheer excellence, and partly because we simply do not study enough work by women, or enough work that focusses on queer content. One could teach it in a class on fable and legend, or on Classical themes, or on adaptation. It could be discussed in terms of its descriptions of trauma and recovery. It could be in a class on contemporary, Canadian, or epic poetry. It could feature in a class on queer narratives, quest narratives, or queer-quest narratives (that class might not exist, but it sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?). It could be taught as a love story, and one of the great ones, at that. I write this review partly to advocate for the defence of this text, which I think is one of the most beautiful of our time, but also to show anyone reading that forging a curriculum can be a creative and inventive task. Look for books like these, which contain multitudes, which can mean so much, in so many different lights, depending on how you look at them. I beg you to read Carson, and I beg you to bring her words into the classroom.
I also write this review to simply marvel at how incredible Autobiography of Red is, and how it made me feel, as a queer man starved of representation: somehow seen, somehow wanted. Like Geryon, one wonders, in this heteronormative and isolating world, if one is a monster. One hopes, though, that like Geryon, one has wings.
Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Cape Poetry, 2010.
First published in Canada in 1998.
Whitman, Walt. ‘Song of Myself’. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/whitman/song.htm
About the author:
Toby Sharpe is a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, with a research interest in queer lives and literatures. He undertook his undergraduate degree in Edinburgh, briefly studying abroad at McGill University in Montréal. He is the co-founder of Project Myopia.