IN AN ESSAY published 12 years ago in the New York Times Book Review, poet and essayist Anne Carson uttered two lines that could precede all of her work: "Let me ask you something. The question is not mine but is 2,600 years old, scratched in retrograde Greek letters." Whatever form she's working in, be it lyrical poetry or logical essays, Anne Carson is always sleuthing in the dust of the classical world, asking the difficult questions. With a sure and supple touch, she brings to life its more mysterious figures--Thucydides, Catullus, Sappho--finds their hidden mysteries, and shows how strangely universal are their struggles.
In her latest collection of poetry and prose, Men in the Off Hours, Carson disinters an intriguingly bleak assortment of artistic figures. There is the historian of war, Thucydides, the poet of scorned love, Sappho, and the filmmaker of madness, Artaud. With a magician's ability to conceal artifice, Carson casts these dour souls in a new light, showing how they might have lived during the off hours--that downtime where we achieve our most difficult tasks of loving and dying. Thanks to Carson's febrile imagination, we can see (or imagine) these artists' true selves--the stuff their artifice so beautifully sublimated.
The painter Audubon, for instance, emerges as less a stunning naturalist than a prodigious con man. "On the bottom of each watercolor he put 'drawn from nature'/which meant he shot the birds/and took them home to stuff and paint them," Carson writes. Virginia Woolf, who came to life most recently in Michael Cunningham's The Hours, again appears as a sensitive soul ravaged by the spectacle of war. Emily Dickinson, like Sappho, is a smoldering romantic who has found her voice on the page.
In total, Carson's brainy cast emerges as fragile, lonely souls caught up in the business of stopping time. In the opening essay, "Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War," Carson theorizes about these two writers' responses to war, which, she argues, is in many ways time's greatest obliterator. On one hand there is Thucydides' mathematical thoroughness, his almost prurient race against the hours to get down the details of each battle. On the other hand, there is Woolf's utter demoralization by World War II, her forfeiture of the rest of her days on earth when she comes to understand the soiled world where they'll be lived. In the end, both writers realize that "[t]ime embraces youth, youth embraces war." And both find that war's appearance reminds them of their mortality.
As in her previous hybrid book, Plainwater, Carson combines poems and essays in a way that is thrilling and original. Thus, following the opening essay on time, there is an imagined dialogue between Woolf and Thucydides about war itself. Elsewhere, these assorted monologues, dialogues, and imagined film treatments yield such stuff as a stirring (and at times ghostly) meditation on the half-life of Eros.
From Carson's poems, we are able to understand two bracing facts. Love, like us, will die, and so will those we love. And in conveying this crushing verity, Carson often equals the great achievement of her subjects: She miraculously stops the clock.