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Men in the Off Hours, by Anne Carson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) 

Reviewed by Steve Harris


It is best not to read Anne Carson's poems in isolation, but rather to read a collection in one sitting -- if possible -- and later return to poke through the shards to examine various bits and pieces. Carson is a poet who relies on fragments: personal, classical (her specialty), and popular. She starts with a canvas of grief in this case her mother's passing away -- and proceeds to build a collage, using spray paint, glue, wit, the occasional essay, quotes, and whatever else happens to be nearby. The effect is meant to be cumulative. Her language is usually flat, but this is by design as she tells us (as if anticipating her critics) in the poem "Flatman (1st draft)":

I was born in the circus. I play the flat man.
My voice is flat, my walk is flat, my ironies
move flatly out to sock you in the eye.

Irony is important to Carson (as earlier evidenced in her collection "God, Irony, and Glass" -- Carson's Trinity). In the prose piece "Irony is not Enough: Essay on Life as Catherine Deneuve (2d draft)", she tells us (citing Sapho) that "irony is a verb." As Deneuve (see the actress in "Indochine"), Carson wears the mask of a detached and beautiful woman pursuing one of her students:

How very interesting (Deneuve thinks) to watch myself construct this silk and bitter relation. Latin rhetoricians translate the Greek work eironia as dissimulatio, which means "mask." After all why study the past? Because you may wish to repeat it. And in time (Sapho notes) one's mask becomes one's face. Just before going to jail Sokrates had a conversation with his prosecutors about irony, for this was the real source of their unease, and as they spoke they saw a miniature smoke of grief climb into the room, turning dark now and sulfurous in the confused ash. You're a real man Sokrates, says Deneuve. Closes her notebook. Pulls on her coat and buttons it. But then so am I.

Carson, the classicist, is really a romantic. As the seemingly remote Deneuve, she nevertheless finds herself thinking that "to breathe is to love," as she watches the student ("in a new earring") doing a translation in class:

Thank you, she says after the girl translates a Greek phrase with extreme vulgarity, making the others laugh. Bell rings. Girl leaves abruptly. Deneuve sits quiet as the room empties. Then puts her head down on the table and laughs. How lungs work. As Sapho says:

To stop breathing is bad.
So the gods judge.
For they do not stop breathing

Later Deneuve goes back down the hall. Inside her office the light is bluing, old ice of April unlacing its fast. She turns to the sound of the five o'clock bell. Comes a knock at the door.

Throughout the collection, Carson adopts various historical masks (though the Deneuve mask seems closest to the author). Akhmatova, Artaud, Freud, Lazarus, Lev and Sonya Tolstoy, as well as many others. The connective is grief, mortality. The presentation is often cinematic, as Carson enjoys pulling in the modern medium with a series of poems about "TV men." The "TV men" poems to some extent are the least enjoyable. These poems come across as clipped bullets lacking depth. But this is exactly what Carson wants, because time and how it is perceived is an important part of "Men in the Off Hours."

In the collection's opening piece the short essay, "Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War," Carson (playfully) explores differences of time perception. Men (Thucydides) see time as linear, with seasons coming and going (along with the ebb and flow of war). But Woolf portrayed by Carson -- has an epiphany on the subject of time, finding it an interior experience, as described in her essay "Mark on the Wall":

Virginia Woolf concludes her essay "The Mark on the Wall" abruptly. Amidst speculation she notices someone standing over her who says: "I'm going out to buy a newspaper."

The odd thing is, and although incidental it may be the reason why she ends this way, you grasp at once without any mention of the fact that someone is a man. He could no more be a woman than Thucydides. Not only because of his need for newspapers and view of the war ("Though it's no good buying newspapers. . . .Nothing ever happens. Curse this war. . . !") but because he at once identifies the mark on the wall as what it is. A snail is a snail. Even in the off hours, men know marks.

Carson revisits this dialogue later, in a "TV men" poem, but without the depth and nuance of the earlier piece. Carson is simply saying that, as (post)moderns, things are flattening out. It may not make for great poetry but, as a statement placed within the context of the collection, it resonates.

This apparent conflict in the perception of time is ultimately artificial and not some sort of enduring divide between sexes. Ideally, Carson finds a bit of both in all of us (though connection between the two remains a problem) and throughout life we often gender aside -- shift back and forth as need requires. In an appendix to this essay, Carson closes the ring by writing touchingly of her mother, time, death, Woolf, and Carson's own writing:

Crossouts are something you rarely see in published texts. They are like death: by a simple stroke -- all is lost, yet still there. For death although utterly unlike life shares a skin with it. Death lines every moment of ordinary time. Death hides right inside every shining sentence we grasped and had no grasp of. Death is a fact. No more or less strange than that celebrated fact given by the very last sentence of her [Woolf's] diaries (March 24, 1941):

L. is doing the rhododendrons.

Crossouts sustain me now. I search out and cherish them like old photographs of my mother in happier times. It may be a stage of grieving that will pass. It may be that I'll never again think of sentences unshadowed in this way. It has changed me. Now I too am someone who knows marks.

Facing these lines is a picture of Carson's mother. For Carson, all divisions which are ultimately artificial end with the great leveler (and perhaps comforter) death. Also, for Carson, the Metaphysical (in any traditional and historical sense) is swept aside in a series of "Epitaph" poems that encompass not only the religious but also those cultural items most important to the poet ("Epitaph: Zion", "Epitaph: Europe", "Epitaph: Donne Clown", "Epitaph Evil", etc.). All are bundled up in the shadow of death. In "Shadowboxer," Carson is a fighter (or better, an intellect) fighting death (tongue-in-cheek):

Of the soldier who put a spear through Christ's side on the cross
(and by some accounts broke his legs),
whose name is Longinus,
it is said
that after that he had trouble sleeping
and fell into a hard mood,
drifted out of the army
and came west,
as far as Provencia.
Was a body's carbon not simply carbon.
Jab hook jab.
Slight shift and we catch him
in a moment of expansion and catastrophe,
white arms sporting strangely in a void.
Uppercut jab jab hook jab.
Don't want to bore you,
my troubles jab.
Jab.
Jab.
Punch hook.
Jab. Was a face not all stille
as dew in Aprille.

Hook.
Jab.
Jab.

Less satisfying as a response to the "Epitaph" poems is the poem "No Epitaph," a piece that is meant to evoke the survival of poetry, even in such a vacuum as the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As a poem unto itself, it is shallow, and has the reader remembering Winston Smith's ("1984") utterance of "Shakespeare" without really knowing what it meant. But Carson's equivalence between the memory destroying Communist East and the history haunted West seems forced and unconvincing, especially when the corpse (and the weak light shed upon it) happens to be Poetry:

Was there some trouble? An old worker died of appendicitis
on the night shift and the body could not be cremated
until certain disputes
between the hospital and the family were resolved.
Someone would have to watch the body, they stood in a small circle,
shadows straining away from them toward all high corners of the room.

He was surprised as anyone to hear himself say he would do it.

What was it like? Quiet he says. Each night for a week
he kept company beside the empty arms of the dead.
Looking out the door we can see Venus rising.
Okay there she is.
Cold rushes in.
No need for men to chatter so.

(No Epitaph)

Of course this is Carson's brand of irony, with the unnamed Chinese poet's pure response of "Quiet." The real ones doing the chattering are the Venus lovers. (One wonders how various western professors live with themselves, studying texts they loath for various ideological reasons.) As a suggestion of a new poetical advent, free of history's detritus, the poem seems hokey. Carson's hip disdain for her own erudition comes across glaringly as an act meant to bring the house down.

Some critics doubt that Carson even writes poetry. I think she does write poetry but of a kind unlike any I've read. "Men in the Off Hours" has its ups and downs, for not all the experiments work. But with Carson's writing there is always wit, and usually, underneath the assembled fragments, you detect her passionate heart, which makes it easy to forgive her various sins. But are they sins? Or is Carson writing the modern novel: part prose, part poetry, part essay. How the lines are blurring. Jab. Jab.