- Anne Carson (Author)
Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan). Princeton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Anne Carson (Author)
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Princeton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Chris Jennings
The amazing thing about If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is that Knopf has printed this translation at all. It testifies to the popular and economic success Anne Carson has fashioned from the commercially challenged fields of poetry and classics—but "printed" fails to capture the material presence of the book. The jacket is almost entirely white except for Carson’s name, the book’s title and two fragments of papyrus. "Fragments of Sappho" is in red, and the Greek text (this is a bilingual edition with facing text) is also in red, the English in black. The translation covers 354 strikingly blank pages—the Greek and English texts making a few small red or black marks on a tundra of white. Many pages contain one or two lines, others only a few words separated by space. Below Fragment 124, "and you yourself Kalliope," there is a small defect in my copy, a pinprick of black ink that looks like a falling leaf at a great distance. It seems significant.
With the possible exception of that defect, very little about the presentation of this book is insignificant. Carson once described her own poetics as "painting with thoughts and facts," a notion derived from "dealing with classical texts which are, like Sappho, in bits of papyrus with that enchanting white space around them, in which we can imagine all of the experience of antiquity floating but which we can’t quite reach." She describes that experience more succinctly here when explaining her use of square brackets to indicate where those bits of papyrus have been destroyed or rendered illegible. The brackets "imply a free space of imaginai adventure." Space is integral to the experience; as the materials preserving the poems deteriorate, they reinvent them. The only words in Carson’s version of Fragment 12, for example, read: "] thought / ]barefoot," and it is hard not to read the string of square brackets that precede and follow as the footprints of thought running down the page, a record of past presence— even though there is no reason to assume that the adjective "barefoot" modifies "thought" or even that "thought" is a noun and not a verb in the past tense.
There may be a reason in the Greek. Words, or parts of words, appear on five lines of the facing text, little enough that David Campbell leaves the fragment out of his Loeb edition of Greek Lyric. Comparing across the gutter hints again at the necessity of "imaginai adventure" on the part of the translator. In her introduction, Carson cites Benjamin’s idea that translation "calls into" a language from the outside, "aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one." Finding the "single spot" depends on the translator being able to identify the "intention toward language" of the original, a task made practically impossible by the state of Sappho’s papyri. Instead of an irretrievable original, Carson gives something of the experience of reading those fragments, of speculating about how the surviving words, thoughts, and facts might once have connected. Here, translation is the art of identifying the implication toward language from the accident of what survived.
In Economy of the Unlost, Carson discusses the convergence of pecuniary and poetic economy involved in composing an ancient Greek epitaph. She writes: "[s]ome engravers liked to enhance the effect of an inscription by painting the letters after they were cut, [. ..] sometimes alternating lines of red and black." If Not, Winter may not be an epitaph, but printing the Greek in red, the English in black, makes the book resemble this kind of inscription, this dedication to the dead. It also suggests that, as a representation of Sappho, it is a "false sail" as Carson uses the topos in the prologue to Economy. A false sail is a statement contrary to fact of the kind invoked by Aristotle’s description of metaphor as a mistake "that enriches the mere truth once you see it as that." (Tristan and Aigeus, Carson’s examples, react before they see the mistake.) Carson’s translations of Sappho are metaphors, distinct from their original, but tellingly, enrichingly, alike. Sappho’s shadow extends through most of Carson’s work, beginning with Eros the Bittersweet, so perhaps metaphors and mistaken identities extend back from the poems to the poets as well.
Carson connects Simonides and Paul Celan on the basis of economy. Her basic question in Economy of the Unlost is both broad and simple: "Humans value economy. Why?" The word means management according to the OED but that does not explain why "economy is a trope of intellectual, aesthetic, and moral value." The more precise measure of the trope lies in its implications of saving, of managing to do the work of much with little. Speaking of measure, as a verb "value" means primarily to "appraise as being worth a specified sum" and resonates with the same monetary implication as economy. Only metaphorically, as a trope of exchange, does value move from quantity to quality, taking on the sense of appreciate or esteem. For Simonides, "placed [. ..] on the cusp of two economic systems," one creating community in the exchange of gifts, the other creating commodities in the exchange of money, the trope works in reverse. For Celan, who wrote in the German language of his persecution, "saving" meant something different from hoarding or reserving; it meant redeeming, "replacing death with certain salvaged words, day and day about."
Carson locates the link between poetic and pecuniary economy in the moment when money began to mediate Simonides’ exchange of poetry for hospitality, of posterity for present need. Money made the poet "sharply aware of his own exchange value as a producer of poetry." He became a commodity, one difficult to measure or assign a monetary equivalent. At root, for a poet of encomia, epinikia ’epitaph’, it is a question of the value of memory. The poet preserves (or, put economically, saves) the memory of the subject (customer?). The question becomes a dilemma for Celan, for whom the alienating language of the society that destroyed his family and community is also the language of memory.
Poetry is difficult to commodify because it accesses the immeasurable, what Carson calls "the invisible" and extends to the past and the divine. "Poetic language has this capacity to uncover a world of metaphor that lies inside all our ordinary speech like a mind asleep," she writes, referring to Simonides’ poem about Danaë and Perseus. This internal economy, the exchange of the invisible with the visible, resists external commodification. Poetic economy depends on the ability to harmonize the two forms of exchange, to access the immeasurable in measured words, to put much into little the way a brief epitaph memorializes a life, or the way negation ("’This is not that’") "requires [the] collusion of the present and the absent on the screen of the imagination," "evoking the absent to measure it against the present."
Carson’s method partakes of her subject here (as elsewhere, as always), its economy resisting expansion into paraphrase. The implications of her argument touch both the roots of metaphor and the relevance of concrete poetry, to suggest one example of that expansion. If Not, Winter is a better example, one that doesn’t resort to explanation.
- Italian Migration by Jacqueline Samperi Mangan
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- Three Canadian Poets by Kristen Guest
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- Dancing in the Mud by Shane Rhodes
Books reviewed: Skaldance by [Error: author data missing], Doubt's boots: Even Doubt's Shadow by Charles Noble, and American Standard & Other Poems by Joseph Sherman
- Language and Painting by Jack F. Stewart
Books reviewed: Earthquakes and Explorations: Language and Painting from Cubism to Concrete Poetry by Stephen Scobie, Unseen Dimensions: Musings on Art and Life by John Koerner, Tom Thomson: Design for a Canadian Hero by Joan Murray, and On the Edge: Artistic Visions of a Shrinking Landscape by Catherine Gibbon
MLA: Jennings, Chris. ]Thought ]Barefoot. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 13 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 108 - 110)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.