Poetry

Geryon’s childhood

Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse – Anne Carson’s masterpiece. Having just read the sequel Red Doc>, I simply had to revisit what has become one of my favourite books of all time. And so I am currently reading this narrative poem, which I only discovered about a year ago, for the fourth time. There is no other book, in which I can lose myself in quite the same way.

The story is based on some fragments by the Greek writer Stesichoros, whose work in turn reinterprets an episode of the story of Heracles (Hercules), one of whose labours involved killing a dragon in order to get its magic cattle. Stesichoros retells the story from the perspective of the dragon/monster, whom he calls Geryon. Carson adopts the same perspective but gives it another twist by turning Herakles (as a classicist, she adopts the ‘proper’ spelling) into Geryon’s lover.

Carson’s story begins with the childhood of Geryon, the red dragon (hence Autobiography of Red). Sexually abused and bullied by his older brother, he retreats into himself:

Inside is mine, he thought.

That was also the day
he began his autobiography. In this work Geryon set down all inside things
particularly his own heroism
and early death much to the despair of the community. He coolly omitted
all outside things.

Carson is a perceptive observer and an unrivalled communicator: the retreat, the self-pity – it’s all here and all so well expressed.

Because of the problems with his brother, Geryon is quite fixated upon his mother. So when, one evening, his mother goes out, leaving him alone with his brother and the babysitter:

Geryon felt the walls of the kitchen contract as most of the air in the room
swirled after her.
He could not breathe. He knew he must not cry. And he knew the sound
of the door closing
had to be kept out of him. Geryon turned all attention to his inside world.

Then he is told that his mother won’t be back for hours.

At this news Geryon felt everything in the room hurl itself
away from him
towards the rims of the world.

In another scene Geryon and his mother enjoy spending some time on their own:

She winked at him over the telephone. He winked back using both eyes
and returned to work.
He had ripped up some pieces of crispy paper he found in her purse to use for hair
and was gluing these to the top of the tomato.

The tomato sculpture, by the way, is Geryon’s autobiography, as he hasn’t learned how to write yet.

His mother is on the phone while Geryon is working on his sculpture. This is how the scene ends:

Maybe next time you could
use a one-dollar bill instead of a ten for the hair, she said as they began to eat.

Soon after: enter Herakles – but that will have to wait for now.

A truly delightful story this …

Random thoughts

Undoing the latches of being

Anne Carson is brilliant. I have only admiration for her creativity and use of language.

In ‘Red Meat: What Difference Did Stesichoros Make?’ (published in Autobiography of Red), she discusses Stesichoros’s literary contribution, which, in her estimate, consists in breaking the constraints of Homeric epic. ‘Homer’s epithets’, Carson says, ‘are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption.’

How does Homer do that? By using a stock repertoire of adjectives, ‘the latches of being’. If nouns name the world and verbs activate those names, then, says Carson, adjectives ‘are the latches of being’. Wow! What an ingenious way of describing the function of adjectives!

So how does Stesichoros come into this? By leaving Homer’s stock repertoire behind and coming up with novel descriptions. Or, in Carson’s words, by ‘undoing the latches’.