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Short Talks

Anne Carson
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram

EarlY one morning words were missing. Before that, words were not. Facts were, faces were. In a good story, Aristotle tells us, everything that happens is pushed by something else. One day someone noticed there were stars but no words, why? I’ve asked a lot of people, I think it is a good question. Three old women were bending in the fields. What use is it to question us? They said. Well, it shortly became clear that they knew everything there is to know about the snowy fields and the blue- green shoots and the plant called “audacity” that poets mistake for violets. I began to copy out everything that was said. The marks construct an instant of nature gradually, without the boredom of a story. I emphasize this. I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.

In fifty-three fascicles I copied out everything that was said, things vast distances apart. I read the fascicles each day at the same time, until yesterday men came and took up the fascicles. Put them in a crate. Locked it. Then together we viewed the landscape. Their instructions were clear, I am to imitate a mirror like that of water (but water is not a mirror and it is dangerous to think so). In fact I was the whole time waiting for them to leave so I could begin filling in the parts I missed. So I am left with three fascicles (which I hid). I have to be careful what I set down. Aristotle talks about probability and necessity, but what good is a marvel, what good is a story that does not contain poison dragons? Well, you can never work enough.


Short Talk on Walking Backwards

My mother forbad us to walk backwards. That is how the dead walk, she would say. Where did she get this idea? Perhaps from a bad translation. The dead, after all, do not walk backwards but they do walk behind us. They have no lungs and cannot call out but would love for us to turn around. They are victims of love, many of them.


Short Talk on Le Bonheur d’être bien aimée

Day after day I think of you as soon as I wake up. Someone has put cries of birds on the air like jewels.


SHORT TALK ON RECTIFICATION

Kafka liked to have his watch an hour and a half fast. Felice kept setting it right. Nonetheless, each of us loves the other as he is, he wrote in his diary along with some remarks about her gold teeth, which had for him a really hellish luster in 1912. And for five years they almost married. He made a list of arguments for and against it, including inability to bear the assault of his own life (for) and the sight of the nightshirts laid out on his parents’ beds at 10:30 (against). Hemorrhage saved him. When advised not to speak by doctors in the sanitarium, he left glass sentences all over the floor. Felice, says one of them, had too much nakedness left in her. Healthy teeth? Also horrible in their way.


SHORT TALK ON VAN GOGH

The reason I drink is to understand the yellow sky, the great yellow sky, said Van Gogh. When he looked at the world he saw the nails that attach colors to things and he saw that the nails were in pain.


SHORT TALK ON SLEEP STONES

Camille Claudel lived the last thirty years of her life in an asylum wondering why, writing letters to her brother the poet, who had signed the papers. Come visit me, she says. Remember I am living here with madwomen, days are long. She did not smoke or stroll. She refused to sculpt. Although they gave her sleep stones—marble and granite and porphyry—she broke them, then collected the pieces and buried these outside the walls at night. Night was when her hands grew huger and huger, until in the photograph they are like two parts of someone else loaded onto her knees.


Short Talk on Waterproofing

Franz Kafka was Jewish. He had a sister, Ott!a, Jewish. Ottla married a jurist, Josef David, not Jewish. When the Nuremberg Laws were introduced to Bohemia-Moravia in 1942, quiet Ottla suggested to Josef David that they divorce. He at first refused. She spoke about night shapes and property and their two daughters and a rational approach. She did not mention, because she did not yet know the word, Auschwitz, where she would die in October 1943. After putting the apartment in order she packed a rucksack and was given a good shoeshine by Josef David. He applied a coat of grease. Now they are waterproof, he said.


Short Talk on the Mona Lisa

Every day he poured his question into her, as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back. Don't tell me he was painting his mother, lust, etc. There is a moment when the water is not in one vessel or in the other—what a thirst it was, and he supposed that when the canvas become completely empty he would stop. But women are strong. She knew vessels, she new water, she knew mortal thirst.


Short Talk on Sylvia Plath

Did you see her mother on television? She said plain, burned things. She said I thought it an excellent poem but it hurt me. She did not say jungle fear. She did not say jungle hatred wild jungle weeping chop it back. She said self-government she said end of the road. She did not say humming in the middle of the air what you came for chop.


Short Talk on the Total Collection

From childhood he dreamed of being able to keep with him all the objects in the world lined up on his shelves and bookcases. He denied lack, oblivion, or even the likelihood of a missing piece. Order streamed from Noah in blue triangles and as the pure fury of his classifications rose around him, engulfing his life, they came to be called waves by others, who drowned, a world of them.


Short Talk on Seating

Nowadays he is tied to a chair in a room with three madmen but during the war my father was a navigator and flew low over France to drop parcels for spies—once nylon stockings, hard to explain to the Germans who shot down the plane. Wo ist sie? they kept asking but Dad had no German and the other three were dead in their seats.


Short Talk on The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman

A winter so cold that, walking on the Breestraat as you passed from sun to shadow you could feel the difference run down your skull like water. It was the hunger winter of 1656 when Black Jan took up with a whore named Elsje Ottje and for a time they prospered. But one icy January Black Jan was observed robbing a cloth merchant’s house. He ran, fell, knifed a man and was hanged on the 27th of January. How he fared then is no doubt known to you: the cold weather permitted Dr. Deyman to turn the true eye of medicine on Black Jan for three days. One wonders if Elsje ever saw Rembrandt’s painting, which shows her love thief in violent frontal foreshortening, so that his pure soles seem almost to touch the chopped-open cerebrum. Cut and cut deep to find the source of the problem, Dr. Deyman is saying, as he parts the brain to either side like hair. Sadness comes groping out of it.


Short Talk on the Sensation of Airplane Takeoff

Well you know I wonder, it could be love running toward my life with its arms up yelling let’s buy it what a bargain!


Short Talk on Orchids

We live by tunnelling for we are people buried alive. To me, the tunnels you make will seem strangely aimless, uprooted orchids. But the fragrance is undying. A Little Boy has run away from Amherst a few Days ago, writes Emily Dickinson in a letter of 1883, and when asked where he was going replied, Vermont or Asia.


Short Talk on Shelter

You can write on a wall with a fish heart, it’s because of the phosphorous. They eat it, there are shacks like that down along the river. I am writing this to be as wrong as possible to you. Replace the door when you leave, it says, now you tell me how wrong that is. How long it glows. Tell me.

Anne Carson is a Canadian writer who has published poems, essays, and works of translation. She was trained as a classicist.
Originally published:
July 1, 1991

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