Book: Men in the Off Hours

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Men in the Off Hours

Author: Anne Carson
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Following her widely acclaimed Autobiography of Red (“A spellbinding achievement” —Susan Sontag), a new collection of poetry and prose that displays Anne Carson’s signature mixture of opposites—the classic and the modern, cinema and print, narrative and verse.

In Men in the Off Hours, Carson reinvents figures as diverse as Oedipus, Emily Dickinson, and Audubon. She views the writings of Sappho, St. Augustine, and Catullus through a modern lens. She sets up startling juxtapositions (Lazarus among video paraphernalia; Virginia Woolf and Thucydides discussing war). And in a final prose poem, she meditates on the recent death of her mother.

With its quiet, acute spirituality, its fearless wit and sensuality, and its joyful understanding that “the fact of the matter for humans is imperfection,” Men in the Off Hours shows us “the most exciting poet writing in English today” (Michael Ondaatje) at her best.


Yes, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds—and minor poets. The major ones tend to operate in a trough-and-peak pattern, producing a dozen lesser works for every masterpiece. Still, Anne Carson pushes this tendency to extremes, and nowhere more markedly than in Men in the Off Hours, which contains some of the best and worst lyrics of her entire career.

First, the good news: Nobody has written more acutely about perception—about the chaotic collision of our senses with the real world—since the glory days of Wallace Stevens. Not that Carson echoes the airborne rhetoric of her great predecessor. Her fractured, zigzagging lines deliberately avoid the kind of gravity that was his trademark, and she likes to deflect the grand manner by ratcheting her diction upward (into Delphic utterance) or downward (into baby talk, if the baby happens to be Gertrude Stein). Still, like Stevens, she makes us think about how we think. She dislikes any attempt to remove cognition from its rustling Heraclitean framework. No wonder she ends up scolding taxidermy freak John James Audubon, whose point-and-shoot portraiture rubs her the wrong way: “In the salons of Paris and Edinburgh // where he went to sell his new style / this Haitian-born Frenchman / lit himself // as a noble rustic American / wired in the cloudless poses of the Great Naturalist. / They loved him // for the ‘frenzy and ecstasy’ / of true American facts.” We comprehend things only in flux and, as Carson explains in “Essay on What I Think About Most,” by mistake:

…what we are engaged in when we do poetry is error,
the willful creation of error,
the deliberate break and complication of mistakes
out of which may arise

Now for the bad news: Men in the Off Hours includes too ample a serving of Carson’s weaker, semiprecious work—short lyrics in which she bends over backwards for an antipoetic poetic effect (if such a thing is possible). “Epitaph: Europe” is precisely the kind of freeze-dried surrealism she should avoid. And the spitballs this classicist fires at television in a piece like “TV Men: Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the Set of The Peloponnesian War” are truly puzzling. Why blame the tube for our cultural sins, particularly when the average NYPD Blue rerun contains more experiential fiber than most contemporary poetry? Still, Carson’s blazing successes easily overshadow her failures. And those who have found her too recondite, too forbidding, need only take a look at the concluding poem, “Appendix to Ordinary Time.” This elegy to the poet’s mother is touching, emotionally direct, and completely original: an instant (to use a phrase Carson would probably loathe) classic. —James Marcus

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Capturing the Spirit of the Age

Anne Carson has received the Pushcart Prize and the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry; Michael Ondaatje has called her “the most exciting poet writing in English today.” Many poets of this stature seem to exist in a rarefied atmosphere only accessible to the insular world of 21st-century poetry devotees, but Carson has a democratic touch that opens her work up to a much larger audience. For one thing, she experiments with other linguistic forms, including hybrids of poetry and prose. Her last book, Autobiography of Red, was a novel in verse, and her newest collection, Men in the Off Hours, continues in this vein, offering a range of forms, from brief, haiku-like lyrics to full-blown, copiously footnoted essays. But perhaps more importantly, Carson addresses and incorporates the themes and structures of modern image-based technology, particularly with her ingenious use of “telescript” motifs: Rather than hiding from this reality, Carson welcomes and explores the fact that pure language is more often than not used as directions for a “production” that will incorporate other media. In an age when poetry is increasingly seen as a marginalized art form that no longer speaks to the general public, this work is a welcome reminder that poetry is less about adhering to strict rules of verse (even modernist and postmodernist rules) than about capturing the spirit of an age, wherever it resides.

Much of Men in the Off Hours seems motivated by an urge to offer poetry that is still relevant, without ever seeming desperate in its attempts. In this era of rapid-fire televised images, Carson provides a sequence entitled “TV Men,” a loosely connected group of poems that all share the conceit of a film or television production. We come across voice-overs by directors of photography, blocking directions, shooting scripts—but the central characters of these imagined performances are cultural icons of the past: Artaud, Tolstoy, Thucydides, Virginia Woolf, even Lazarus. These tricks never seem silly, however, or too much of a stretch—in fact, they beg the question, why aren’t other serious writers addressing these now-universal themes of television and the tyranny of images in a way that’s even half as clever?

Carson is anything but smoke and mirrors: along with the above-mentioned flights of fancy, Men in the Off Hours offers dozens of powerful, “traditional” poems full of insightful beauty. Early in the collection, “New Rule” begins with this scene-setting line: “A New Year’s white morning of hard new ice.” In only 20 lines, Carson offers a meditation on loss and making due, with this powerful climax:

The squirrel bounced down a branch
and caught a peg of tears.
The way to hold on is afterwords

Even in this simple lyric, Carson’s deliberate misspelling of “afterwords” asks us to step beyond the tools of her chosen trade to explore the underlying issues and emotions that can only be hinted at with words. And while she includes academic-seeming essays (including a 20-pager, with 59 footnotes, called “Dirt and Desire: Essay on the Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity”), Carson experiments with that form as well: In the verse essay, “Essay on What I Think About Most,” Carson discusses an ancient Spartan poet named Alkman and seems to be offering some thoughts on her own writing in the process. “There are three things that I like about Alkman’s poem,” she says. “First that it is small,/light/and more than perfectly economical.” This quality applies to many of her briefer lyrics. “Second that it seems to suggest colors like pale green/without ever naming them.” It’s hard to separate the suggestive power of that line from a detached perspective on Carson’s poetry, but that too rings true. And finally, “Third that it manages to put into play/some major metaphysical questions/(like Who made the world)/without overt analysis.” It is exactly this quality that makes Carson such a pleasure to read: She’s direct enough so you don’t have to struggle to understand what she’s getting at, but subtle enough so it doesn’t hit you over the head.

Anne Carson is a poet who isn’t afraid to confront the very forces that are always cited as threatening poetry’s vitality: our increasingly image-based culture and its many new media, or even just prose itself. One might find that the most beautiful and poetic piece in Men in the Off Hours is the final prose essay, about her mother’s death: “It grows dark as I write now, the clocks have been changed, night comes earlier—gathering like a garment. I see my mother, as she would have been at this hour alone in her house, gazing out on the cold lawns and turned earth of evening, high bleak grass going down to the lake.” Maybe it’s time to put aside the restrictive definitions that separate poetry and its elitist trappings from the larger world of prose. Men in the Off Hours would make an excellent starting point. —Jake Kreilkamp

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