Red Fires of the Mind (Anne Carson)

Let me tell you about two books I really love, both by Canadian poet Anne Carson: red doc> (2013) and Autobiography of Red (1998).

Are there many little boys who think they are a / Monster? But in my case I am right said Geryon to the / Dog they were sitting on the bluffs The dog regarded him / Joyfully

(AoR, 12)

I read Autobiography of Red for the first time for a class nearly 15 years ago, and it drew me in instantly. It’s a peculiar, wonderful book – the story of a young man named Geryon (who is also a winged, red monster), and who falls in love with another young man named Herakles.

If those names sound familiar somehow, you’re on the right track – the two simultaneously are and are not characters from Greek mythology. You can read up on the original Geryon in this Wikipedia article, if you like.

I won’t go into a plot summary – I don’t want to spoil this for you. The book is written in prose poems with a language that pulls the reader along like a strong current.

The same is true for red doc>, which is very much a sequel to the earlier book: we meet Geryon and Herakles again, later in life, – in the manner of a classical play, the central characters are introduced at the beginning of the book:

remember / the following faces / the red one (G) / you already know (what he’s done to his hair) his old friend / Sad / But Great / looks kind / beware / third Ida Ida is limitless

(RD, 6)

Herakles is now known as Sad and carries memories of war. Geryon (G), when we first meet him, is minding his cattle (musk ox), with particular attention to his favorite, Io.

“Not the forsythia / he doesn’t let the herd eat the forsythia but/ knows that they like to be / among its blazing yellows. / He stands as they graze he / watches. / Ida watches. / She puzzles him he / puzzles himself. Her old / plaid sportscoat his / tendency to befriend / catastrophe.” (RD, 11)

Ida will play an instrumental role in setting events into motion, more than once. Here’s Herakles in conversation with her: “is he / red / yes / wings / yes / okay I do know this guy / from the army / [laughs]” (RD, 20) “He” of course is Geryon.

The second book is full of echoes and threads from the first. Things are not what they seem, at the same time as they are exactly what they seem. I was a little worried about reading this because I loved the first book so much, but this sequel does the characters justice. It creates a similarly gritty dream world, and once you get the hang of the stop-start / loop-like language, it is a quick, seductive read.

If you’ve read neither of the books, I’d suggest starting with Autobiography of Red, as it will make the second book much easier to get into – though I do think you can enjoy it without. In either case, these are books that demand the reader’s focus and reward her bountifully for it. They can be read many times, with always something new to discover.

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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