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Men in the Off Hours

by Anne Carson

ISBN 0375408037 / 9780375408038 / 0-375-40803-7
Publisher Knopf
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

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
unexpectedness.
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 [via]