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Men in the Off Hours
by Anne Carson
ISBN 0375707565 / 9780375707568 / 0-375-70756-5
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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. 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 wilful 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. 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]