Anne Carson is the slipperiest kind of heretic—the fluid hybridity of her work makes its intentions as difficult to grasp as a fish underwater. The Canadian poet and classicist has emerged in the last two decades as a kind of prophet of the unknowable with books such as Eros the Bittersweet, an expansion of her unconventional dissertation and a dissection of the titular sentiment. Think of her work as an American idea of her country’s most northerly reaches—we’ve no idea what they’re doing up there, but we imagine it’s cool, resolute, smart, and lovely.
Her newest book, Decreation, may also be her loneliest—a theological treatise and dramatization of how to escape one’s self. The title comes from the work of Carson’s metaphysical sister, Simone Weil. Carson writes: “She had a program for getting the self out of the way which she called ‘decreation.’ . . . ‘To undo the creature in us’ is one of the ways she describes its aim.” It’s a bitter task, and one Carson attempts with great tenderness. She frames the undoing as a work of love, a love that compels one to forsake oneself in order to be something more—truer, more luminous, and also more transient.
Carson moves from form to form—parts of her book are labeled poetry, essay, screenplay—and from body to body: The final, eponymous opera incarnates Aphrodite, the medieval mystic Marguerite Porete, and Weil. One gets the feeling that none are entirely satisfactory, for Carson or for the reader, who is often at a loss as to what these incomplete means are approaching. The opera suffers—and suffering seems just what Carson has in mind—from the inevitable failure of lyric to embody the fullness of performance, or, as she writes in the preceding essay, “to compose a unit of music and thought.” But in the shape traced by Carson’s rapid flight patterns one can almost discern a transcendent emptiness, uninhabitable to more stationary souls.