Letting things ruin your life: My favorite Anne Carson poems, astrology, and a shaky self-assessment of a mediocre banjoist
by Ashley Margolis
“Anne Carson is a Gemini. Because, of f****** course she’s a Gemini.”
The above text is one of many I sent to my Gemini coworker over the course of the summer of 2022; it also encapsulates the two major occurrences of that summer, which were that:
Example 1: The book title. What do glass, irony, and God have in common? Why has Anne strung them together with flimsy commas and a brazen “and,” and slapped them on the front cover as if those subjects relate to each other at all? It’s not entirely about the contents of the book, either. It’s true that there’s a section called “The Glass Essay” and another called “The Truth About God,” but none of the section titles breathe a word about irony. And, to that end, there are a bunch of sections that are not referenced in the title. Why isn’t the book called “Glass, TV Men, and God” or “Isiah, Glass, and Sound?” Not that those titles make any more sense to the blind viewer who is too afraid to crack the book open in the middle of the store to skim the section titles than Glass, Irony, and God does, but you get my point. Why does it feel like Anne is teasing us before we’ve even committed to buying the damn book. What do glass, irony, and God have to do with each other? Why has Anne forced them into close proximity, and why is she daring us to join them? What the fuck has Anne’s confusing title got to do with me? Why am I handing the cashier $17 and walking out of the bookstore with a lightness behind my eyes?
Here’s a fun fact for you: Anne Carson is a classicist. She studies ancient Greek and Latin, and it is damn near impossible to forget that when you’re reading her books. Alternative fact: I was deeply and stupidly in love with a 20 year old philosopher who taught me how to play clawhammer banjo when I was 18. She would not let me forget she was a philosopher when we were together. Mostly it was in her eyes. That and she was always talking about Descartes’ epistemology. It probably would have been more productive to hang a “do not disturb” sign up in those eyes than to even attempt to decipher what she was thinking about at any given moment.
She also absolutely detested poetry. She said that she hated things that she didn’t understand. I found that especially rich coming from someone who studied philosophy and played clawhammer banjo, but, you know. We kissed once and then never again. I didn't quite understand that. She told me I kissed very fast. Frantically, like I was waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under me. Obviously she didn’t actually say that last part, she hated similes. I stopped writing poems for a while after we stopped being in each other’s lives; I didn’t have anyone to try and prove wrong anymore.
Example 2: Anne is talking to you and you should probably listen. Reading an Anne Carson book is like holding something up to the light and trying to figure out what’s shining through the other side. She as the author makes you as the reader do half of the work at any given moment, she’s clever like that. Anne writes in an inherently confusing manner. It is easy enough to follow when the poem’s subject is alone, but the whole thing gets tangled up when other characters are introduced. Her dialogue generally abandons quotation marks or any other reliable notation of separation between subjects. The proximity goes all out of whack. It seems a little itchy and unpleasant at first; we don’t like the things we don’t understand.
Personally, though, I adore it. I feel that reading Anne isn’t about comprehension, the work she asks of you is almost entirely emotional. She throws you directly into the weeds in her depiction of relationships, forcing you to start untangling fast or admit you don’t like poetry and put the book down. She’s teasing you again. You really thought you could make it through the book passively? Not a chance, Anne won’t stop talking to you in the second person. Right when you start to feel like you’ve got her, right when you’ve become the bouncer outside the club who just held up your friend’s very fake Connecticut driver’s license to reveal that it has no microperforation on the back, you realize that Anne got your ass. She was the one holding you up to the light the entire time and you didn’t even notice. Anne Carson writes narratively, not autobiographical. It was around the third readthrough of Glass, Irony, and God that I realized I was just as much a narrative device as the TV men were. When I annotate her books, I write to her in the second person. She’s talking to me, it only seems fair that I talk back.
I told the Gemini coworker about Glass, Irony, and God sometime before we kissed for the first time on a night before I was scheduled for a 5am shift at the coffee place we both worked at. I made sure I kissed slowly this time. I don’t think I ever saw her show up to another shift on time after that night. I don’t quite get that part, either. I helped her move into a room of an ancient house near a loud intersection and a bar that definitely wouldn’t clock a fake Connecticut driver’s license if it slapped them in the face, microperforation be damned.
She gave me a bookshelf that she didn’t have the space for anymore. I keep my Anne Carson books in there now when I’m not loaning them out to my friends. I never knew who to be when the two of us hung out. I felt like the wrong answer, not that she ever gave any indication that she comprehended either one of us as conscious and tangible human beings, but I thought maybe that’s just what it was like to be 24 so I tried to be 24. She bought me vegan thai food the day she gave me the bookshelf, I would say that was the most romantic thing that ever went down between us. I presume that was probably by design. I spent a few months in the summer listening to obscure indie music she sent me and reading Anne Carson’s poems and trying not to look at my phone and then it just stopped one day and we never spoke about it again. I was better at making coffee when I wasn’t trying to be 24, I think.
Example 3: Why do you keep putting yourself in the path of things you know are going to absolutely body you? This is the thought that runs through my head every time I’m buying a new Anne Carson book. I want to say that I own seven of them these days, although two are currently lost to the ether of friends’ apartments. The biggest danger of Anne’s books is that you will probably finish them in one sitting when you really shouldn’t. You also probably shouldn’t go over to a philosopher’s house for a clawhammer banjo lesson two days after she said you kiss too fast and one day after she said she would really rather not kiss you ever again, actually. You also shouldn’t go to a brewery in Alameda when you’re underage without a fake Connecticut driver’s license that says otherwise just to try and impress your Gemini coworker who kisses you when she’s bored, mostly.
I like to think that I don’t jump the gun quite as severely as I used to. Getting older is such a funny thing, I fear. I don’t get paid to make coffee anymore, I play Scruggs style banjo instead of clawhammer now, and I tattooed a star on my ankle like I said I would forever ago. There’s a beautiful satisfaction that comes with keeping a promise to yourself. You have to go slow with Anne, but I swear that it’s worth it. She's taking a lot of time out of her busy schedule of being my favorite contemporary poet to sit and talk with you between the pages of “The Glass Essay,” after all. We owe her the respect of a few pencil annotations in the margins to let her know that we hear her and we can feel her holding us up to the light.