Plainwater Anne Carson

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In Plain Sight: A Review of Plainwater by Anne Carson

When you enjoy a new-to-you author this much, you just hope you haven’t made the mistake of choosing her best book to read first. And though¬†Plainwater is a flavorful mix of essays and poetry, it really amounts to poetry, whether in traditional lines and stanzas or hidden in paragraph form. The lady has a word with ways, as they say.

The book opens modestly enough with “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,” which is an interview between the author and a 7th-century B.C. poet (but of course!). The moral of the story? If you like an ancient poet, make like a ventriloquist and give him a new voice.

After this comes “Short Talks,” the perfect thing for these short-attention-span times. Most of these entries are a mere paragraph long, with titles like “On Trout,” “On Disappointments in Music,” “On Ovid,” “On Parmenides,” “On Waterproofing,” “On the Mona Lisa,” “On Sylvia Plath,” and “On Reading.” Sweet and short, the shortest of the lot is “On Gertrude Stein About 9:30,” which goes like so: “How curious. I had no idea! Today has ended.”

Section 3, “Canicula di Anna,” is full-fledged poetry–44 pages of a phenomenology conference in Perugia, Italy. If you have no idea what phenomenology is and how on earth (much less Italy) it would merit a conference, know that it is, according to both Merriam and Webster, “the study of the development of human consciousness and self-awareness as a preface to or a part of philosophy.”

As they say in Canada: “Oh.”

“The Life of Towns,” Part 4, is similar to “Short Talks” except it is written as short poems. The beyond-curious thing about these guys is that every line in every poem starts with a capital letter and ends with a period–even when it’s not a sentence. Exhibit B (“A” being busy):


“Luck Town” by Anne Carson

Digging a hole.
To bury his child alive.
So that he could buy food for his aged mother.
One day.
A man struck gold.


Once you get used to the quirky periods (that must be ignored) and to the fact that Carson has forced you to slow down and read her poems slowly, you’re safe at the plate.

Finally, the book wraps up with a travelogue of sorts called “The Anthropology of Water.” It’s about Anne and a boyfriend doing the Simon & Garfunkel thing (“Yes, we’ve all gone to look for America…”). It’s like snooping in a poet’s diary, this section, and you not only get an idea about camping (of all things), but learn about the psychology of man and woman in close quarters (pup tents, sleeping bags, cars, etc.) and the communion one feels with nature, even under times of stress.

My favorite line in this section, running away (like the dish and spoon)? Easy. It’s two lines under the heading Friday 4:00 a.m. Not swimming.: “Staring. The lake lies like a silver tongue in a black mouth.”

Let me stare at that line again. If it’s 4 a.m. as I do so, even better. And if I’m in a cabin right on a lake, better still. Deep inhale. Slow exhale.

Throughout all of these sections, Carson explores her fraught relationship with her father. Yep. He’s another one of those strict, man-of-few-words types who bears a daughter-of-many-words and has trouble showing his love.

What is it with men who have trouble showing their love? In its way, the theme of this lovely book.

The Education of a Poet

I read, and I learn. I may not always like or even USE what I learn, but learning is learning.

For Exhibit A, I give you the rather wonderful book I’ve been reading this week: Plainwater by Anne Carson. A mix of poetry and essays, it offers up an incisive creativity that looks at the world in new ways (the job description for every writer, I’d venture).

The 1995 book is divided into five sections (this from the inner flap): “Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings,¬†a present-day dialogue with a poet of the seventh century BC; Short Talks, one-minute lectures on topics as diverse as trout and Parmenides; Canicula di Anna, a chronicle of a phenomenology conference conducted in Perugia, Italy; The Life of Towns, verbal photographs that capture the essence of the nearly extinct ‘town’; and The Anthropology of Water, a travelogue of three moments in the journey of a woman’s life.”

While I reveled in each section of the book, it was the poetry of The Life of Towns that taught me something. Something I may never use, yes, but something.

Carson introduces this section with the words, “Towns are the illusion that things hang together somehow, my pear, your winter.”

Well, shoot. You could probably substitute most any word for “Towns” in that sentence and get somewhere, but the pear/winter dichotomy gives you an indication of where Carson’s mind wanders.

What she does in the town poems is capitalize the first word of each line and then end each line with a period. Even if it’s not the end of a sentence. And it usually isn’t. This technique gives the poems a remarkable effect. Let me share a few by way of example:


Town of Spring Once Again

“Spring is always like what it used to be.”
Said an old Chinese man.
Rain hissed down the windows.
Longings from a great distance.
Reached us.

September Town

One fear is that.
The sound of the cicadas.
Out in the blackness zone is going to crush my head.
Flat as a piece of paper some night then.
I’ll be expected.
To go ahead with normal tasks.
Mending the screen.
Door hiding my.
Brother from the police.

Luck Town

Digging a hole.
To bury his child alive.
So that he could buy food for his aged mother.
One day.
A man struck gold.

Town of the Sound of a Twig Breaking

Their faces I thought were knives.
The way they pointed them at me.
And waited.
A hunter is someone who listens.
So hard to his prey it pulls the weapon.
Out of his hand and impales.

Town of the Death of Sin

What is sin?
You asked.
The moon stung past us.
All at once I saw you.
Just drop sin and go.
Black as a wind over the forests.


At first, of course, this capital-period, capital period tick-tock annoyed me. Why couldn’t Carson just write it correctly, I wondered? If I wanted to fully appreciate her poems, I had to work for it. But I didn’t want to work. I was the reader, after all. It was the writer’s job to do the heavy lifting, and mine to sit back and enjoy.

But then, not wanting to miss the show, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. And I do mean work. I slowed down. I back tracked. I lingered word by word. It became a game–one I could win.

In short, whether it was her intention or not, Carson had me reading and rereading with care, puzzling her words and sentences together until we came to mutual agreement on each poem’s meaning and worth.

Could there be more to it than that? Perhaps. But I know this: a poet has at his or her disposal more simple tools than we expect to slow spoiled and entitled readers like me down.

And if you don’t.
Believe this.
It’s perfectly.
Fine by.