The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson. New York: Vintage, 2002. 160 pp. $12.00
What are we to make of Anne Carson’s new prize-winning book The Beauty of the Husband? It investigates her reactions to a marriage as it moves from separation to divorce. While this relationship is the driving force of the text, it does not account for the entirety of Carson’s poetic vision. From the beginning, we are promised “a fictional essay in 29 tangos.” Carson fulfills this expectation by offering an innovative form with thirty poems that are distinct, yet dance together to visit and revisit issues of relationship, identity, and even self-conscious reflections on the consolation of poetry. At times, Carson directly comments on the insistent image of the dance as the titles of several ‘tangos’ present themselves as dances of love, death, memory, and – even semi-comically – a tango in honor of the grape. However, it is the postmodern pastiche of intertwining various materials such as quotations, conversations, personal reflections, and letters that truly creates the tango. In other words, although we are almost always viewing the relationship through Carson-as-narrator, additional perspectives are included via dialogue, letters, and allusions to disparate writers such as John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, and Kenzaburo Oe.
This emphasis on various textual material and mutable perspectives, then, works to inform us of Carson’s use of the tango as a guiding metaphor. And how does Carson feel about her involvement in this tango? In one moment, the tango is protected with tender wistfulness: “On a June evening. / What did you say. / It’s a line from a tango song. / On a June evening yes.” By the next count, though, the tango suffocates, “It was like a beautiful boiling dance where your partner / turns / and stabs you to death.” For Carson, the tango works in a similar manner as the creation of meaning – neither are isolated, both are subject to change and interpretation.
Such contrasting views present in these poems do not connote indecision or ambivalence; instead, Carson’s lines exude intellectual freedom – a willingness to explore emotional responses, even as they are in flux. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this text is the method with which Carson displays and investigates this freedom. While she employs a confessional tone throughout, she seems reluctant to allow this highly personal response to run unchecked. Thus, Carson pauses this confessionalism to interrogate her conclusions about the failing relationship. The pause between the personal response and distanced analysis provides one of the key changes in pitch in the work. At the same time, however, this pause gives the sense that Carson’s persona is guarding herself from the potential emotional pain of an unguarded personal exploration:
You if anyone grasps this – hush, let’s pass
To natural situations.
Other species, which are not poisonous, often have colorations and patterns
Similar to poisonous species.
Carson creates this distanced analysis by weaving intertextual quotations within the confessional poetry as sites of creative exploration. For instance, in the passage above, a brief treatise on biological mimicry creates a distanced respite from the onslaught of emotion for both Carson and the reader. At times, Carson utilizes a distanced tone to analytically examine her failing relationship; here, she uses a letter from her husband as an occasion for ‘objective’ investigation:
Make me cry . . . You make me cry.
Cosmological motifs, fire and water, placed right before talk of love
To ground it in associations of primordial eros and strife.
Third no return address.
I cannot answer. He wants no answer. What does he want.
But from the fourth I flee
Chaste and craftily.
As this passage suggests, the distancing between herself and the letter is not final; instead, the significance of the letter is re-visited with nuanced meaning.
Although this collection integrates a range of intertextual references, Carson does not include these to elevate the importance of her experience, nor does she treat literary figures as unchallengeable muses who must be shielded from inquiry. Instead, these external references are struggled with, broken apart, and applied to an intimate space. As Carson questions these references, it becomes apparent that she rarely sets them apart as inherently truthful or useful interpretations of life with which to compare her own relationship and perspective. Instead, the changing relationship between the husband and the wife is the main site of investigation, causing these references to occupy a contrapuntal function.
Poem IX, for example, centers on The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but this allusion does not lie untouched on the page. Carson interrogates its worthiness by placing herself, her husband, and her mother in the perspectives of Persephone, Hades, and Demeter. Through the substitution of actual people into the roles of mythical characters, Carson portrays the sense that she is trying this myth out for its potential usefulness. Thus, while it adds to Carson’s ongoing investigation of the marital relationship, the myth of Persephone is merely one avenue for exploration.
This complex approach to the applicability of literary allusions is also useful when considering Carson’s use of Keats as inspiration. As she reminds us, “Fiction forms what streams in us. / Naturally it is suspect.” Again, we see the complicated representation of intertextual quotation. While Keats’ proclamation that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” can be seen as a fiction that forms one set of affimrations in Carson’s collection, it is simultaneously “naturally . . . suspect.” How are we to make sense of the collection’s guiding metaphor that both constructs and deconstructs identity?
Carson’s subtle answer seems to be that we, as readers, must follow along with her journey to unwrap the possibilities of this Keatsian reference. Early in the collection, Carson correlates beauty with the presence of her husband, “Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say that I loved him for his beauty.” However, as this collection continues, Carson questions this linear relationship between the existence of her husband and beauty as she searches for stable truths about their relationship. As she discovers that stable truths are most likely a myth, she bemoans her earlier conception of Keats and wishes:
To say Beauty is Truth and stop.
Rather than to eat it.
Rather than to want to eat it. This was my pure early thought.
This innocent representation of beauty is now rendered impossible as Carson delivers long-awaited conclusions:
I overlooked one thing.
That the beautiful when I encountered it would turn out to be
Prior – inside my own heart,
Thus, Carson determines that, to some degree, “beauty is truth”; however, her understanding of the truth has changed from the simple existence of the husband to a realization that the “truth” of his representation has been internalized. As a result, beauty becomes a product of memory and is, therefore, unstable. Carson affirms this indirectly in a description of illuminated manuscripts:
The illuminator encloses the error
In a circlet of roses and flames
Which a saucy devil is trying to tug off the side of the page.
If the error described here can be thought of as the marital relationship that is at the heart of this collection, we are presented with two desires working at cross-purposes. The “saucy devil” works to completely excise the error from the page, while the “illuminator” seeks to disguise the error through camouflage. At times, Carson occupies both of these positions within The Beauty of the Husband in her search for truth and beauty within the marital relationship. However, both of these methods, though seemingly opposite, function as ways to remove the error from the page’s appearance. By the close of the collection, Carson realizes another truth about this illuminated page; that is, she realizes that the error remains upon the page despite attempts at removal or disguise. Therefore, for Carson, the fractured beauty of the husband is inseparable from the “truth” of his representation
Perhaps it is this push/pull interaction between Carson and her perception of the relationship that resounds within the rhythm of the tango structure. For instance, the two often square off in their tango as if they are the ‘devils’ working to remove the beauty of their former relationship from memory. As a result, each delivered line works to simultaneously balance and diffuse the next:
I hate it.
Why play all night.
The time is real.
It’s a game.
It’s a real game.
Is that a quote.
I need to touch you.
And, in other moments, the two dance together, allowing for the intertwining of fragmented speech:
What is this, what future is there
When exactly day year name anything who I was who I am who did you
Did you or did you not
Do you or do you not
Ultimately, in The Beauty of the Husband, Carson suggests that poetry can become a space to explore intimacy through its reincarnation on the page. The treatment of this relationship changes throughout the collection – it is recollected, erased, and memorialized. For Carson, poetry allows her to explore this relationship through a confessional manner while simultaneously offering the possibility of escape through analytic distancing. Perhaps most notably, this text, like a tango, complements and challenges by filtering Keats’ interpretation of beauty through the prism of a troubled relationship.
Dax West is currently completing her MA at North Carolina State University.