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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Nadia Herman Colburn reviews

The Beauty of the Husband: a fictional essay in 29 tangos by Anne Carson

Vintage Contemporaries, $12.00.

One of the most innovative and interesting writers in North America today, Anne Carson has, since her first work, Eros the Bittersweet: an essay, reimagined and reinvigorated traditional genres of writing. To her essays Carson brings the inventiveness, intensity, and passion of the poet; to her poetry, Carson brings the sharpness, suppleness, and depth of learning of her wholly original intellect. Her latest work, The Beauty of the Husband: a fictional essay in 29 tangos, has at once the virtues of poetry, philosophical inquiry, literary criticism, and the novel.

The Beauty of the Husband is the story of the narrator’s obsessive love and desire for her husband, a man whose salient feature is his ‘beauty.’ The book tells the story of their relationship, from their meeting as teenagers, through their marriage, defined by the husband’s numerous infidelities, to (and beyond) the couple’s eventual divorce. Desire, of course, has been the theme of most of Carson’s best work. The  philosophical exploration of desire that Carson provides in Bittersweet, and the lyrical and psychological explorations of desire in Autobiography of Red, inform The Beauty of the Husband. But the contribution of this work to Carson’s exploration of desire is in showing desire’s relationship to beauty — beauty both real and imagined:

Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

The title of the books’s opening chapter dedicates the work to Keats, ‘For His General Surrender to Beauty,’ and each of the twenty-nine sections is preceded by an epigraph from Keats. The Beauty of the Husband works, like the best literary criticism, to illuminate Keats’s entire oeuvre. Carson shows us how Keats the aesthete and Keats the young man obsessed by sexual jealousy are not at odds with each other, but are both present in his work. Carson reminds us of Keats’s own obsession with beauty, the sexual themes that run throughout his work, his humor and his own continual inquiry into the relationship between the physical world and the imagination. But The Beauty of the Husband is not only a meditation on Keats, but also, and perhaps primarily, a meditation on poetry and on language’s ability to straddle, much as desire does, the world of the physical and the world of the imagination.

In The Beauty of the Husband poetry itself becomes a form of eroticism, at once sensual, playful, and dangerous. Always experimenting with different forms, Carson uses poetry — the space on the page, the rhythms and syncopations of the poetic line, the temporal dimension of the long or the short line — to enact the themes of presence and absence, delay and anticipation, physicality and imagination, that she shows us are the food and foundation of desire. With great philosophical acumen, Carson shows language itself to be a medium of desire, and displays the gaps between language and the physical world. At the same time, however, Carson eschews the difficulty and randomness of much of today’s more philisophical poetry, and writes a book that is relatively traditional in its narrative and its readability.

It is hard to do both of these things at once, and the writing is sometimes uneven, perhaps as a result, or flat, and simply moves the story along. We might expect, given the book’s primary concerns, that it would try more to evoke the physical world — beauty — in language. The book has, however, almost no physical descriptions — there is dialogue, soliloquy, meditation, argument — but, though the husband is ‘beautiful,’ we have no idea what he actually looks like. Similarly, though Carson is straightforward in using the word ‘sex,’ she never describes any specific sexual acts. Though these absences from the book are disappointing, Carson, always smart and in control, knows what she’s up to:

What really connects words and things?

Not much, decided my husband
and proceeded to use language
in the way that Homer says the gods do.
All human words are known to the gods but have for them entirely other meanings
alongside our meanings.
They flip the switch at will.

If Carson doesn’t call forth the physical beauty of the world in language, she does use language as ‘the gods do,’ to create its own magical world.

The whole poem exists on an abstract, generic level; only rarely, and only for the minor characters, does the poem give us tangible details about a person’s life. The narrative structure of the book is intentionally unspecific and jumbled. On the small scale, too, things seem just to happen, without any clear structure of cause and effect:

It was Latin class, late spring, late afternoon, the passive periphrastic,
for some reason I turned in my seat
and there he was.
You know how they say a Zen butcher makes on correct cut and the whole ox
falls apart
like a puzzle. Yes a cliché.

The story remains on a purposely ‘clichéd’ level. Unlike Autobiography of Red, which lets the reader into the lives of its fully formed characters through its abundance of detail, The Beauty of the Husband seems to want to suggest that it is desire itself that is the subject of the book, not the particular desire of particular individuals. The references to Homer, Proust, Oe, and others suggest that the wife stands for all of us — depersonalized as we are under eros’s spell. On the last page, Carson suggests that the wife, who like the husband has remained unnamed and has spoken sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, is actually ‘you’ — the reader. This can get confusing, but the confusion is one that Carson is orchestrating.

Notwithstanding its self-classification as an ‘essay,’ The Beauty of the Husband shows us the potential of poetry to explore new areas, to take on new ambitious projects, and to entertain. Unlike so much contemporary verse, The Beauty of the Husband is fun to read. And at its best, its writing has the lyricism of Keats, the precision of Williams, or the echoic qualities of haiku: ‘Three minutes of reality! all I ever asked // She stands looking out at rain on the roof.’

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