30 March 2008

The Glass Essay by Anne Carson

In a recent comment about verse novels I mentioned The Glass Essay by Anne Carson.

For the last few years, since I first read it, this has been probably my favourite poem. At least I think of it as a (long) poem. Possibly it’s verse novel, or maybe an epic poem. Not too epic though – it’s about 45 pages long – long for a poem, but short for an epic. It’s presented as a series of poems, or sections rather, as they wouldn’t really work on their own.

The Glass Essay is narrative, but not that much actually happens in terms of plot. A woman – the narrator – goes to stay with her aging mother. She walks on the moors, they take a trip to see her father who has advanced Alzhiemers. The narrator is recovering from a break up, and she’s reading a lot of her favourite author: Emily Bronte.

Some of the reasons why I love The Glass Essay so much are: the way the narrator’s story interviews so gorgeously with the life and work of Emily Bronte; the beautiful, spare language; the control the occasional wry trip of humour; the fact that it’s sometimes poetry-as-literary-criticism.

I also love it because I find it really inspiring. She writes differently to how I do, but this poem inspired me to write ‘Passion’, about Emily Bronte, which was published in JAAM 25.

I’m going to try to write a piece about The Glass Essay for A Fine Line, the Poetry Society magazine (wish me luck), so I won’t go into it at length now. But to give you a taster, here’s an extract (below). But wonderously, I’ve just discovered you can read the whole thing online at the Poetry Foundation.


Three silent women at the kitchen table.
My mother’s kitchen is dark and small but out the window
there is the moor, paralyzed with ice.
It extends as far as the eye can see

over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky.
Mother and I are chewing lettuce carefully.
The kitchen wall clock emits a ragged low buzz that jumps

once a minute over the twelve.
I have Emily p. 216 propped open on the sugarbowl
but am covertly watching my mother.

A thousand questions hit my eyes from the inside.
My mother is studying her lettuce.
I turn to p. 217.

'In my flight through the kitchen I knocked over Hareton
who was hanging a litter of puppies
from a chairback in the doorway. . . '

It is as if we have all been lowered into an atmosphere of glass.
Now and then a remark trails through the glass.
Taxes on the back lot. Not a good melon,

too early for melons.

[. . .]

Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor

where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes

curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.

My mother has a way of summing things up.
She never liked Law much
but she liked the idea of me having a man and getting on with life.

Well he’s a taker and you’re a giver I hope it works out,
was all she said after she met him.
Give and take were just words to me

at the time. I had not been in love before.
It was like a wheel rolling downhill.
But early this morning while mother slept

and I was downstairs reading the part in Wuthering Heights
where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm sobbing
Come in! Come in! to the ghost of his heart’s darling,

I fell on my knees on the rug and sobbed too.
She knows how to hang puppies,
that Emily.


litlove said...

What marvellous extracts! I had never heard of Anne Carson before, nor the poem in question, but I will look her out now - thank you!

Helen Rickerby said...

Yay, thanks for you comment. I been really enjoying your blog. I was put on to it my friend Giant Sparrow.

Anne Carson is definitely worth checking out.

Jennifer Sullivan said...

I stumbled upon this blog as I am researching Jay Hopler's use of the long poem. Carson's The Glass Essay is one of the finest examples of the multi-sectioned poem. I think it is my favorite poem as well. I like the idea of it being almost epic.

Helen Rickerby said...

Yay, I'm glad you stumbled upon Winged Ink, and yay, I'm glad you like The Glass Essay too. No one else seems to have come across it, or Anne Carson, not around here anyway. I'm not at all familiar with Jay Hopler's work. Presumably he uses long poems. I've just finished writing something about The Glass Essay for the New Zealand Poetry Society mag - kind of an expansion on what I said in the blog post - and it got me thinking about how I really like the breathing space that kind of length can give a poem. How it can lead you, kind of slowly and quitely, to a place far from where you started. I've found that for a little while after reading The Glass Essay, other poems seem kind of stingy - pinched and ungenerous.

Do you write long poems? I've been writer longer poems, but nothing as long as The Glass Essay - much longest is about 10 or 11 A4 pages. Still too long to get easily published in literary magazines, but not long enough to be epic.

I had a look at your blog, and have added it to my links list. With that picture of the Jeep coming up right at the top reminded me of my very best friend Joeli, who was very into Jeeps. Though now that she has abandoned me to live far away in Scotland, she's gone and bought a land rover (or range rover, I can't remember which).

Anyway, thanks very much for your comment, and all the very best with your research.


Jennifer Sullivan said...

I just typed a big message, but I don't think it went through.

Thanks for the link. I will link this blog to mine as well.

The Glass Essay is an absolute brilliant poem. It inspired a poem of mine that is at the center of my manuscript that I am just finishing. You can see the first two poems at Wicked Alice, an online journal. I called them The Grief Essay, but the entire 20 part poem is called Only to be Hungry. I am hoping to publish it as a chapbook.

You'll see the Carson inspiration right away. It weaves together a mother, an ex lover, a dog, and Vincent van Gogh.

This has been great chatting about Carson. I would love to see some of your work and/or chat about poetry. My email is: jen007sullivan@hotmail.com

Helen Rickerby said...

Jennifer, I definitely will email you soon. I just had a look at your poems on Wicked Alice, and enjoyed them very much.

Unduly Amplified said...

Yes, Anne Carson has a way of being both erudite and accessible. I highly recommend Autobiography of Red as well. Nice site, Helen; I found it in a search for "The Glass Essay". ~Priya

Helen Rickerby said...

Hi Priya, thanks for your comment. I've also enjoyed Autobiography of Red, and am, by coincidence, re-reading it at the moment. It seems like Anne Carson is much better known in the States than she is here in NZ. I've been doing my bit to change that.

Thanks for stopping by. I'll check out your blog too.