The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson and Loom by Sarah Gridley
Poetic responses to the world include, of course, responses to other art forms, ekphrastic poetry in response to a painting or sculpture, and responses to works of literature—poems, novels, or essays. Poets have often taken up dialogue with significant writers from the past, as ways of acknowledging or purging influence, of ventriloquism, of a search for origin or the emptiness in its stead—for multiple and I suspect, mysterious reasons that produce a variety of different texts. For me, the strange power and excitement of reading closely while writing occurs as one’s own lines warp or skew in unexpected directions—in part, taking on the other and enlarging vocabulary, tone, perception, access to sounds, sentences, obsessions.
The possibilities are multiple and can be engaging and demanding for readers who must juggle, switch, remember, assess, at least two singular texts created by authors/readers of other texts. Barthes speaks of intertextual work as “multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author” (“Death of the Author”). As a reader, I am interested in what specific ways—given that poetry provides language to think in—these intertextual endeavors ask one to experience and think in the process of reading. Moreover, the very form of intertextuality suggests an interweaving process of mind that often continues after one has finished reading a specific book.
The two new books here both take up famous texts: Sarah Gridley works with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” and Anne Carson addresses Volume 5, “La Prisonniere” or “The Captive” in Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past. Both have chosen to engage with major male authors who have created highly memorable, female characters—the Lady and Albertine, broadly characterized as cursed, bound-in, sleepwalking, doomed to die. Each woman is presented in a somewhat mythic fashion to be gazed and wondered at, and each book extends our perceptions of The Lady and of Albertine, although each character also seems circumscribed, mysterious, and ultimately unknowable: “There is a history of the Lady we cannot see.”
First off, the structure and form of each book suggests the poet’s approach to her adopted character. Loom, published by Omnidawn, is a full-length meditation on Tennyson’s poem and even the title suggests that it will examine various threads to create an organic whole, a web in which the poet weaves and is woven into the world, language, and characters of “The Lady of Shalott.” A poem appears on each page, some more obvious responses to Tennyson, others more personal meditations. The Albertine Workout, a pamphlet in the New Directions series, is short and structured as a list of informative, flat statements 1-58 with references to critics, newspapers, and transposition theory. It concludes with several appendices irregularly numbered that add to the suggestion of an academic exercise, both perceptive and ironic, and models a way to stand against Proust’s poetic prose.
The speaker of The Albertine Workout is the voice of a reader/critic/feminist making us aware of Albertine’s situation from a reader’s point of view rather than that of Marcel who dominates “The Captive” with his internal, imagistic, self-absorbed musings. Watching Albertine asleep, for example, Marcel writes, “She had fallen asleep as soon as she lay down; her sheets, wrapped round her body like a shroud, had assumed with their elegant folds, the rigidity of stone. It was as though reminiscent of certain mediaeval Last Judgments, the head alone was emerging from the tomb, awaiting in its sleep the Archangel’s trumpet.” Carson does not add new information to what we can know of Albertine from our own reading of Proust, but her slyly ironic statements ask that we isolate Albertine in order to see more clearly what is being made of her. Carson removes Albertine from Proust’s seductive, often baroque language; her flat statements completely shift point of view and encourage critical ways to stand apart to interrogate both this and other texts.
Albertine’s face is sweet and beautiful from the front but from
the side has a hook-nosed aspect that fills Marcel with horror. He
would take her face in his hands and reposition it.
Two major kinds of entries dominate 1) those that highlight the limited and even violent ways in which Marcel envisions and positions Albertine; and 2) those that stress the ways in which Proust has changed a male beloved (his chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli) into a female lover, Albertine. It is not that Carson’s speaker changes aspects of Albertine, but she isolates them from the complex narrative so that we see clearly how Marcel’s fascination keeps her a captive.
Once Albertine has been imprisoned by Marcel in his house, his
feelings change. It was her freedom that first attracted him, the way
the wind billowed in her garments. This attraction is now replaced
by a feeling of ennui (boredom). She becomes, as he says, a “heavy
Having possessed her, Marcel finds the otherness that attracted him, erased. Although she remains attractive when asleep, he experiences jealousy and impotence:
The problems of Albertine are (from the narrator’s point of view)
and (from Albertine’s point of view)
a) Being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.
The speaker compares Albertine to Ophelia, each condemned for a sexual appetite denied her. Ophelia drowns hers, whereas “Albertine distorts hers into the false consciousness of a sleep plant. In both scenarios the man appears to be in control of the script yet he gets himself tangled up in the wiles of the woman. On the other hand, who is bluffing whom is hard to say.”
Although the speaker acknowledges that the question whether to read an author’s work in light of his life or not is tricky, she nonetheless adopts transposition theory and compares Albertine’s fictional death by runaway horse with Alfred Agostinelli’s real-life death by runaway plane. The appendices take up several topics related to Proust’s text, including slavery, adjectives, nuns, St. Cecilia, and Beckett, suggesting perhaps that ways of approaching a text can be multiple, even usefully oblique. The final appendix on kimonos ends with a description of the letters Albertine kept in the pocket of her kimono. “The truth about Albertine is that close. Marcel does not investigate. Knowledge of other people is unendurable.”
The poet of Loom is a poet of meditation and her far longer text is infused with her source and likewise musical, imagistic, and frequently mysterious. Sarah Gridley creates an immersive world of echoing correspondences and mirrored reflections: intertwined poems (The Lady/Loom), of book and web, of lines of poetry with lines of thread, of the doubling of women and the doubling of mirrors, of the living and the dead, of the inside and outside, of a medieval pastoral and the landscape of Ohio or the Isle of Wight.
A prairie comes up from an underwater memory. A hearth comes true in the
crudest ring of stones. The dead, a dead poet wrote, look on and help. Let a dropped
first or final O be the flattening urge of Anglicization. Queen Anne’s Lace will
round the meadow. Where bluebirds rust and bend the grass, we can repeat the
name, Ohio, Ohio. This other side of solstice, it is yours, and mine, and anyone’s
deep and extinguishing summer. Not inside us or outside us but the obbligato
pressing on between.
Although the book raises the question of the uselessness of beauty, the individual poems focus on the intricate splendors of the natural world in language highly metaphoric, sensual, and evocative. Each reads as highly and self-consciously wrought, each word carefully chosen for its shape, sound, place in the pattern of the poem. In one, the poet speaks of the pleasure of learning cursive writing in school and a perception of the “shapeliness/ in the written word.” As the Lady looks into the mirror to see the shadows of a pastoral world—shepherd, a funeral, market girls, a river, and Sir Lancelot—so the poet looks and describes her gleaming world of lemon-thyme, “rose like a red uncommonly quiet,” cloisonné, Govan’s chapel, the tree frog, the sea urchin. Her imagistic descriptions are inventive, startling, rangy, often suggesting an “elsewhere” that is also this world: “iris of a pried-open fist” or ““At Wold Moon, moon after Yule, let the outworn habit shine like empty snakeskin.” A poem about “a phenomenon” exemplifies her range of associations:
keeps for years in a button gone missing, or bring something of the sea to the
surface of combs and boxes. When we reach into its thoracic cavity, the organs of
a butchered cow, for as long as they hold together, we call pluck. Do not call
the world a box. A coast is first a rib and then a shore. Violets are a woodland
breathing. Nakara in Arabic is to hollow out. Nacre yields us mother-of-pearl,
liquor concreted as inner shell, little tomb of aragonite bricks that rough up light
Loom not only focuses on the sense of sight, but also the sense of sound, in the frequent attention to the play of musical sounds throughout. We learn also that the poet spent a summer memorizing “The Lady of Shalott,” “thought over/and aloud in the woods.”
Some of What Shines
Is below valuation, though the story of earnings works to attract you. Much of
what shines is the ambient world, a bustle of light outpacing you. If gloaming
is the same as ghost, a wedded coast of earth and moon, much of what shines is
already archival. A photograph of bison skulls, our pyramid pile we ground to
bonemeal. Bright corn in steady rows, the eliding hurry of train-light. Loblolly
pines line up in the no longer cultivated field, select needles loosening in the
lower ranks of shade.
The shine throughout the book comes from the mirror the Lady uses to see the world, the mirroring of Tennyson’s poem and the frequent images of light. In many ways, Loom is a kind of ekphrastic poem as well, the Lady’s mirror capturing the illuminated world outside the window that she then weaves into textured fabric, a representation woven into influencing Gridley’s poetry. The correspondences between the world of Tennyson’s poem and the contemporary world of the poet abound, despite the narrative of one and the decided lack of narrative in the other. Thus the poet is not distant from, but intimately entwined with her source and the romantic feel of “The Lady of Shalott,” including moments of awe and miracle (“mirror once stood with miracle”) as in this poem with its strangely evocative final lines:
The warp is vertical, qualitative, a top-down scripture.
Goldenrod and rocket (though rocket
Roots in distaff: a stick that holds
the flax for spinning).
Weft is horizon—auxiliary, ornamental, washing the gloss
With further reflection—crane redoubling
the call of her mate—rouging silver and wildly cold
the winter ponds of crossing flights.
Each of these texts—both of which I recommend highly—stands in a different relation to its source and affects us differently: the text of The Albertine Workout is bracing and ironic; whereas Loom, I believe, is an example of what it might mean to step self-consciously into the world of another poet such that one’s own is startlingly rearranged. Moreover, each has self-consciously taken up another culture and—importantly—our vast and contradictory literary past.
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