Winter for the writer: Anne Carson and ancient blindness

While I was in Las Vegas last weekend I picked up a copy of Anne Carson’s first collection of poetry, Short Talks. The Brick Books edition has an introduction by Margaret Christakos, who clearly understands the breadth of Carson’s work. Christakos points out to the reader the themes of winter landscapes in Short Talks, the use of reflection and light as tropes and what those might have to do with snow and ice and growing up in Ontario, as Carson did. In Carson’s poetry, things are always refracting and shifting, light is capricious — seeing is not believing, as sight is flawed in ways that we don’t always understand. In “Short Talk on Homo Sapiens” she writes “In every story comes a point where I can see no further. I hate that point. It is why they call storytellers blind — a taunt.”

The ‘blind storyteller’ archetype began in Greek legend both with the blind prophet Tiresias and with Homer, who, most sources agree, was blind. This storied blindness is often associated with some kind of special ‘other’ sight, like sight into the future, or sight into people’s souls. By not seeing the surface-level world around them, these storytellers can see the truth. 

This classic blindness/sight is so appropriate to Carson, the translator of ancient Greek, the thoroughbred classicist, the woman who grew up, as Christakos says, in the place where “the entire world’s most ancient water was found, in 2013, gushing from deep-mining boreholes 2.4 miles beneath [the ground].” She is the epitome of what people mean when they call somebody ‘an old soul.’

Throughout the introduction, Christakos describes her own situation: looking out the window as she writes this piece, also in Ontario, at the fields “[p]aralyzed with ice” (Carson, Glass, Irony and God). Between herself and Carson a narrative is woven of the solitary writer, the stuck-inside-during-a-snowstorm kind of solitary. It is a romantic image, but not entirely an appealing one.

It seems appropriate that on the day I started reading this book, it snowed for the first time this winter in Albuquerque. I did not have the reaction one is supposed to have at first snow: it’s supposed to be exciting, magical. Instead I complained to friends. I hate the winter, always have. I inevitably catch every cold that goes around, and I get seasonal depression that can keep me in bed all day. The genius shut-in trope does not apply to me one bit — I atrophy in solitude, I become a mess, I have difficulty finding motivation. The lone genius, shutting out the world to better focus, is perhaps a good archetype for Anne Carson, and for Margaret Christakos. But it has never worked for me. I am a very social writer. I need noise, energy, people around me to focus. I need dialogue before I set pen to paper: all of my ideas are refined — and some of them born — in conversation with friends.

An often-ignored detail of the Tiresias story is that, as wise as he was, he depended on a young boy to lead him around with a hand on his shoulder. If I have any magical, writerly sight, it is not that I see things clearer in the reflection of the snow and ice. I see things the most clearly in other people.

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