I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.
- Gertrude Stein
Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do... What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning "Place on top," "added," "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being."
- Anne Carson, "Autobiography of Red"
The power of words. You've just read an excerpt from Anne Carson's introduction to her prose poem "Autobiography of Red." Sourced from the lyric poem "Geryonesis" by the 650 B.C. poet Stesichoros, born on the north coast of Sicily and famously struck blind during his early life by Helen of Troy (for reasons unknown), Anne Carson's "Autobiography of Red" is an invention of art in its own right, bringing to life the mysterious red-winged monster and his little dog living in solitude on the island of Erytheia (a simple adjective meaning "the Red Place") who quietly guards a herd of magical red cattle until the day the hero Herakles crosses the sea and kills him and his little dog for the cattle. Carson's 1998 work, constructed on pillars of scholarship and fragmented manuscripts and translations of Stesichoros' lyric poem, re-imagines the unknown mystery of the monster Geryon.
While part of Carson's scholarship and fascination surrounds unearthing the thread and veracity of the mythic story itself through its many edited and lost translation fragments, she pays homage to the fluidity and chameleon quality of the language of Stesichhoros' "Geryonesis." Stesichoros, Carson tells us, developed a "passion for substances": searching beneath the surface of accepted identities, the easy label of familiar words, he began "to undo the latches." In her words, Stesichoros "released being. All the substances in the world went floating up. Suddenly there was nothing to interfere with horses being hollow-hooved. Or a river being root silver." What makes story compelling is the way language both glistens and resonates: We are allowed, indeed required to imagine many meanings "unlatched" in the myth of Geryon. Interpretations of text become reductive, wildly fluid translator to translator, of fractured meaning. As Gertrude Stein is quoted at the beginning of this essay, the words will do as they want to do.
How do myth and poetry tap into the theme this month of reflection? Our words. The adjectives we assign our lives reflect an essential "us," language that is personal and powerful. How we describe ourselves, our loves, life and work, are descriptive tools of autobiography. We are continually telling details of the tale of the self. What we notice, speak about, embrace or reject is both concrete and limiting. Words that "bears arms" so to speak, that distinguish the particular from the vast mash of things, that separate the singular by subtlety, are as powerful as the nouns and verbs with which we name thing and action. Listen to what you say about your world. You are constant in your definition of who you are.
When I hit a bump of dissatisfaction with myself or my life, I first pay attention to how I express my frustration. Is something mind-blowing dull or crushing insane, a rat maze, cushy-hollow, sweet like a toothache? Words are telling. Reflection begins with attention to imagery. Writing recently about simplifying routines to find more personal time for reflection, "simplify" translated as "de-stress." But in fact some of my new choices, like rising at an earlier hour, were initially more stressful. When I revisited my decision, I found creating connection and space (more time) were the true goals. I tapped into the broader possibilities of the idea to "rise early." The value was not in setting an alarm clock hours earlier but in redefining how I spend my mornings.
Anne Carson titles her long poetic work "Autobiography of Red, A Romance." The word choice "romance" gave me pause. Besides the typical usage to describe love and courtship, romance - from the Old French romans, romance, work written in French - may also mean "a long fictitious tale of heroes and extraordinary or mysterious events, usually set in a distant time or place," and "the class of literature constituted by such tales." But the word may also connote "a fictitiously embellished account or explanation." What we write, the words we choose, the life we describe for ourselves may be as much of heroes and faraway places as imagined embellishment. The gift of imagination as useful for self as other. How we define ourselves in our own words is the reflection we must first see clearly, and then kindly. And then with a sense of possibility. We are only as we imagine ourselves to be, down to the telling detail.
[Note: "Red Doc," by Anne Carson, will be released by Random House, March 5, 2013. From the RH Catalog: A follow-up to the internationally acclaimed poetry best seller Autobiography of Red that takes its mythic boy-hero into the twenty-first century to tell a story all its own of love, loss, and the power of memory. In a stunningly original mix of poetry, drama, and narrative, Anne Carson brings the red-winged Geryon from Autobiography of Red, now called "G," into manhood, and through the complex labyrinths of the modern age. ]