Anne Carson’s seventh book, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos is a poem about an erotic relationship that proceeds from adolescent fixation to post-divorce continuing fixation. Carson is a classical scholar as well as a poet, and her intense and synthesizing erudition, here brought to bear on the subject of desire, is partly what makes her such a thrilling read. She moves easily from Duchamp to Degas to Demeter, the mythical mother who, like the mother here, is dead set against her daughter’s disastrous fling with Hades. In The Beauty of the Husband, the mother’s opposition to her daughter’s crazy boyfriend is futile. At fifteen, the daughter says, “I raised my bedroom window creak by creak and went out to meet him/in the ravine, traipsing till dawn in the drenched things…”
The relationship continues for decades, replete with extravagant gesture; sex; sudden withdrawal; lies; romance; war games (the husband’s obsession); infidelity; jealousy; love letters from Rio full of longing but without, a return address; fights; plagiarism; separations; reunions; etc. At one point the daughter, now wife, says, “If I could kill you I would then have to make another exactly like you.” The husband replies, ‘Why.” The wife: “To tell it to.”
The poem is divided into 29 tangos. What is a tango? Here, a tango is a numbered, titled section of poetry with very long lines alternating with very short lines, as if shaped by the movements of tango dancers. (Somewhere Carson says they are couplets reminiscent of those written in antiquity.) A quote from the poet John Keats opens each section; and Keats’ aphorism, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty;” frames The Beauty of the Husband. As Carson writes in Tango II,
Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him
from early girlhood to late
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret…
Beauty convinces. You know
beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex. (p. 9).
Beauty convinces, but the truth (which is beauty) is not so simple. The poet writes, “Poets (be generous) prefer to conceal the truth beneath strata of irony/because this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive.” This “fictional. essay” is as much a layered (and elusive) exploration of the nature of truth within a relationship as it is a poem about desire. The husband, says the wife, “lied about everything./Money, meetings, mistresses,/ the birthplace of his parents,/the store where he bought shirts, the spelling of his own name.” But the ground shifts, and the wife’s voice is not the only one. There is Ray, the couple’s gay friend; there is the husband; there is Keats. Even the quotations from Keats that precede each tango become increasingly obscure and suspect until we arrive at, “O Isle spoilt by the Milatary/ (words found’ by John Keats scratched on the glass of his lodgings at Newport on the night of April 15, 1817).”
The Beauty of the Husband is a shifty thing, its shiftiness hinted early on when the wife tells us that when her husband left, he
…took my notebooks..
…He liked writing, disliked having to start
each thought himself.
Used my starts to various ends, for
example in a pocket I found a
letter he’d begun
(to his mistress at that time)
containing a phrase I had copied
from Homer…. (p. 9)
The book might itself be one of these purloined notebooks, since what begins in the wife’s voice ends in the husband’s. In a final, post-tango passage, he says: “To tell a story by not telling it–/dear shadow, I wrote this slowly./Her Starts!/My ends./But it all comes round/to a blue June moon….” For an eeric moment, especially considering the numerous references to lying stealing and the elusive nature of truth scattered throughout the poem, I considered the possibility that the husband is writing the whole thing in his wife’s voice. “Some tangos pretend to be about women,” he continues, “but look at this./Who is it you see/reflected small/in each of her tears./Watch me fold this page now so you think it is. you.”
Two identities, feuding and fused. And when identities are fused, things become a bit confusing. Of a Degas print showing two figures we read, “His hand to brush a mark from his face it was her face.”
The wife claims that the husband, plagiarizes her. For example, after they first made love “‘the real way’ which we had not yet attempted/though married’ six months./Big mystery. No one knew where to put their leg…” she writes a Short Talk “(‘On Defloration’) which he stole and had published/in a small quarterly magazine.” Now, Anne Carson has published a series of “Short Talks” one of which is titled “On Defloration.” The wife’s “Short Talk” plagiarized by the husband and Anne Carson’s “Short Talk”. both refer to defloration taking place in Venice, where (says the wife) “neither of us had ever been.” Who is the wife? Who is the husband? Who is Anne Carson?
Carson’s myriad cultural references and literary allusions do not make this work in the least bit obscure, and previous familiarity with this or that myth, philosopher, battle, or poet is not a prerequisite for entering into the drama as it unfolds. An allusion to Plato in the title of Tango VII–“BUT TO HONOR TRUTH WHICH IS SMOOTH DIVINE AND LIVES AMONG THE GODS WE MUST (WITH PLATO) DANCE LYING…”–does not require me to go to Plato, though I’m intrigued and could if I wanted to. I have not read Keats (who is quoted at every turn) since high school and did not go back to him. But I did buy a tango CD. I did see the Sally Potter film Tango Lesson. I considered the possibility that The Beauty of the Husband is the Poem Version of Tango Lesson, which is about a passionate relationship, which is narrated by the filmmaker who plays herself, which is divided into sections–Lesson 1, Lesson 2, etc.–and which has layers of reality mediated by the fact that you are looking at a film about a relationship in which the couple is together making a film about the relationship. Substitute writing for filmmaking and you arrive at something like The Beauty of the Husband.
Carson’s literate obsessions could spur me to pick up Keats again, or go to Socrates, or to Beckett, or look at a’ particular monoprint by Degas, or learn to tango, or go to Rio, or study the history of ancient Greece. Her capacious intellect (and the classical training that saturates works) keeps me entertained, but more than that, it functions to set the drama of the love-battle within a very wide framework, adding mirrors both cultural and historical to scene after scene until you start to feel that this drama of obsessed love has been reenacted repeatedly throughout human history.
At one point, for example, during an infidelity/jealousy episode, the husband is playing one of his war games, setting up “the Battle of Epipolai,” which took place in 413 BCE. Confused identities (enemy mistaken for friend, friend for enemy) turn this nighttime battle between Athenians and Syracusans into a bloodbath:
…[C]onstantly shouting the password
they revealed it to the enemy and with this word
coming at them wrongly in the
dark the Athenians panicked.
Friend fell upon friend.
It was like a beautiful boiling dance where your partner
and stabs you to death (p. 119)
The battle mirrors the tango which in turn mirrors the passionate, dangerous relationship which is the subject of the poem. At the core: fused, confused identities.
Yet the voices are distinct. As in all her works, Carson evokes variegated human voices with the ear of a master. There’s a lot of talk, very few dialogue tags (he said, she said) and, despite possible identity questions concerning which character is “writing” the lines, the wife’s lines are unmistakably her own as the husband’s lines-are his own. Here, the wife, protesting her husband’s weekend-long war-game sessions with his “pale wrathful friends,” begins this exchange:
I hate it.
Why play all night.
The time is real.
It’s a game.
It’s a real game.
Is that a quote.
I need to touch you.
Yes (p. 10)
The husband is a charming and outrageous figure and his astonishing chutzpah, salted with eloquence and total unreliability make him a slightly-larger-than-life Antagonist, worthy of any tango or fictional essay, or whatever this is. (Nowhere is it called a poem, though it looks like a poem.) This husband was
A man who after three years of separation would take his wife to Athens–
for adoration, for peace,
then telephone New York every night from the bar
and speak to a woman
who thought he was over on 4th Street
working late. (p. 99)
Or, some time later, the husband writes to his now-former wife, announcing the birth of his first son and “marriage to the mother”:
This is a tragedy.
There are people following me around, just like you said.
I miss you desperately love you always am
sorry for everything. It all
happened so fast. (p. 133)
Anne Carson is happily transforming poetry, fiction, essay and scholarly literary criticism with each new work. She overlaps genres (calling one work a “fictional essay,” another. “a novel in verse”), or perhaps she writes as she pleases without regard to genre. “To break a limitation is to stay human,” describes infidelity in The Beauty of the Husband, but it could just as well refer to literary conventions. Two or three of her books mix scholarly essays with poetry. She writes just as easily about Emily Bronte or about volcanoes or about greasy spoons in Rio as she does about Greek literature or myth. Reading her is like entering some exotic town where Gertrude Stein can be found boozing with Plato, where Auden is dripping his egg on Sappho’s shirt. I could live in this town for a long time.