mwpm's Reviews > Men in the Off Hours

Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson
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it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry

Anna Carson never fails to impress with her inventiveness. In this collection, she explores (among other things) reinvention. This is apparent in her use of dratfs. Whether or not she is revealing drafts (it's unlikely that she is), Carson refers to several of her poems as being "1st draft" or "2nd draft". The poems in question are "Freud (1st draft)", "Lazarus (1st draft)", "Flatman (1st draft)", "Flat Man (2nd draft)", "Lazarus (2nd draft)", "Essay on Error (2nd draft)", "Why Did I awake (Flatman 3rd draft)", and "Freud (2nd draft)".

Nowhere is her exploration of reinvention more apt than in her poems about Lazarus. The 1st and 2nd draft of Lararus, like the other draft poems, have little in common. But perhaps this is a commentary in itself. Of course there is also commentary in simple act of providing the 1st and 2nd draft of a poem about a man who died and was resurrected.

Actions go on in us,
nothing else goes on. While a blurred and breathless hour
repeats, repeats.
- Lazarus (1st draft)

Free use of one's own being is most difficult,
is it not.
That panting -
I shall,
when shall I not
hear it.
- Lazarus (2nd draft)

A passage in a later poem further clarifies the poet's interest in Lazarus...

We are left to ask, Why Lazarus?
My theory is
God wants us to wonder this.
After all, if there were some quality that Lazarus possessed,
some criterion of excellence

by which he was chosen to be called
back
from death,
then we would all start competing to achieve this.
- TV Men: Lazarus

The second and perhaps most prominent theme explored in this collection (and in her body of work) is death. It may have been the poet's unconventional approach to death that inspired Alice Munro to remark: "I haven't discovered any writer in years that's so marvelously disturbing." Indeed, there's a disturbing, perhaps even morbid, quality to some of Carson's writing. This is perhaps more evident in MEN IN OFF HOURS than in any other collection.

Death is most present in the poems with "epitaph" in the title. These "epitaphs" are interspersed throughout the collection. In a way, they seem like an afterthought (the reason for which is made evident in the last piece of the collection). The poems in question are "Epitaph: Zion", "Epitaph: Annunciation", "Epitaph: Europe", "Epitaph: Donne Clown", "Epitaph: Oedipus' Nap", "Epitaph: Evil", "Epitaph: Thaw", and "No Epitaph"...

Was there some trouble? An old worker died of appendicitis
on the night shift and the body could not be cremated
until certain disputes
between the hospital and the family were resolved.
Someone would have to watch the body, they stood in a small circle,
shadows straining away from them toward all high corners of the room.
He was surprised to hear himself say he would do it.
(pg. 162-163)

The collection begins and ends with two pieces in which the poet incorporates Virginia Woolf in her discussion of a seemingly unrelated subject.

The first piece, "Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides On War", establishes many of the motifs that will recur throughout the collection. Most notable among these motifs is Virginia Woolf - Virginia Woolf the person and Virginia Woolf the character. Virginia Woolf the person is approached as a historical figure, her life is referenced and her writing is quoted. Virginia Woolf the character is a reinvention by the poet, a reinvention that serves as a vessel for the poet, particularly in a later piece, "Thucydides in Conversation with Virginia Woolf on the Set of The Peloponnesian War"...

VW: Can you explain the walking again.
T: Begin right with the right foot, left with the left foot, each time nine steps right to left and back again.
VW: Does she do this every day.
T: Yes it is routine.
VW: Without feeling.
T: Routine.
(pg. 115)

In this piece, Virginia Woolf takes direction from Thucydides. The reason being that the piece belongs to a cycle of poems entitled "TV Men". This cycle is derivitive of "Ordinary Times". With "TV Men", Carson reinvents Sappho, Artaud, Tolstoy, and Lazarus...

No, a talent. To step obliquely
where stones are sharp.
Vice is also sharp.
- TV Men: Sappho

Artaud is mad.
He stayed close to the madness. Watching it breathe or not breathe.
There is a close-up of me driven to despair.
- TV Men: Artaud

A curious tender man and yet
even after their marriage he
called his desire to kiss her
"the appearence of Satan."
- TV Men: Tolstoy

I have long been interested in those whom God had helped.
It seems often to be the case,
e.g. with saints or martyrs,
that God helps them to far more suffering than they would have
without God's help....
- TV Men: Lazarus

I don't even know how to begin to talk about Caron's use of cinematic language. Suffice to say that it is brilliantly incorporated!

With "Irony Is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve", Carson breaks away from the reinvention of historical figures. Catherine Deneuve is not a historical figure in the vein of Sappho and Tolstoy. But this is not a reinvention of Catherine Deneuve; this is a reinvention of Anne Carson using Catherine Deneuve as the vessel for self-exploration.

Why Catherine Deneuve? That's the wrong question. Perhaps the poet admires Deneuve. It doesn't matter. Here, Anne Carson attributes events from her life to Catherine Deneuve to a somewhat confusing effect. This piece left me with the same feeling as reading Kathy Acker (her reimagining of GREAT EXPECTATIONS or DON QUIXOTE) or Ellen Kennedy (specifically "Eoody Mobby" from SOMETIMES MY HEART PUSHES MY RIBS)...

Poor idea this girl fantasy, Deneuve is thinking as she packs up after the Friday seminar. Girl has missed the last three assignments, will certainly fail the midterm. Deneuve is ducking out the main door onto the street when unexpectedly stumbles in. Girl thrusts some pages at her chest. Glad I caught you, she says. Deneuve pulls away. Folds the pages twice. Pushes them down in her briefcase. They circle one another in the doorway. Girl is looking at her oddly.
Never saw you in this state before.
What state is that?
Tonguetied, the girl grins.
- je tourne (pg. 123)

Carson's exploration of death and reinvention come together in the last piece, "Appendix to Ordinary Time", in which the poet addresses her mother's death ("the autumn I was writing this") in relation to Virginia Woolf (again). The poet draws a correlation between her mother's death and Virginia Woolf in relation to Woolf's diaries and letters, specifically the crossed-out lines...

"Reading this, especially the crossed-out lines, fills me with a sudden understanding. Crossouts are something you rarely see in published texts. They are like death: by a simple stroke - all is lost, yet still there. For death although utterly unlike life shares a skin with it. Death lines every moment of ordinary time. Death hides right inside every shining sentence we grasped and had no grasp of. Death is a fact."
(pg. 166)
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Reading Progress

March 7, 2015 – Started Reading
March 7, 2015 – Shelved
March 9, 2015 – Finished Reading
April 27, 2015 – Shelved as: poetry

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