Leaving Traces of Us: Queer Coming-of-age in Anne Carsons’s Autobiography of Red

By | 3 February 2024

Anne Carson’s debut novel Autobiography of Red a coming-of-age narrative rendered in verse, tracing the life of a red winged boy named Geryon. Carson is, of course, an eminent contemporary poet-translator-classicists, and here she creates a life for an incidental character from the myth of Herakles; the tenth labour of Herakles was the slaughter of the cattle under Geryon’s care. Both attributes are refracted across the book, which frequently concerns itself with the red rock of volcanoes; high altitudes and towers; feelings of entrapment.

Carson extracts Geryon from his myth in order to write a new myth around him, one where Geryon is entangled in a sexual affair with Herakles that breaks and transforms him equally. In doing so, she draws primarily from the work of Stesichorus, a poet born around 650 BC; Stesichorus wrote a long lyric poem wherein he inverted the story of Herakles’ labour to focus on Geryon, presented here as a winged red monster. That Geryon is red and winged is important, setting him apart from a young age and leaving him with a fractured sense of self throughout the book; he tries to convey his life story with rocks, and even in his Autobiography, his name is notably elided from the title in favour of referring to him as ‘Red’, the colour of his difference. Autobiography of Red is spun out in a freeform lyric style both vivid and abstract, presenting a contemporary tale of an abused and confused boy-monster coming into himself.

Carson captures Geryon’s fissured nervous system in poetic language that is sweeping, circular, at times incredibly abstracted. I tend to find an elusive quality in Carson’s poetic voice, appearing in my mind as a lake or similar body of water: still and reserved from a distance, rippling when the surface is broken, often hard to touch the bottom. From the outset, Geryon is presented as being on the outside peering in:

He did not knock on the glass. He waited. Small, red, and upright he waited,
gripping his new bookbag tight
in one hand and touching a lucky penny inside his coat pocket with the other,
while the first snows of winter 
floated down on his eyelashes and covered the branches around him and silenced
all trace of the world. (25)

Notice too that longer lines are alternated with shorter ones, a visualisation that is consistent throughout the books; the result is a sense of rhythm not in the syllables or meter, but in the way the eye moves across the page, constantly returning to the start in a kind of visual retrieval reminiscent of the lingering presence of the past.

Carson uses poetic lyric to weave together fractured images, line-by-line; on a broader structural level, Autobiography of Red employs a mosaic structure to allow readers to glimpse moments at a time from across Geryon’s life, adding to a sense of internal confusion. Each section of the poem is presented with a number and heading, and opens with a summative, often truism-esque sentences. These simmering single-line sentences range from simple scene setting – ‘Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.’ (39); ‘It is always winter up there.’ (78) to what is perhaps the central statement of the text, ‘There is no person without a world’ (82). These sections read almost as discrete poems, presenting just a package of Geryon.

And, while time generally propels forward in a linear fashion, there are passing moments of slippage folded into the poetic meandering – in some ways feeling a structural reflection of Carson’s flowing lineation. The first that stood out to me is this: early in the poem, Geryon Is staring at a fruit bowl when his mind is seemingly transported backwards; ‘He was staring around for the dog then realized they hadn’t had a dog for years. Clock / in the kitchen said quarter to six.’ (70). Later, talking to a tango lady, Geryon is reminded of his own high school dance; an event that is skipped over along with the rest of his school life and here brought back into the light. These loops seem to reflect the strategy of lineation on a broader structural level, a reminder that the past is always in the present.

The thing is, I do think we’re each of us haunted by the past. By which I mean our own pasts, and that of our parents and their parents. By which I mean personal trauma as haunting, by which I mean cultural trauma erased yet trapped, by which I mean words and music and art spanning centuries to sink into my heart and view of the world. By which I mean I read Sappho, ‘Someone I tell you in another time will remember us’ (trans. Carson, If Not Winter) and I remember her, and I remember the lesbians and bisexuals and gay people and trans people that have gone before me. Can you hear me? On her song ‘Cop Car’, Japanese American musician Mitski sings, ‘I’ve loved many girls, I’ve loved many boys / I don’t think about the past, it’s always there anyway’.

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