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Anne Carson
Wrong Norma
New Directions, 2024


reviewed on June 6, 2024

“The pieces are not linked,” explains Anne Carson in the jacket copy of Wrong Norma, describing a “collection of writings about different things,” among them “Guantánamo, Flaubert, snow, poverty, Roget’s Thesaurus, my Dad, [and] Saturday night.” 


Stocked with absurdist anecdotes, think-piece meditations, dialogue exercises, literary analyses, and occasional essays—a baptism in a European church reminds Carson of Joseph Conrad, for instance—Wrong Norma does indeed feel heterogenous in focus, a catch-all cash-out of texts previously published in international fora like Granta, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.


If Hegel could maintain though, that the poet herself functions as that “center which holds the whole lyric work of art together,” Wrong Norma holds together, I think, by virtue of Carson’s own centripetal presence—or, more accurately, by virtue of both a tone and voice which feel distinctly her own.  Like Louise Glück, Carson is a writer of mood, a master at using not only tone and voice but rhythm, syntax, and structure to shape the atmospherics of her work.  That mood—and the idiosyncratic self out of which it emerges—is this collection’s greatest asset as well as its most glaring liability, so that readers are likely to feel toward Wrong Norma precisely as they feel toward Carson's career writ large.


On subjects, for instance, with which her intellectual acumen can flex itself, Carson is quite good in Wrong Norma, as when tracing the literary history of poverty in “Poverty Remix (Sestina)” or when she literalizes the resonances and ramifications of the term “skywriting” in “Lecture on the History of Skywriting,” a kind of creation myth in which the sky itself “writes.”  “At first I wrote only for myself,” Carson translates:


nothing else existed. In the uncounted millennia before the big bang, when I was a riot of atmospheres and inexplicable nongravitational intensities, before the creation of galaxies or cherry trees or rational thought, before the creation of creation.


Profound in its sublimity, the text moves gracefully into a critique of the degradations occasioned by capitalist development.  “I have to say,” the sky says,


I was disappointed in the level of invention overall. I had envisioned epic poems in hexameter verse arcing across the heavens from Patagonia to Paris, not “I LOVE YOU DORIS” and ads for Lucky Strike. Capitalism got its hooks into this art form from its first breath in 1922.


One gets a sense here of Carson’s characteristic wit, and the text is nothing short of hilarious when it imagines a dialogue between the sky and one of its primary interlocutors: “Christopher Hitchens once said to me…”  The line is pure Joan Didion pantomime.  At the same time, “Skywriting” shows off—at no point with preening or pretension—the sweeping range of Carson’s intellect, invoking everything from Luke Howard’s 1802 cloud atlas to the hymns of the Rig Veda to Kant, John Cage, and Proust’s “states of mind that follow one another in me” like the permutations of the sky itself.  In “Skywriting,” that is, and in pieces similar to it in Wrong Norma, one feels an intelligence pulsing beneath the skin of Carson’s prose, so that the collection feels simultaneously muscular and elegant, poised yet playful.


The problem with Wrong Norma is that it rarely maintains this balance for long.


For every text of real reckoning, for every ambitious intellectual and aesthetic gambit, the collection trots out as well a piece of prose far too indulgent in its silliness, absurdity, and self-satisfaction, to the point that the author—while I do not want to asperse—seems quite pleased with themselves and their idiosyncrasy.  “Once Conrad shot himself in the chest,” Carson writes.  “Not much is known about that.”  One detects here and quite often in Wrong Norma that twee inconsequentiality to which Carson has been prone throughout her career, a glibness that may be palatable in one-off form but which, brought together as a book, have the effect of trapping readers too inextricably in the syrup and schmaltz of a Wes Anderson film. 


Carson’s breeziness seems most objectionable when it leads, as in “Clive Song,” to the reduction of global politics to the gestural, even—while I am mindful of the gender implications of the term—to the cute.  A friend “likes the idea / (Currie’s idea),” Carson writes of her husband, visual artist Robert Currie, “of travelling around Pakistan with a troop of square dancers. / Because the square dance is a ‘greeting dance’ / and we need more greeting!”  One can see the Wilson Brothers and Bill Murray assembling for such a farce.


There is a moment in Wrong Norma, though, when Carson accesses through this very pose—and her twee sensibilities do feel like mannerism—a kind of transcultural profundity, a moment which suggests the linguistic and literary historical agility that inform the collection’s best pieces.  “There is a sentence of Hölderlin’s,” Carson writes in “Thret,”


that fell out of a book of fragments of his that I read once and then I couldn’t find the book again.  A sentence using the verb ‘to swim’ in the passive voice, as in:


Mein Herz ist schwimmt in Zeit.


My heart is swimmed in time.


This sentence seems to me an example of accuracy.


Just this side of precious, as if fawning over a five-year-old who might have said the same thing, the passage achieves nonetheless that defamiliarization at which Carson is so adept, dislocating in a small but meaningful way one’s notion of language and duration.  Here and at other moments, Wrong Norma is wondrous, awesome in the literal and what seems to me the most meaningful sense of that term.


Or, as Carson and Hölderlin might put it, the collection is sometimes swimmed in awe.

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