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Jack Anderson

Anne Carson With Dancers

Anne Carson: "Stacks" and "Bracko"
New York University Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South, Greenwich Village
December 4, 2008 (one night only)
Reviewed by Jack Anderson

Anne Carson is an unusual poet. She's highly learned; in fact, a Classicist. But her imagination can take surprising freewheeling leaps, and both erudition and eccentricity were evident in this collaboration involving dance and sculpture.

For "Stacks," Peter Cole, a sculptor, filled with stage with various boxes variously stacked. Carson's poem consisted of lists (verbal stacks): for instance, at the start, a list of lunar seas. But, given the strange names of those seas, this list made "Stacks" immediately peculiar. Then came such lists as "thunderstorm stacks," "smoke stacks," and real-estate properties on the moon, as well as lists suggesting that Carson is obsessed by that wicked biblical character, Jezebel.

While Carson recited the lists, Adam Weinert, Silas Riener, Andrea Weber, and Catherine Miller appeared to scribble invisible words on the back wall, shifted the boxes, and kept rearranging themselves in choreography by Jonah Bokaer. "Stacks" celebrated organization. But just as the word lists sometimes seemed both logical and nutty, the ordered actions could look inexplicable. Organization is not always comprehensible.

The equally peculiar "Bracko" derived its title from combining the words "brackets" and "Sappho," and its text came from Carson's translations of the extant works of that great ancient Greek poet. Yet not much of Sappho actually survives. What remains are fragments, which some translators turn into jewel-like poems that seem to prefigure such 20th-century Imagists as Amy Lowell, H.D., and the early Ezra Pound. The versions of Mary Barnard (my own introductions to Sappho) are often lovely. But because they make each fragment sound like a complete work, they give a misleading impression of what Sappho actually left us.

Carson translates everything, even manuscripts with only a few disconnected words, indicating manuscript gaps with brackets (hence her title's allusion to them). And she and three other readers (Robert Currie, Elizabeth Streb, and Penelope Thomas) read absolutely everything, not only fragments that might constitute little independent poems, but also disconnected words and scholarly notes on the poems, and when Carson employed a bracket in her text, a reader announced, "Bracket." This turned what we heard into both coherent and incoherent stacks of verbal pebbles.

Rashaun Mitchell choreographed a duet to this material in which he and Marcie Munnerlyn were connected by ropes they sometimes loosened and retied, and from which they broke free to let their arms entwine until, after embracing, they fell on different sides of the stage as the readers fell silent.

These dances to poetry could be taken as meditations on the powers, limitations, and oddities of human reasoning. "Stacks" ordered words and bodies, yet the categories often seemed weird. "Bracko" suggested the fragmentation of all knowledge. Just as Sappho's texts and the incidents in Mitchell's dance are fragments, so, too, memory, history, and life itself are also fragmentary.

The readers recited quietly, perhaps too quietly. Some friends of mine said they occasionally had trouble concentrating on words and movements simultaneously. Yet Carson might have wished wisps of verbal haze to remind us that even as we try to arrange them into stacks, human experiences can remain fragmentary and mysterious.

In addition to being co-presented by the Skirball Center, the evening was co-sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center. It was a worthy collaboration.


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