A Passion for the Classics, and Well, Passion
Mich. — In the first episode of "The L Word," the Showtime cable network's
new series about lesbians, two women flirt at a party. "Have you read
anything by Anne Carson?" one asks, referring to the Canadian-born
" `The Autobiography of Red,' " the other
answers, blushing and naming Ms. Carson's best-known work, a retelling of
the myth of Herakles' slaying of the red-winged monster Geryon as a gay
teenage love story. The woman has also read "Eros the Bittersweet," Ms.
Carson's essays on love in ancient Greece. "I think," she says, dreamily,
"those books practically changed my life."
Over the years Ms. Carson, whose work deals
with extremes of passion and eroticism and who creates verse and prose
embedded with references to classical scholarship, has acquired a cult
The director Mike Nichols and his wife,
Diane Sawyer, attend her readings. Mr. Nichols has also discussed directing
her translation of Euripides' "Hippolytus," about the cursed youth whose
stepmother, Phaedra, falls madly in love with him.
On Monday Ms. Carson's new translation of
Euripides' "Hekabe," also known as "Hecuba," will have a staged reading at
the 92nd Street Y, with a star cast that includes Kathryn Walker, Kate
Burton, Larry Pine, Paul Hecht, David Strathairn, Mary Beth Hurt and Maeve
The idea for "Hekabe" came from Ms. Walker,
who will also direct the reading. It was written by Euripides sometime in
the mid-fifth century B.C., at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, which
pitted the Spartan and Athenian alliances against each another. The war
engulfed the entire Greek world on and off for a quarter of a century and
eventually brought about the downfall of Athens.
Ms. Walker said she sees parallels between
that war and America's war in Iraq. "The Greeks were sitting in the Assembly
debating how the captive population should be treated and what traditional
values needed to be compromised," she said. "We're in wartime and facing the
In "Hekabe," Euripides used the old story
about the Trojan War as a way of commenting on the war raging during his own
time. When it opens, the Greeks have defeated the Trojans. Hekabe, Queen of
Troy, is a slave. She has witnessed the slaughter of her husband, Priam, and
of all but one of her sons. Her daughter Polyxena is dragged off to become a
human sacrifice; then she discovers the corpse of Polydoros, the one son she
thought had survived the war. Polymestor, the friend she had left him with
for safekeeping, murdered him for his money. Hekabe persuades the Greek
king, Agamemnon, to let her set a trap for Polymestor and blinds him while
the Trojan women kill his children.
"Strange how mortal events converge," the
chorus sings. "Necessity defines us,/making friends of our worst enemies/and
enemies of those who served us well."
Ms. Carson, 53, described the play in her
typically elliptical way, "Euripides had his Quentin Tarantino days." She is
standing in her austere living room, which has almost no furniture. In one
corner is a chair, in the middle of the room, a wooden box. On top of that
box is a metal box, wrapped in ribbon, containing a silver ear. "A votive
object," she said. Tall, lanky and shy, Ms. Carson seems surrounded by an
aura of isolation. "I like being a mode of resistance," she said, explaining
why she refuses to drive a car.
She teaches half time here at the University
of Michigan and spends the rest of the year in Montreal.
Often called a "poet of heartbreak," her
cultural references span the ages and range from scholarly essays on, for
example, the Greek concept of women as unclean, to poetic musings on
Akhmatova, Tolstoy and Catherine Deneuve in her collection "Men in the Off
Hours." She has written an opera, "Decreation," combining a Greek myth of
Aphrodite with stories by two French mystics, Marguerite Porete, who was
burned at the stake as a heretic during medieval times, and Simone Weil.
Ms. Walker said Ms. Carson was the perfect
translator of ancient Greek for modern audiences. "She has this incredibly
personal, hip voice," she said. "She's able to bring this into the
contemporary world in an unimaginable way."
In "The Autobiography of Red" Ms. Carson
transformed the Greek poet Stesichoros' account into a modern tale of a
red-winged schoolboy called Geryon who is bullied by classmates because he
is different. "This would be hard/for you if you were weak," his mother
says, sending him off to school, "but you're not weak, she said and neatened
his little red wings and pushed him/out the door."
Ms. Carson's translation of Sappho, "If Not,
Winter," is a post modern tour de force. Sappho's poetry exists mainly in
fragments of papyrus, some minuscule. Instead of creating her own linkages
where words are missing, as other translators have, Ms. Carson marks them
with brackets, and leaves the emptiness to be filled in by the reader's
imagination. ". . . if not, winter/] no pain . . ." one line reads.
The Independent in Britain called the
translation "heartbreaking and uplifting."
For all this, Ms. Carson said, she is not a
poet. "Homer's a poet," she said. "I would say I make things."
Ms. Carson was born in Ontario, and her work
evokes a lonely childhood: "My mother's kitchen is dark and small but out
the window/there is the moor, paralyzed with ice./It extends as far as the
eye can see/over flat miles to a solid unlit white sky."
Her father was a bank manager, her mother a
homemaker. The family moved around. Her father eventually developed
dementia. "He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived./He
had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done up all the way to the
top./Not only because it was a hot July afternoon/but the look on his face."
Her older brother, Michael, abused drugs and
vanished. He died in 2000. She said her childhood had been redeemed when she
discovered the classics and her high school Latin teacher gave her private
Greek classes, reading Sappho with her. "She really changed my life," Ms.
She had a marriage of eight years to a man
she calls only "an entrepreneur." The break-up haunts her work. "I feel so
lonely, like childhood again," she writes in one prose poem in her
In another book, "Glass, Irony and God," she
writes searingly of sex without love: "Everything I know about love and its
necessities/I learned in that one moment/when I found myself/thrusting my
little burning red backside like a baboon/at a man who no longer cherished
Today Ms. Carson lives by herself most of
the time, but says she does not mind loneliness: "Loneliness is not an
important form of suffering," Ms. Carson said. "It's undeniable, but it's
just not significant."