Ethics, Aesthetics, Woolf Waves, Foxtrots: Wrong Norma by Anne Carson

From its striking, foxy cover to print layout and coloured illustrations, Anne Carson’s miscellany, Wrong Norma, is a beautiful book that reflects its aesthetics on every page. Why wrong? Why Norma? Norma is one root for normal, so wrong normal could be either tautological or oxymoronic. What is abnormal about this book, and what is a normal relationship between author and word? It helps that the final piece, “Wrong Norma,” identifies Norma Desmond, the eponymous, ageless movie star whose identity is bound up with Gloria Swanson, role playing that is featured under various guises in this book. What’s more, Carson’s earlier book, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, conflates the beauty and destructive power of Helen of Troy and Marilyn Monroe — classical and Hollywood models. Carson’s clash of ancient and postmodern texts blurs the distinction between what is linked and what is disparate. Similarly, her wily, upright, rust-and-charcoal trickster on the cover drips blood and sleeves into charcoal talons, while its head appears to threaten in different directions, Janus-like peering forward and backward. Collar, sleeve, glove, overcoat and undercover are slyly tucked into this multifaceted fox in a sliding style of feminist form. New Directions is to be commended for its admirable design.

The frontispiece features red handwriting on orange paper, a clash of colours that inverts the words, “wrong norma,” in a scribbling script. (Between movie script and hidden manuscript, she plays with the notion of Roland Barthes’s scriptible.) There follows a page of typewritten words and a pencilled “What” on a serene green background with red ink correcting some of the text. Process everywhere. The first piece, “1 = 1,” describes the poet’s swimming in mathematical precision where the titular equation links swimmer and water. “Before the others are up, dawn, she walks to the lake, listening to Bach, the first clavichord exercise.” Who are the others? How is she listening to Bach? It has to be the first clavichord exercise because of dawn and 1=1. (The primary number is precariously close to the letter I in the ego’s equation of primal identity.) Is there a Bach-like rhythm to her prose poetry of repetitions and fugue of firsts and funerals? The musical exercise is tuned in counterpoint to swimming exercise, horizontal clavichord and clavicles engaged and keyed: “she plans to have played at her funeral someday, has had this plan since she first heard the music, and thinking of it she weeps lightly.” Fingers on clavichord lead to Virginia Woolf’s waves, pools of thought, aqueous allegories, and the displacement of water by swimmer and writer.

 Lake and clavichord, swimming and syntax: “The lake is whipped by wind and tides (big lake) doing what tides do, she never knows in or out.” In this dominance of 1 = monosyllables the big lake is followed by a big dog. “This repeats,” for swimming, music, and writing are acts of repetition in the stroke of pen and strike of keyboard. She enters the water, the dog disappears, and high waves are “in one direction” for 1=1, Bach’s mathematics, and Virginia Woolf’s waves. She feels “a mental pressure” to swim well and “to use this water correctly.” Correctly as opposed to wrong in the counterpoint of aesthetics: “Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty, to know beauty exactly, to put oneself right in its path, to be in the perfect place.” Ethics and aesthetics merge in the “right” place in the commonplace and its displacement. In “1=1” oneself gets inserted until “you” takes over in the flow of pronouns — “you have to keep finding it, keep having it find you.” Woolf in the waves accompanied by fox and big dog. The clavichord is the key of connection between swimming muscles — horizontal bones articulating a stroke across surfaces and streams of consciousness.

After her first entry into water and prose she returns home to confront her neighbour, Comrade Chandler, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. Their exchange concerns mushrooms and John Cage in a post-Baroque rhythm and melody. Chandler now draws “a fox at the end of the day.” The fox swims in the hyphenation of blue-green, “deep-lit self-immersedness of water.” The final words of this prose poem, “The fox does not fail,” answer the opening question, “What does that mean, fail it?” The fox succeeds in this swim of beautiful things, while wrong Norma, or her alter ego, risks failure. The fox “is escaping all possible explanations” in a fable of failing and allegorical absolution — a fugue of ethics and aesthetics. Depending on one’s frame of reference, a fox may be a trickster, or it may be opposed to a hedgehog in its performance of many actions. Carson’s vulpine trickster multi-tasks so that 1=1 may be seen as an equation or two vertical lines joined by two horizontals. Her selfish swimmer examines “ethics minimal” of the self in society, and the aesthetics of beauty on the beach where Burt Lancaster and Raymond Chandler meet. She cages Bach, pools thought, and candles aquamarine “splashlessly” at the end of the day.

“Eddy” resumes water’s waves, undercurrents of wrongness, and backward glances. The story begins with “hairs on back of sweater,” “how you look from the back,” and “she thinks back,” as “night and its stars soak slowly backwards.” Eddy responds to the protagonist with “what’s wrong,” and when she is not with him, “she feels a bit wrong.” What may be wrong is that she cannot write sonnets, yet the artistic structure of this creative prose piece displaces “stanzas of six and eight.” “Eddy” is a performative pastiche that pulls together its various parts into an almost coherent wholeness that defies wrongness.

The opening scene in an airplane where an older man places his hand on her knee recedes into the past, but reappears in a different form at the end. The stranger’s air vent blowing on her becomes by the end, “the air, the air was slowly coming in.” Claustrophobia lifts in a counter-draft. The long night on the plane is “a black window,” that lingers in the blackness of Eddy’s crow in other parts of the story. “Came from the air above the trees a big swanking blackness and wham wham wham five somethings are gone and so is the blackness.” These five somethings replace the unwritten sestets and octaves. Sections of the story stop abruptly, and in place of any smooth transition Carson offers a space for thinking and listening to whatever “wham” arises. The second section begins with “ceiling blood splatter.” Each paragraph is a stanza with sudden echoes. She goes back to emailing in Eddy’s forensic lab with its poetic rhythms: “Calm as linen in the lab at night, lamp on, black winter beating the windows.” Trochee and crow beat in “Eddy” to imitate flight and stream of consciousness.

The third paragraph leans into Virginia Woolf, but not before tilting backward to the opening airplane scene “that was years ago,” that was “innocence”: “That was before I knew you, which is a phrase that steals into idiom regularly.” Time before and after: “Thus are eras,” and eras merge in Woolf’s modernism and Carson’s postmodernism. “Virginia Woolf for example — not sonnets but a master cutter.” Forms coalesce: Carson’s protagonist thinks sonnets, but Woolf invents stories. “Just lift the knife and cut.” Piece and pastiche: “VW cuts the anecdote off,” and Carson follows her lead. Outside the protagonist’s window men throw chair after chair into a “bin,” while the at the back door of a lecture hall Eddy arranges his “five little somethings” on top of the bins. His crow, Woolf’s dogs.

 Seeking writerly affinities, she switches from Woolf to German poet, Ernst Meister, whose words “DENK ES GENAU” (think it exact) strike her. Measuring twice, she cuts Woolf and Meister into her textual fabric of linen, thread, and “steaming, stinking heap” — Meister, Celan, Sassoon — master sufferers. She doesn’t finish the sonnet about a boy “who sewed his lips shut in a refugee camp.” Sharing these identities, she avoids selfishness and solipsism, creating instead an exact company of “Timeriftwhere we dangle between nothing and nothing.” Not only does Meister dangle, but also the bird accompaniment: “Dangling at the yew tree, black, messy, unexhilarated, this crow, his mineral eye, his snatcher mocker self.” In this dialogic moment between the you of the tree and the eye of the self, Carson re-enacts the tension between ethics and aesthetics. Like Ernst Meister, this crow has its eye on the prestigious George Büchner Prize

 In the concluding dialogue between Eddy and protagonist, she says, “You can almost see things coming through the back.” He says, “Back of what?” Back and black get stitched together: “A blackness flaps by on the left. Fairly clear by now the crow is Ernst Meister.” Into this little web of myth and mystery, she opens the “wrong half of the door.Wrong Norma always resonates with these fables of identity as Carson sleeves her meanings, trickstering fox and crow, creatures of her craft. As a classicist, her artistry includes etymology, for what is etymology if not the lineage of language, the trace and arc of ancestry and identity through Greek and Roman forebears. Along the way of these roots, allusiveness also becomes involved in her intertextual swerve.

[Carson’s] layers of language and consciousness swim through shoals of modernism (Woolf, Conrad, Kafka, and other sea creatures) between that time and now.

 Carson’s marathon resumes in “Thret,” where Part III is titled “Swimming in Hölderlin.” Her stroke of chronology and pen begins “When I remember that time now it is in layers.” Her layers of language and consciousness swim through shoals of modernism (Woolf, Conrad, Kafka, and other sea creatures) between that time and now. Vertical layers are figured in Escher-like staircases. In her quest for accuracy she remembers a sentence from Hölderlin’s fragments which uses “to swim” in the passive voice: “My heart is swimmed in time.” She cites this as an example of accuracy, for her breast stroke and back stroke capture other writers in the oxymoronic waters of wrong accuracy. And that wrong accuracy rebounds in her penultimate piece, “Todtnauberg,” which describes Paul Celan’s visit to Martin Heidegger’s mountain hut in 1966. Carson’s series of sketches depict the wrong accuracy of that encounter between Nazi and Jew. And their dialogue crosses the Atlantic to Manhattan with its own drowning dialogue and legendary water towers swimming to the summit. “The ‘s’ in self wins” in the marathon between ethics and aesthetics — a swim of threts, threads, and fragments.

Anne Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living.

Publisher: New Directions Publishing (February 6, 2024)
Paperback 7″ x 9″ | 192 pages
ISBN: 9780811230346

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.